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Suspicion shifts as charges dropped against ricin suspect

April 23, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • An FBI agent stops J. Everett Dutschke from approaching his home Tuesday in Tupelo, Miss. Agents searched the home in connection with the ricin letters sent to Sen. Roger Wicker and President Obama.
An FBI agent stops J. Everett Dutschke from approaching his home Tuesday… (Thomas Wells / Northeast…)

Paul Kevin Curtis said he didn't even know what ricin was.

Certainly not a lethal poison. But jail can be a swift teacher.

"I thought they said 'rice,' " Curtis said of the federal authorities who arrested him last week on charges of trying to poison the president, a U.S. senator and a Mississippi judge. "And I said, 'I don’t even eat rice.' "

In a dramatic shift in a high-profile case, federal prosecutors on Tuesday dropped the poison-by-mail charges against Curtis without prejudice after new leads developed, according to a court filing. "Without prejudice" means the charges could be refiled.

Before Curtis and his attorney appeared in front of reporters Tuesday evening, looking jubilant -- and before the filing announcing a new turn in the case -- hazardous-materials teams and federal investigators had converged on the Tupelo, Miss., home of J. Everett Dutschke, a former candidate for the Mississippi Statehouse.

"The government was able to basically find another suspect who we believe is the true perpetrator," Curtis' attorney, Christi McCoy, said at a news conference in Oxford, Miss. McCoy had suggested in court that her client had been framed. 

Dutschke did not answer a call for comment from the Los Angeles Times. He told the Associated Press he was being questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in connection to the poison-laced mailings.

"I'm a patriotic American. I don't have any grudges against anybody. I did not send the letters," Dutschke said.

The FBI could not be reached after-hours for comment.

Dutschke's public comments mirrored those made by the newly freed Curtis, who told reporters that he too was innocent.

"I love my county," said Curtis, adding that he “would never do anything to pose a threat to [President Obama] or any other U.S. official. This past week has been a nightmare for myself and my family.… I’d like to get back to normal."

Curtis' family said he had been diagnosed as bipolar but was harmless. He told reporters Tuesday that he'd gone through 20 attorneys in 13 years.

His family also said Curtis had been framed, as the letters sent to officials mimicked the writings he'd sent to officials about a supposed organ-harvesting conspiracy, which he'd commented about on Facebook and other public platforms.

McCoy called him "the perfect scapegoat."

Curtis' release brought relief to his family.

"I am gleeful about it," his father, Jack Curtis of Cleveland, Miss., told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview. "You can’t imagine how I feel. I knew he was innocent the whole time of those charges against him.... I knew they were false and forged from the get-go. He’s been released, and rightly so. They couldn’t find one scintilla of evidence against him."

The FBI had searched the homes of Curtis and his ex-wife but failed to find evidence of ricin or ricin-making materials, according to testimony in a preliminary hearing. Officials didn't discover any ricin-related searches on his computer either.

A law enforcement source not directly involved in the case, but with knowledge of it, said that Curtis’ release should not necessarily be interpreted as clearing him of suspicion. Dismissing the charges “without prejudice” means officials can try to prosecute Curtis in the future.

In Washington, officials received another start Tuesday when an alert from a mail-scanner at Bolling Air Force Base sparked another poison scare in a still-tense security environment.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that officials were dealing with "another incident" involving the "same substance" as last week's ricin-laced letters, but a Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman later said no suspicious packages or letters were found.

The FBI continued to investigate Tuesday's incident in Washington.

Pearce reported from Los Angeles. Staff writers Wes Venteicher and David Willman contributed to this report from Washington.

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