A former taekwondo instructor was taken into custody early today by federal authorities in Mississippi, accused of mailing letters containing the poison ricin to the president, a U.S. senator and a local judge.
The arrest of J. Everett Dutschke, 41, of Tupelo, Miss., is the second in two weeks in connection with the case. An earlier suspect, an Elvis impersonator named Paul Kevin Curtis, also of Tupelo, was released after no evidence was found linking him to the letters; Curtis' lawyer had said during a hearing in federal court that Dutschke appeared to have framed Curtis.
Deborah Madden, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Jackson, Miss., said Dutschke was arrested at his home shortly before 1 a.m. A law enforcement official in Tupelo said his arrest was uneventful.
''He walked out and they took him into custody," said Sgt. James Hood of the Tupelo Police Department. "No problem or anything."
A lawyer for Dutschke did not immediately return a message seeking comment today. Dutschke has been charged with "developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring, acquiring, retaining and possessing a biological agent" for use as a weapon. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Oxford on Monday.
The arrest is the latest chapter in a bizarre case that began during the tense week of the Boston Marathon bombing. The authorities announced that letters addressed to President Barack Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., had been found to contain a "suspicious granular substance," which was later determined to be ricin, a deadly poison. A similar letter with the substance was also sent to Judge Sadie Holland of Lee County Justice Court.
The letters spoke of "Missing Pieces," and were signed "I am KC and I approve this message," both standard parts of email messages sent to numerous public officials by Curtis, who had been on a one-man campaign for more than a decade to expose what he said was an illicit organ harvesting scheme at a Tupelo hospital.
Curtis was arrested on April 17. While he was in custody, federal agents searched his home as well as the home of a former wife, but found no evidence tying him to the letters.
Law enforcement officials said today that the letters had been carefully written to mimic Curtis' characteristic phrasing and concerns. Though they regretted having arrested a man they now consider innocent, they had wanted to move quickly to prevent more poisoned letters from being sent, one official said.
Curtis' brother Jack said neither he nor other relatives immediately dismissed the charges as false, given Kevin Curtis' history of mental illness.
''We could understand especially with the things that were tied to his initials," he said. "I could see why somebody would think it was Kevin. But when they said President Obama I thought, 'Somebody messed up because he likes Obama.'"
The family said that Kevin Curtis might have been framed, and Jack Curtis said he told authorities to look at Dutschke, who used to work for him and had long had an antagonistic relationship with Curtis.
In a hearing in federal court last Monday, Curtis' lawyer mentioned Dutschke by name. Dutschke and Curtis had feuded, mostly online, on a variety of topics including their music careers, Curtis' admittedly false claim of being a member of MENSA, and Dutschke's unwillingness to publish the organ-harvesting accusations in a local newsletter.
Dutschke, a bright but often abrasive man who ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature, was arrested this year on charges of molesting three underage girls, one as young as 7. He pleaded not guilty this month.
On Tuesday, Curtis was released, the charges against him dropped. At a news conference, Curtis said he did not blame federal authorities but added that "thispast week has been a nightmare for me and my family."
On Tuesday and Wednesday, federal agents searched Dutschke's home and his former taekwondo school, Tupelo Taekwondo Plus. James D. Moore, the prosecuting attorney for Lee County, said that evidence had been found but would not characterize its nature.
As he became the focus of the inquiry, Dutschke denied having anything to do with the ricin letters but tried to keep a low profile, to the point where the authorities briefly lost track of him.
The strangeness of the whole series of events was not shocking to some who know both men.
''There's been bad blood between those two for years," Moore said. Of their entanglement in this case, he added "Hindsight's 20/20, but knowing these two guys I ain't surprised."