Criminal justice experts say the arrest of Curtis without any physical evidence to tie him to the crime harks back to the investigation of bioweapons expert Steven J. Hatfill, who was falsely accused of the 2001 anthrax-letter attacksthat killed five people. Like Curtis, Hatfill had an unpublished novel that seemed to tie him to the crime.
With Curtis, however, experts said the FBI’s leap was larger.
“Hatfill had technical qualifications and a background that also led the FBI to zero in on him, but this guy is an Elvis impersonator with an apparent history of mental instability and a Facebook page with some distinctive and curious language on it,” said Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies who studies biological weapons.
Neilson, Curtis’s attorney, said he understands why the FBI and other federal authorities — including the Capitol Police, the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security — focused on his client. But Neilson said they crossed the line when they shackled his hands and feet and arrested him before they searched his home and car.
“I was the FBI supervisor in this district for years. I’ve run plenty of investigations, and I can tell you this is not the way to run an investigation,” Neilson said. “I would not have arrested him based on stuff that I found off his Facebook page.”
He said Curtis should have been asked to accompany officials to a federal facility for questioning — without being arrested — while they secured a search warrant and conducted a search.
Andrew J. Scott, a retired Boca Raton, Fla., police chief and expert court witness on police procedure, said authorities had enough information to detain Curtis while the investigation proceeded, but probably not enough to arrest him.
“The letters and his mental state would not likely add up to probable cause, which you need to make an arrest,” said Scott, a graduate of the FBI National Academy. “The evidence came from publicly available social-media sites. And the last time I checked, psychological profiling is not an element of probable cause. Without further investigating, it can lead to the kind of fiasco we are seeing here.”
Criminal justice experts said the political pressure from Washington to solve the ricin case would have been intense, particularly since the president was targeted and it occurred around the same time as the Boston Marathon bombing. Some experts said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks taught law enforcement officials to do everything possible to prevent attacks, even if it means arresting the wrong person.