OXFORD, Miss. — A Mississippi owner of a martial-arts studio charged over the weekend in connection with the mailing of letters containing ricin to President Barack Obama and a U.S. senator may face a life term if convicted.
The Saturday arrest of J. Everett Dutschke, 41, who faces unrelated state charges for child molestation, followed the government’s dismissal last week of its case against Paul Curtis, 45, an Elvis impersonator from Corinth, Miss., initially accused in a probe of the letters’ provenance.
Dutschke appeared Monday at an initial hearing in Oxford federal court. Brought in by U.S. marshals, handcuffed and wearing orange prison scrubs, he uttered only one word, “Yes,” when asked if he understood the charges against him.
U.S. Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander granted a government request that he be held in custody until his detention hearing Thursday. Dutschke, of Tupelo, is charged with developing, producing and possessing a biological agent for use as a weapon, said Oxford U.S. Attorney Felicia Adams.
Christi McCoy, an attorney for Curtis, said in an April 22 preliminary hearing that her client may have been framed for the mailings by Dutschke, with whom Curtis had a long-running feud.
Curtis was arrested earlier this month after envelopes allegedly sent to Obama, a Democrat, and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., were intercepted and found to contain “a suspicious granular substance” that tested positive for ricin. The letters were signed “I am KC and I approve this message,” according to the criminal complaint.
The case fell apart after an FBI agent testified at a preliminary hearing that searches failed to turn up any trace of ricin at Curtis’s home, as well as in his vehicle and the homes of his ex-wife and parents. An analysis of his personal computer also found nothing related to ricin, the FBI said.
Federal scrutiny quickly turned to Dutschke.
The letters to Obama and Wicker were postmarked April 8 and both read in part: “No one wanted to listen to me before. There are still ‘Missing Pieces’ Maybe I have your attention now even if that means someone must die.”
Ricin is made from castor beans and has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It is harmful and potentially fatal if inhaled or ingested, according to the CDC.
At a press conference after Curtis’s release from custody, McCoy said the idea that her client was framed is “very diabolical, very frightening.”
Curtis, who said he loves his country and would never threaten the president, stated he will return to performing, aiding his favorite charity — the Save A Life Foundation — and finding a publisher for his book, “Missing Pieces,” a novel he said exposes a black-market in human body parts.
Curtis and Dutschke have known each other for many years and Dutschke at one point had a business relationship with Curtis’ brother, McCoy said at the hearing.
McCoy told Judge Alexander that the dispute between Curtis and Dutschke was over “who is the biggest liar and is putting false information on their website.”
She said Dutschke was arrested this year on child molestation charges and may have thought Curtis was somehow involved with “the girls coming forward” to authorities.
Dutschke was indicted on three counts of child molestation by the Lee County grand jury, according to state court records in Tupelo. The incidents involving fondling of minor girls allegedly occurred from 2007 to this year, according to the indictment. He faces two to 15 years in prison on each count if convicted.
After Curtis’ release from custody last week, the FBI searched Dutschke’s home and business. Several phone calls to Dutschke’s home weren’t answered and no one came to the front door when a reporter visited on April 24.
Dutschke’s attorney, Lori Nail Basham of Fulton, Miss., hasn’t responded to messages left at her office. Today, a federal public defender, George Lucas, was appointed to represent him on the U.S. charges.
Inquiries with Wicker’s staff turned up previous letters to his Washington office with the sign-off “this is Kevin Curtis and I approve this message,” according to court papers.
A third, similar letter with a suspicious substance was sent on April 8 to a judge in Lee County, where Curtis lives, the agents said in the affidavit.
All three letters, which had no return address, were on yellow paper and bore Memphis, Tenn., postmarks, the agents said. Letters sent from northern Mississippi usually bear a Memphis postmark, according to the affidavit.
Ricin poisoning symptoms depend on the purity, route of exposure and the dose. Initial symptoms from inhalation occur as early as four to six hours after the exposure, and include difficulty breathing and a cough, according to the CDC.
The symptoms can progress rapidly to fluid within the lungs and eventually respiratory failure. Deaths from the poison usually happen within 36 to 72 hours. While no antidote exists, doctors can counteract the effects of the poisoning by helping victims breathe or giving them fluids.
With assistance from Cheyenne Hopkins in Washington.