Federal authorities descended Wednesday on a shuttered martial arts studio in Mississippi as the FBI sought to reinvigorate its investigation into ricin-laced letters sent this month to the White House, a U.S. senator and a county judge.
James Everett Dutschke, 41, the owner of the studio, saw attention shift to him after an earlier suspect in the case told authorities and news media that Dutschke may have framed him.
Law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that they believe the earlier suspect, Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, may have been framed. Charges against Curtis were dropped Tuesday and he was released from jail.
Law enforcement officials would not say whether they believe Dutschke is responsible for the ricin letters.
Dutschke’s attorney said Curtis and Dutschke are acquaintances and that the two men were last in contact three years ago. Dutschke has denied any involvement with the ricin letters and said through his attorney that he has no malice toward Curtis.
“Mr. Curtis and his attorney mentioned my client’s name to authorities, and it snowballed from there,” said Lori Nail Basham.“Why is the FBI focusing on Mr. Dutschke? I think that’s the million-dollar question. They have told us nothing.”
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson declined to comment about the arrest and the subsequent release of Curtis, and did not respond to questions about Dutschke.
“The investigation remains ongoing,” Bresson said.
Charlie Watson, who owns a business near Dutschke’s former martial arts studio, said that several unmarked dark-blue trucks with mounted sirens pulled into the strip mall where the studio is located around 8 a.m. Wednesday. He said they were still there, in addition to several other police cars and a hazardous materials truck, at 6:30 p.m.
Watson said another truck had set up a portable laboratory near the studio.
“There are all kinds of people coming and going,” said Watson. “A lot of people in Army fatigues going in and out all day.”
Dutschke’s lawyer said her client met Curtis through Curtis’s brother, who owns an insurance company. Dutschke also sells insurance in Tupelo, a town with a population of 35,000.
The two men have had conflicts. Dutschke told the Associated Press that he threatened to sue Curtis for claiming to be a member of Mensa, a group for people with high IQs. Curtis, of Corinth, said they had a heated e-mail exchange that culminated in his challenging Dutschke to a fight, which never occurred. The men live about 50 miles apart in separate cities in Mississippi.
The men, both of whom have had tangles with local police, each had a connection to Lee County Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland, who received one of the ricin-laced letters.
She was the presiding judge in a case in which Curtis was accused of assaulting a Tupelo attorney in 2003. Holland sentenced Curtis to six months in county jail, according to court documents.
In 2007, Dutschke ran as a Republican candidate for the Mississippi House of Representatives against the judge’s son, Democratic state Rep. Steve Holland. Dutschke lost and the judge chastised Dutschke at a political rally that year, the AP reported, citing observers.
Dutschke is facing child molestation charges in Lee County. His attorney confirmed that the alleged victim is a 7-year-old girl who took classes at the martial arts studio, which closed in January. “He adamantly denies any wrongdoing,” Basham said.
Law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Curtis was arrested last week in connection with the ricin letters because they believed there was “probable cause.” The officials said that “a lot of evidence” was pointing to him.
The evidence included a phrase — “This is KC and I approve this message” — that was used in closing the letters. This language was similar to how Curtis has ended posts on Facebook and other online forums. The letters also referenced a novel Curtis is writing called “Missing Pieces,” in which he espouses a theory about underground trafficking in human body parts.
After his release from jail Tuesday, Curtis told CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live,” “It’s like a train has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m overwhelmed. I’m extremely happy to be vindicated and out and able to see my kids.”
Members of Congress and FBI experts said the arrest of the wrong man in the case harkened back to the agency’s botched investigation into the source of letters containing anthrax spores that were sent in 2001 to senators and news outlets.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “We all appreciate that the FBI is moving expeditiously, but the work needs to be done with the utmost of care and deliberation so it doesn’t turn into another anthrax debacle.”
Alice Crites and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.
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