"There's no such thing as strong coffee," an old Swede will tell you over black coffee in this remote land of potato farms and pine forests, "only weak people."
An old Swedish farmer also will tell you about arsenic. Arsenic helped the potatoes grow. Arsenic was sprayed on the fields as "top kill" -- it killed the leafy part of the potato above the ground. The tops must die in order for the skin of the buried potatoes to become tough like the people who farm them. A thin-skinned potato will bruise during the necessary violence of the harvest.
Arsenic and fresh coffee. The Swedes who settled here more than a century ago used to set their dining room tables outdoors for big coffee parties with Swedish cookies and cakes. Coffee made the community strong, and arsenic made the crop hardy.
Today, the descendants of Swedes gather just outside town at Stan's general store and gaze upon the lightly frozen lake and talk about arsenic.
The stuff was banned decades ago, replaced by sulfuric acid. But it survives, some say, at the back of shelves in weather-beaten barns, forgotten. Almost.
They were drinking coffee after services three Sundays ago at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church. Herman Fisher, president of the church council, had brewed it in the modern kitchen of the 123-year-old tan stucco church.
Fifteen coffee drinkers filled plastic cups. There was punch for the dozen or so children and non-coffee-drinking adults. Energetic Janet Erickson invited everyone to buy treats left over from the previous day's bake sale to raise money for improvements to the parsonage.
Erickson didn't intend to drink her customary cup, and neither did her sister Shirley, because they were going to a big Sunday lunch where they'd get their coffee.
A church council meeting was about to begin to set a date for the congregation to discuss a new furnace. Bob Bengtson grabbed a cup and took it into the meeting. His mother, Peggy, also had a little.
Some members of the Bondeson family were there, too, though they weren't coffee drinkers. The Bondesons had recently donated a Communion table to the church, but it hadn't been used yet.
There was no pastor. Gustaf Adolph Lutheran -- known as GA for short -- relies on visiting ministers and lay people to preach to the 50 members.
The conversation over coffee was about nothing in particular. "Snow gone in your yard?" -- that sort of thing.
Then June Greenier remarked how awful the coffee tasted.
She invited Shirley Erickson to take a sip. Shirley Erickson is not a lady who normally drinks from someone else's cup, but this time she did.
Bitter! she thought. She could stand just one swallow. That was enough. She became coffee drinker No. 16.
Erich Margeson didn't think the coffee tasted too bad. Coffee tastes different anywhere you order it, he reasoned. The aftertaste was wrong, though. He felt a tingling and burning in his mouth. Could it be dish soap mistakenly left in the pot? No, it was stronger than that. Maybe something like Lime-Away for scouring New Sweden's hard water deposits, he thought.
Then people started throwing up.
Lois Anderson hurried to the bathroom. She vomited several times. She blamed something she ate.
Margeson felt so sick he drove to his father's house, where he couldn't stop throwing up.
Walter Reid Morrill -- lucky Reid, hitter of two holes-in-one -- lived next door to the church. He was one of the most popular men in the congregation, the church's "ray of sunshine," some said. He was recovering from heart surgery over the winter, but the Sunday before he had insisted on making his annual Easter breakfast of French toast for everyone.
Heading up his driveway after leaving the church, he said the coffee tasted funny.
By early evening, much of the congregation had reconvened -- in the emergency room of Cary Medical Center in Caribou, about 10 miles south of New Sweden. The sick were there, still throwing up, accompanied by worried relatives and friends.
"The whole ER was GA," Janet Erickson said later.
By dawn Monday, Reid Morrill, 78, was dead.
Cary's medical staff knew the quick onset of vomiting and the patients' plunging blood pressure suggested something besides routine food poisoning. But what?
Monday night, state labs provided an answer: The church was ground zero for the nation's largest mass arsenic poisoning in modern medical memory.
Tests showed that the heavy metal was in the brewed coffee -- not in the coffee grounds, and not in the well water that was also used to make the punch.
State police declared Morrill's death a homicide. They asked all 50 church members to voluntarily supply fingerprints and blood for DNA samples.
Doctors summoned the few coffee drinkers who hadn't felt any effects yet, including Shirley Erickson. She had dangerously high levels of arsenic in her body.
"Just a sip and I was in the hospital for eight days," said Erickson, 63.
