RSS
The bizarre tale of the Mississippi feud behind the ricin letters
The FBI arrested James Dutschke for allegedly sending poison to Obama and two others — and apparently framing an Elvis impersonator
 
Federal authorities in hazmat suits search a small retail space on April 24 where suspect James Everett Dutschke used to operate a martial arts studio.
Federal authorities in hazmat suits search a small retail space on April 24 where suspect James Everett Dutschke used to operate a martial arts studio. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

When federal agents arrested Paul Kevin Curtis last week for allegedly sending letters filled with the poison ricin to President Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and retired local judge Sadie Holland, Curtis seemed like a man who wanted to be caught. The ricin letters were signed with his initials and signature phrase, "This is KC and I approve this message," along with a quote he used several times on social media. (Read our primer on ricin and how it works.)

But as it turns out, Curtis was likely framed. After searching Curtis' home in Corinth, Miss., and finding no evidence of ricin, no signs Curtis had ever researched how to process castor beans to make the incurable poison, or even knew what it is, the feds released Curtis from jail last Tuesday. Then on Saturday, they arrested James Everett Dutschke (pronounced DUHS'-kee) of Tupelo for "knowingly developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring, acquiring, retaining, and possessing a biological agent, toxin and delivery system, for use as a weapon, to wit: Ricin."

Federal prosecutors' use of the phrase "to wit" only makes this seem more like a tale spun by Mississippi's own William Faulkner. But even without that detail, says Rick Hampson in USA Today, Curtis and Dutschke are such strange characters that "Faulkner, the Nobel laureate who lived down the road in Oxford, would have appreciated their Southern Gothic obsessions and secrets, their eccentricities, their capacity for vendetta."

Curtis is a former janitor who earns his living from disability payments for his bipolar disorder, fees for impersonating Elvis and other famous singers, and, perhaps soon, royalties for his as-yet-unpublished book alleging a body-part black market conspiracy at the local hospital. Dutschke owns a martial arts studio in Tupelo, which he recently closed after being charged with fondling three girls under 16 — a charge he denies. He is also the frontman for a blues band, a failed political candidate, and a former member of Mensa, the club for people with high IQs.

The Mensa thing may have been the final straw that turned the Curtis-Dutschke friendship into a blood feud. Curtis and Dutschke met in 2005, when the martial arts teacher was working for Curtis' brother Jack at an insurance office. Things apparently began to sour when Dutschke decided not to publish Curtis' body-part trafficking allegations in a newsletter he published. Subsequently, there was a physical confrontation in a Tupelo restaurant.

Curtis then became convinced that Dutschke was stalking him online. So, Curtis says, he set a trap, according to USA Today's Hampson: "He claimed on his Facebook page that he was a member of Mensa. Dutschke, a proud Mensan, took the bait."

"I threatened to sue him for fraud for posting a Mensa certificate that is a lie," Dutschke told Tupelo's newspaper, the Daily Journal, in 2010. "That certificate is a lie." That's the root of their conflict, says Curtis' lawyer, Christi McCoy: "Who is the biggest liar and is putting false information on their website."

Before his arrest, Dutschke strongly denied sending the ricin letters. And other than as some sort of an elaborate plot to frame Curtis, it's not clear why he would have sent the poison letters. Yes, both Dutschke and Curtis have met Wicker, and both have had run-ins with Judge Holland: She sentenced Curtis to a short stint in jail for assaulting a member of his band, and Dutschke ran an unsuccessful campaign against Holland's son, state Rep. Steve Holland (D). But nothing we know so far suggests a motive strong enough for murder.

The story is bizarre enough on its own, says Matthew Teague at the Los Angeles Times. But it's even stranger when you consider that Curtis and Dutschke "seem locked in an elaborate piece of tribute performance art."

It wouldn't be the first skirmish between Tupelo's most famous son and a karate man. In 1973, several men climbed on stage during a concert by the actual Elvis. Elvis felt threatened and fought the men, alongside his bodyguards. He felt sure the men had been sent by estranged wife Priscilla's new boyfriend, his own personal nemesis: Mike Stone, karate instructor. [Los Angeles Times]

Tupelo residents fret that this story could eclipse the town's other claim to fame — Elvis. But former Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilke, who now teaches at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says locals shouldn't fear such a great story. "The woods here are full of colorful characters like them," he says. "Maybe that's why we've produced so many great novelists."

Dutschke, oddly enough, has a similar take. "Just look around you," he told the Los Angeles Times just hours before his arrest. "This place is crazy."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week