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Poison letters suspect in Mississippi released

Authorities drop charges against Paul Kevin Curtis, whose attorney says he was framed. Another Mississippi man is being questioned in the ricin letter mailings.

April 23, 2013|By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Paul Kevin Curtis, who had been in custody under suspicion of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and others, attends a news conference with his attorney, Christi McCoy, in Oxford, Miss., after his release.
Paul Kevin Curtis, who had been in custody under suspicion of sending ricin-laced… (Bruce Newman, Oxford Eagle )

A Mississippi man who had been accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama, a U.S. senator and a Mississippi judge was set free Tuesday and charges against him were dropped as authorities converged on the home of another man.

Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss., had been released on bond earlier in the day. The part-time Elvis impersonator had been arrested last week on suspicion of mailing three letters filled with ricin within days of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings.

Authorities, some in protective gear, were searching the Tupelo, Miss., home of J. Everett Dutschke, who had not been arrested and who insisted he was innocent.

Ricin, which is highly toxic and has no antidote, can be inhaled or ingested. The letters' recipients included Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Lee County, Miss., Judge Sadie Holland.

But FBI officials testified in a preliminary hearing that they had searched the homes of Curtis and his ex-wife but found no evidence of ricin or ricin-making materials. Nor did they find any ricin-related searches on Curtis' computer.

His attorney and his family contended that Curtis had been framed. The attorney, Christi McCoy, called him "the perfect scapegoat."

A law enforcement source not directly involved in the case but with knowledge of it cautioned that Curtis' release should not necessarily be interpreted as clearing him of suspicion. Dismissing the charges "without prejudice" means the charges could be refiled.

Meanwhile, in Tupelo, Dutschke told the Associated Press that he was being questioned by the FBI in connection with the poison-laced mailings but had done nothing wrong.

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

Dutschke, a former candidate for the Mississippi Statehouse, told the Associated Press that he knew Curtis but that the two had a falling out and had not had contact since 2010.

At an evening news conference in Oxford, Miss., Curtis told reporters that the poisoning accusations had come as a total surprise. He said he didn't even know what ricin was.

"I thought they said 'rice.' And I said, 'I don't even eat rice.'"

Curtis said he loved his country and "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."

His attorney, McCoy, said, "The government was able to basically find another suspect who we believe is the true perpetrator."

The ricin-laced letters mimicked the writings Curtis had sent to officials about an alleged organ-harvesting conspiracy, which he'd commented about on Facebook and other public platforms.

An FBI intelligence bulletin obtained by the Associated Press said the letters to Obama and Wicker said: "To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance." Both were signed, "I am KC and I approve this message" — language similar to posts made on various websites under the name Kevin Curtis.

Curtis' family said he had been diagnosed as bipolar but is harmless. His release brought them relief.

"I am gleeful about it," his father, Jack Curtis of Cleveland, Miss., said in a telephone 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."

Earlier Tuesday, officials in Washington received another scare when a mail scanner at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling sparked another poison alert.

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 said later that no suspicious packages or letters had been found. The incident was under investigation.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

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

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