The Friday after the poisoning, church member Danny Bondeson, 53, was found in his farmhouse fatally shot in the chest. Police said it was suicide. He left behind a note. Police won't disclose its contents, but they said Bondeson was "linked" to the poisoning. And they said someone else may be involved.
The whodunit remains unsolved. FBI profilers are on the case. All but two of the victims were out of the hospital by this weekend but must return daily for checkups. The arsenic is still inside them. Their future health is not guaranteed.
Members of the national media are tripping over one another on back roads, in barnyards. In a town of 621 people, and a church of 50 members, there are only so many people to interview.
There are only so many potential suspects, too.
"Everybody knows everybody here," says Brenda Nasberg Jepson, 47, a resident who has made television documentaries about New Sweden. "Everybody trusts everybody here. That's why this case has us so shook up. This whole way of life is threatened."
And yet those threatened qualities are what's keeping the community from falling apart. The Scandinavian center -- practical, taciturn, sane -- holds. There's no mass panic or anger. Everyone, including the poisoning victims, appears to be grieving for Danny Bondeson about the same as for Reid Morrill. The funerals of both men were packed.
How is this possible? Can it be that arsenic is making New Sweden stronger?
Friends and Relatives
Murder in a small town in Maine -- sounds like something out of "Murder, She Wrote." But the extreme Yankee accent of locals in the television town of Cabot Cove is absent. This sounds more like "Fargo" country. Yah. Oh-kay.
People talk about the crime this way: "You'd have to be crazy as a loon to do something like that," says church member Trena Spooner. "Good gravy, we all disagree in life."
New Sweden is where farmland meets the north woods. Hilly roads skirt plowed fields, then climb into groves of shaggy spruce and spectral birch. Signs say "Moose Crossing." Rental car agencies to the south warn of collisions with the big animals if you are coming here. It snows 110 inches in the winter, and the woods are threaded with trails for snowmobiles and cross-country skiers. Snow flurried again eight days ago. It didn't stick much.
"Apart from our church socials and our coffee, cross-country skiing is the other thing we feel passionate about," says Jepson, who put away her skis three weeks ago.
The first 50 Swedes arrived in 1870, recruited by Maine to shore up the disputed border with Canada. Yankees wouldn't do the job because they were heading West.
More Swedes immigrated over the years. Swedes married Swedes, while French, Scottish and Yankee blood was gradually stirred into the community. Residents today say everyone in town is either a friend or relative. Nearly half the poisoning victims are related in one way or another.
Those first Swedes established farms. The railroad came through and a cluster of stores sprouted. Eventually, it got hard to make a living with a family farm. The railroad closed, the stores died, many farmers found other things to do while their children moved south. Some potato fields became spruce tree farms for lumber.
The residents today are a mix of folks who stuck it out and those who left but came back in search of a lifestyle that has vanished from much of America.
"I stay up here even though it's harder to make a living," says Sara Anderson, 34, who found Upstate New York too busy during an unhappy southern sojourn. She and her husband, David, 41, own Northstar Variety, New Sweden's only store, source of gas, hunting and fishing gear, souvenirs and snacks. A clock in the store announces the hour with the call of a loon.
"I may not make as much money, but I've got a backyard that most people could only dream of when it comes to wildlife," Anderson says. "I like to see moose running through my back yard instead of cars."
The height of luxury is a "camp" at the lake -- a cottage, usually -- just outside town. Almost anyone can afford a patch of waterfront. Nelson Ketch, 43, chairman of the town's board of selectmen, hops out of his pickup truck at his camp, inhales the piney perfume, surveys the sugared freeze of the lake surface and declares: "This is why I came back here."
He returned after 20 years with the Air Force. Like most folks in New Sweden, to make ends meet he and his wife put together a lot of little jobs, since there are hardly any big jobs left. On top of that, like most folks, he added a layer of civic duties: selectman, president of the cemetery association, substitute school bus driver.
In a small town, if everyone doesn't pitch in, things don't get done. Things fall apart.
Now it's murder in the small town. The last homicide in New Sweden was . . . no one can remember when.
Isolated to the Community
A team of a dozen state police detectives is being led by Lt. Dennis Appleton, 53, commander of criminal investigations for northern Maine.
He wears a suit and tie and a slight twinkle as he probes this strange case. He knows this land, and it's where he finds his similes: "Trying to straighten out the press is like trying to get out of a muddy potato field in high gear," he tells the Portland Press Herald one day.
