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Man dies from gunshot amid church arsenic probe

He is not considered a suspect, police in Maine say

Police tape surrounds Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine, on Tuesday.
Police tape surrounds Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine, on Tuesday.

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NEW SWEDEN, Maine (CNN) -- A man found shot in his home on the day police canvassed residents for clues in a church arsenic poisoning case has died, hospital officials said Friday.

Daniel Bondeson, 53, died at 6:30 p.m., shortly after he arrived at the Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Maine, hospital spokesman Bill Flagg said.

Police responded to an emergency call from Bondeson's farm in the afternoon and found him with a bullet wound, said Stephen McCausland, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Officials did not know the details of how Bondeson was shot but said he was not a suspect in the church poisoning.

"A lot of answers we don't have tonight," McCausland said. "We'll be working throughout the night and tomorrow to try to find out."

Lt. Dennis Appleton of the Maine State Police said earlier that the gunshot appeared to be self-inflicted. However, officials said, further investigation is needed to determine whether it was accidental or caused by someone else.

The shooting came the same day that police visited members of the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church seeking interviews, fingerprints and DNA tests in their investigation of a poisoning in which a 78-year-old man died and 15 other church members were hospitalized.

It's not clear whether Bondeson is a church member.

Parishioners became ill Sunday after church, where they all drank coffee and ate.

Church elder Walter Morrill, 78, died after the church social from "acute arsenic poisoning," state police said.

The other 15 church members remained hospitalized Friday with arsenic poisoning.

Eight of the 15, including a husband and wife, are being treated at Cary Hospital, said Dr. Carl Flynn, the hospital's chief of staff.

"[The patients] are not saying a lot about this," he said. "They are in [emotional] shock. It's starting to turn a little bit toward anger, and with recent events I expect the emotional roller coaster will continue."

The patients are receiving therapy recommended by state toxicology experts, who have had arsenic antidotes readily available since the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, Flynn said.

"It more than aided in the treatment," Flynn said.

Investigators turned their attention toward parishioners this week and began seeking out the congregation for interviews, fingerprints and DNA tests. Authorities also planned to re-interview the sick parishioners and their families.

The church poisoning has startled residents of New Sweden, a farming town of about 600 people in the northeastern section of the state.

"It was a shock," said Jerry Nelson, the nephew of one of the victims.

With a small town and smaller church community, it's unlikely that an unknown perpetrator could have gotten access to the food and drink undetected, said Appleton, the lead investigator in the case. For that reason, the investigation has focused on those familiar with the church, he said.

"I think in lieu of all the scenarios that we've talked about at our meetings, probably that happenstance stranger entering the back part of the church during service undetected is not one of the ones that we are aggressively pursuing early on," Appleton said.

But some townspeople scoffed at the notion that anyone known to the church would have done such a thing.

"Some of the theories I hear people talk of [are] that they seem to think it was an accident," said Stan Thomas, owner of Stan's Coffee Shop. "They don't think anyone around here would do something like that on purpose."

McCausland said an accident seems unlikely.

In a written statement, he said investigators found arsenic only in the brewed coffee served at the church. He said tests done on the tap water, sugar and coffee grounds used for the brewed coffee all tested negative for arsenic.

Arsenic was also found in "biological samples from the victims," he said.

"This investigation has produced no evidence that supports a conclusion that the arsenic was introduced into the brewed coffee accidentally," McCausland said.

Investigators did not know when the arsenic was placed in the coffee, but parishioners immediately began to feel sick after drinking it, officials said.

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