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Personal feud emerges in Mississippi ricin investigation

Paul Kevin Curtis, who was freed after initially being accused of sending ricin-laced letters to public officials, has long been feuding with a fellow entertainer — who is now a focus of the inquiry.

April 24, 2013|By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Federal investigators in protective suits gather outside a Tupelo, Miss., business space where James Everett Dutschke is said to have operated a martial arts studio. Authorities are investigating the site in connection with the ricin case, but Dutschke has not been arrested or charged.
Federal investigators in protective suits gather outside a Tupelo, Miss.,… (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated…)

The investigation into ricin-laced letters addressed to the president, a U.S. senator and a Mississippi judge highlighted a personal feud Wednesday and an unusual cast of characters — starting with Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator who had pestered officials for years about his conspiracy theory that the federal government was involved in an organ-harvesting plot.

Government plot or no, Curtis was, of course, glad that officials had decided to drop the charges against him. He had been arrested last week, days after the letters were sent, and was freed Tuesday.

He appeared with his attorney Wednesday on CNN. During his detention, he said, investigators "treated me like gold, but they intensely interrogated me for hours. It was nerve-wracking."

Then, at the prompting of a mischievous interviewer, Curtis began to sing a Randy Travis tune, "On the Other Hand," and hugged his laughing attorney, Christi McCoy of Oxford, Miss.

The poison-laced letters went to President Obama, Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and a Lee County judge, 80-year-old Sadie Holland. Officials said they were postmarked from Memphis, Tenn., and mimicked Curtis' Internet writings. Ricin can be deadly even in small amounts, and there is no antidote.

The letters did not apparently hold any fingerprint or DNA evidence, according to FBI testimony during a preliminary hearing for Curtis.

During the court hearing, McCoy suggested that a Tupelo, Miss., taekwondo instructor may have tried to frame her client.

Hal Neilson, another attorney for Curtis, said that the defense gave authorities a list of people who may have had a reason to hurt Curtis, and that James Everett Dutschke's name came up.

On Tuesday, as federal charges against Curtis were dropped, authorities swarmed the Tupelo home of Dutschke, who goes by "Dusty" when playing with his band, Dusty & the RoboDrum.

Dutschke, who is under indictment in Lee County on charges of child molestation, has been cooperating with officials and is innocent in both cases, his attorney said.

"He did want the people to know he is cooperating, that he denies any involvement in this whatsoever," said his attorney, Lori Nail Basham of Fulton, Miss.

She added that Dutschke said he had not talked to Curtis since 2010 — the pair had been feuding — and that he had not been named a suspect or a person of interest.

Both the Tupelo Police Department and the Lee County Sheriff's Department declined to comment on the events, or even to confirm that Dutschke had been arrested on suspicion of child molestation, as the agencies had announced in January.

"There's nothing being released," a Lee County sheriff's spokeswoman said.

Both referred questions to the FBI. A spokeswoman for the agency's northern Mississippi office did not return a message seeking comment.

The genesis of the feud between Curtis, 45, and Dutschke, 41, was unclear. Curtis told the Associated Press that they had worked together at Curtis' brother's insurance office years ago. Curtis said Dutschke told him he owned a newspaper and showed interest in publishing his book about what Curtis believes is an underground market to sell body parts.

But Dutschke decided not to publish it, Curtis said, and later began stalking him on the Internet.

Dutschke said he didn't even know Curtis that well.

"He almost had my sympathy until I found out that he was trying to blame somebody else," Dutschke said. "I've known he was disturbed for a long time."

Curtis' father, Jack, watched his son singing on CNN, relieved that he'd been freed from jail, but puzzled over who sent the poison to the president, the senator and the judge.

"We know somebody did, don't we?" Jack Curtis said. "I think they're being kind of cautious — they don't want to make the second mistake of fingering somebody again wrongly. So I think they're treading pretty cautiously to get the real culprit this time, and hopefully they will."

The elder Curtis said his son's feud with Dutschke dated to 2007 or so. "He don't know why the guy hates him so, but there's been some kind of feud between them for some time," he said.

On Wednesday, authorities were at a small retail space in Tupelo where neighboring business owners said Dutschke used to operate a martial arts studio. Investigators in gas masks, gloves and plastic suits emerged from the business carrying five-gallon buckets full of items covered in large plastic bags. Once outside, others started spraying their protective suits with some sort of mist.

Officers at the scene wouldn't comment on what they were doing.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson in Los Angeles and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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