He gives off-the-cuff teachings on top kill, and allows as how there's likely arsenic left over in barns hereabouts. "This stuff is around forever," he says.
But he will not specify the source of the arsenic in the coffee or explain how it got there. He gave his last news briefing nine days ago, and the police have released no new information since.
This much is known:
The poison's presence in the brewed coffee but not the grounds rules out contamination at the coffee plant. Since the water also was clean, the poison had to have been slipped into the pot before or after the coffee was made.
Bondeson attended the bake sale the day before the poisoning, but he was not in church that Sunday.
Arsenic is odorless and tasteless, so if the coffee drinkers are correct that the brew tasted bad, the arsenic must have been suspended in some chemical solution. The poison is usually a white powder. A lethal dose would be the size of half an aspirin.
Whatever Bondeson wrote in his note, it wasn't enough to declare him the guilty party or to close the case. "Linked" is as far as police will go to describe his alleged role.
"We feel there's a strong potential that there was some, if not active involvement, there was some other involvement," Appleton said. He also said: "We still feel this is isolated to the church community."
The most tantalizing thing Appleton said was that the motive may have something to do with church "dynamics."
New Sweden immediately began buzzing with speculation about feuds at the church. Could this have been about spending money on the furnace? Could the killer have been miffed that the Communion table -- a wooden coffee-table-size piece donated by Bondeson's family in memory of his parents, brother and nephew -- hadn't been used yet?
Many church members scoff at the theories. They say the table had been available for only a couple of weeks -- hardly a long delay. The congregation had already agreed in principle on the furnace and the table. The votes were not unanimous, nor were they bitter, members say.
Appleton was sphinxlike: "It's just amazing what disputes or dynamics can occur in a community."
Loner or Community Man?
Danny Bondeson was a quiet bachelor who lived on the family farm on Bondeson Road where he had cared for his father, who died two years ago.
This was enough for some initial news accounts to dub him a "loner" -- that crime story cliche. But his friends and relatives -- that is, much of the town -- object to this characterization.
They point out he also was a potato farmer, substitute teacher, certified nurse's aid, blueberry picker, snow-shoveler-for-hire, long-distance runner, cross-country skier, full-blooded Swede proud of his heritage and active in the historical society and the Swedish Club -- in short, the complete New Sweden lifestyle.
He used to serve on the church council. He always said hello, even if he preferred to listen rather than talk.
"Does that sound like a reclusive farmer?" asks Jepson, the filmmaker, sipping coffee with the crowd at Stan's. "It just doesn't match the Danny we know."
Bondeson used to visit Stan's, too, the local exchange for gossip and wisdom, where proprietor Stan Thomas still pours coffee for 10 cents a cup, plus a penny tax. Just days before the poisoning, Bondeson was at Stan's asking if anybody knew of a used truck for sale, says Ralph Small, another Stan's regular.
At her camp near Stan's, Jepson shows a video clip of Bondeson picking potatoes. He's wearing a striped shirt. He's on his knees, flipping spuds into an ash-wood basket. Once in a while he shoots a quick grin at the camera.
"This is the Danny we remember," Jepson says. "Working very hard."
At Stan's, at Northstar, in church, in isolated farmhouses, the Danny they remember could not be a killer. And if he was a killer -- a big "if," they insist -- then he was out of his head, not himself. Either way, it wasn't Danny.
You might expect to hear that view in the cramped work shed behind the purple house near the center of town. This is where Paul Bondeson, 58, one of Danny's two brothers, runs his bricklaying business. (There are also two Bondeson sisters.) Paul is also sexton of the town cemetery. One morning he points out where Danny is to be buried.
"I don't believe he did it," Paul Bondeson says.
Not only was Danny Bondeson close friends with Reid Morrill and a ski buddy of poison victim Ralph Ostlund, according to his brother, but Paul's wife and daughter attended the coffee social after church that day.
"To do something like that, you wouldn't only be hurting someone you didn't like, but you'd basically be hurting your immediate family," Paul Bondeson says.
He says Danny chipped in for the Communion table, but wasn't obsessed about it. Other family members came up with the idea, and Danny's attitude was more likely: "Yah. Oh-kay. If that's what you want to do," according to Paul.
Then why did he commit suicide?
