James Everett Dutschke works on his mini-van in his driveway in Tupelo,… (Thomas Wells / Associated…)
TUPELO, Miss. — FBI agents arrested a Mississippi martial arts instructor early Saturday in the bizarre case of poisoned letters sent to President Obama, a U.S. senator and a local judge.
James Everett Dutschke was arrested without incident at his Tupelo home shortly before 1 a.m., FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden told The Times.
Dutschke, a former candidate for the Mississippi Legislature, became the prime suspect in the mailings after charges were dropped Tuesday against Paul Kevin Curtis, a celebrity impersonator from Corinth, Miss.
Curtis told investigators that he was framed by Dutschke, with whom he’d carried on a long-running feud over the Internet. Dutschke claimed innocence but went into hiding after law enforcement agents conducted multiple searches this week of his home and the taekwondo studio he used.
Dutschke's attorney, Lori Basham, made a brief statement by text message: “It is my understanding that the authorities have confirmed Mr. Dutschke's arrest. We have no comment at this time.”
The case involved letters sent last week to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and earlier to an 80-year-old Mississippi judge, Sadie Holland. The letters to Obama and Wicker were seized at off-site mail-sorting facilities outside Washington and tested positive for ricin, a deadly toxin for which there’s no known antidote.
The letters were discovered just after the Boston Marathon bombings, stirring memories of the 2001 anthrax scare that began one week after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks. Five people died of contamination in the anthrax case after tainted letters showed up at the offices of media and lawmakers.
Curtis, known in this part of the state for his impersonations of Elvis Presley and other celebrities, was first labeled as a suspect because the alleged ricin-laced letters were signed, “I am KC and I approve this message.” Curtis used similar sign-offs in postings on Facebook and other Internet sites.
The letters also included references to a novel Curtis was writing about the underground trafficking of human organs.
Curtis denied any involvement in the mailings — “I thought they said 'rice,' " he told reporters — and FBI searches of his home and the home of his ex-wife failed to find evidence of ricin or ricin-making materials, according to testimony in a preliminary hearing.
Meanwhile, Curtis was telling people that he suspected he was being set up by Dutschke. The onetime coworkers had a falling-out over an article that Curtis wanted to have published about the alleged organ-harvesting conspiracy.
The feud escalated over email and Internet postings.
Dutschke first earned notoriety in 2007 when he ran for the Mississippi Legislature against incumbent Steve Holland. Dutschke lost but launched such blistering personal attacks on Holland that Holland’s mother — the judge who received a poisoned letter — publicly demanded that Dutschke apologize.
In January, police arrested Dutschke on charges of molesting a 7-year-old girl at his studio. He pleaded not guilty and was released on bond.
The FBI referred questions in the ricin case to the U.S. attorney’s office in Oxford, Miss., which didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
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Bengali reported from Washington, Teague from Tupelo.