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Maine Probes Possible Church Poisonings

April 30, 2003

NEW SWEDEN, Maine (AP) _ State police investigators plan to interview every member of a church where arsenic is suspected of sickening a dozen people and contributing to the death of a 78-year-old man.

Five of those sickened at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church were still too ill Wednesday to talk to detectives, State Police Lt. Dennis Appleton said.

``We are taking it as a suspicious death, but only because we don’t have the answers,″ Appleton said. ``We have no evidence it’s criminal.″

The victims had all shared sweets and sandwiches on Sunday that were left over from a church bake sale the day before, and several church members said people who drank the coffee had complained that it tasted funny.

State Health Director Dora Anne Mills said Tuesday that arsenic, which can have a bitter taste, was the probable cause of the illnesses.

An autopsy on the body of Walter Morrill, who died after falling ill following the church gathering, was inconclusive, and toxicology tests were planned.

Arsenic is common in groundwater in Maine and people are urged to have their wells tested for it. But the amount that occurs naturally in groundwater is not normally associated with acute symptoms exhibited by parishioners, said Dr. Karen Simone, managing director of the Northern New England Poison Control Center.

The church’s well was being tested but it could be several days before results are available from the state public health, Appleton said. An investigator said there was no sign that the well had been tampered with.

Appleton said detectives were also checking soap, cleansers and other materials in the church to see if a product containing arsenic may have been used to clean coffee containers.

Seven of the parishioners sickened after Sunday’s reception were released from hospitals but returned to be treated for arsenic poisoning. Five others remained hospitalized Wednesday, at least three of them in critical condition.

Erich Margeson, 30, said he had coffee and a sandwich at the reception and began feeling lightheaded on the drive home.

He was treated Sunday night and went home before being ordered to return to receive treatment for arsenic poisoning, his wife, Alana Margeson, said. Margeson was told he would be in the hospital for three to five days.

The illnesses and possibility of arsenic poisoning were a shock to New Sweden, a town of about 650 in northeastern Maine’s potato-growing country.

``When you look at the people who got sick, there’s no way you could fathom anyone having anything against them,″ said Sara Anderson, who owns the Northstar Variety store in town. ``There’s no Hatfields and McCoys.″

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