"That's what I'm having a hard time figuring out," Paul says. "Did he know something? I don't know. Did he have problems in his life no one knows about? I don't know."
That's a brother talking. Now visit some poison victims.
Drive up Westmanland Road, past Paul Bondeson's place, past the intersection with Bondeson Road, to the Margeson farm.
Erich Margeson grows organic potatoes.
"No arsenic," quips Ed Margeson, 63, Erich's father.
To supplement his income, Erich drives a school bus. He's also selectman of a neighboring town even smaller than New Sweden, and he's an usher at GA Lutheran. His father is on the church council.
Father and son sit at the kitchen table drinking black coffee.
It has been 10 days since Erich was poisoned and he still hasn't had a normal electrocardiogram for a 30-year-old man. (His first normal result will come at Day 15.) Drugs are gradually washing the poison out of his body. Acute poisonings like this one are still rare enough in medical literature that doctors can't say for sure that Margeson won't have health problems down the road. He is the youngest victim and has a 2 1/2-year-old son, Noah.
Margeson has known Danny Bondeson all his life and he says he won't hold this against him if that's the way the investigation turns.
"Anybody who was capable of doing this was sick," he says. "Something snapped. Something went wrong. And it wasn't the same person that anyone of us knew and grew up with. It was a different person who needed help. Maybe we all missed messages from that person. Maybe we should have done something to help him or her."
Ed Margeson says: "My sense is the community as a whole and certainly I can say our church body will not be blaming anybody. . . . It will cause us to do some soul-searching to see how and if in any way we have some blame. It's something we will probably be wondering forever."
The will to move on is as strong as the will to forgive. One may require the other.
Erich: "It's something that happened. We don't understand why it happened to us. I guess anybody who lost a family member in a car accident or a tornado can ask the same question: Why me? There's no sense sitting and dwelling on why me. It happened. Instead of worrying about why, let's worry about what we have to do to get better and put our energy there."
Other poison victims and their families say the same things about Danny.
Shirley Erickson sits in her kitchen with her sister Janet, three days after getting out of the hospital. "He was just a good friend," she says.
Wendell Spooner, whose sister Lois Anderson was poisoned, leads a team of church men to do chores around the houses of people in the hospital: "Where did we let Danny down?" he asks. "Why did we let someone else down if they did it?"
Alicia Anderson, 25, waits for her mother, Lois, on the day she is due home from the hospital: "If it was Danny, there had to be someone else, or you know he was sick and he didn't know what he was doing."
Ronald Morrill stands in his father's driveway next to the church: "Mom and I are praying for his soul because Danny would never want to hurt Dad."
Maybe it is a mass delusion that will evaporate if the police ever make a case against Danny Bondeson. But something else could also be at work.
This is not like most crime stories with two separate strands that must be followed to reveal the plot -- one for the victims, one for the suspect. In this case the strands cannot be untangled. They are a braid.
You visit Phil Tomlinson, 82, Reid Morrill's good friend, seeking memories and data. Tomlinson obliges. Here's a picture of a smiling Reid after his first hole-in-one, holding up the $500 prize check and the new driver.
But Tomlinson also goes on about Danny. Hard worker, and likable. Used to cut the grass and shovel snow for Tomlinson. Danny shoveled snow for Morrill, too.
It's that way all over town. You go in after one strand and come up with both.
Trena Spooner, Wendell's wife, says, "If there was a ray of sunshine in GA Lutheran, Reid was the ray." Then she shows you a craft sculpture on her table from the Bondesons.
"This isn't someone who just moved to town 10 or 20 years ago," Sara Anderson over at Northstar Variety says of Danny. "He never left. He lived here for 53 years. Everyone knew him and knew him well. Same with his family. You just can't sever relations you've had so strong and long."
Everyone was in church last Sunday, the second service since the poisoning. For the first time, most of the survivors were out of the hospital and in their pews. The Morrills were there, too, and many of the Bondesons.
Erich Margeson was the usher, and Ed Margeson served the Communion wine to everyone from the Bondesons' Communion table.
Coffee had been poured after church the week before so people could show they were not afraid. But today families wanted to get home for Mother's Day brunches -- and the poisoning victims were scheduled for a group appointment at the hospital to check their arsenic levels.
Shirley and Janet Erickson had been baking. They had made Swedish cookies and coffee cake -- one batch for the Bondesons and one for the Morrills.