May 2, 2013

USA: Original Ricin-Laced Letters Suspect Was Held In Federal Custody For A Week Despite Evidence Pointing To Another Man. Welcome To Obamaland :/

The Washington Post
written by Kimberly Kindy
Wednesday May 1, 2013

TUPELO, Miss. — After keeping Elvis impersonator Paul Kevin Curtis in jail for a week, interrogating him while he was chained to a chair and turning his house upside down, federal authorities had no confession or physical evidence tying him to the ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and other public officials.

Investigators already had another man in their sights and, according to an FBI affidavit, were collecting physical evidence against this second suspect. It was beginning to look as if Curtis had been framed.

But instead of setting Curtis free, court records show, federal officials sought to keep him in custody.

First, three days after the arrest, prosecutors asked for a psychiatric evaluation — a request usually made by defense lawyers. That could have extended his stay in federal prison by several months and allowed investigators to continue to question him.

Then, after a judge denied the request, federal prosecutors filed a motion seeking to postpone a court hearing at which they would be required to reveal the evidence they had against Curtis. That was also turned down.

“They wanted to keep Mr. Curtis in custody while they built a case,” said Hal Neilson, a former FBI agent who is Curtis’s attorney. “They knew early on he wasn’t the right guy, but they fought to hold on to him anyway.”

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford, Miss., did not respond to requests for interviews or to written questions.

An official with the federal court, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Neilson’s characterization of the prosecutor’s request for a psychiatric examination and for a postponement were accurate and that they were viewed by the court as unnecessary delays.

Curtis was arrested April 17 after coming to the attention of federal investigators. The ricin-laced letters had closed with the sentence “I am KC and I approve this message” — language very similar to that in letters Curtis previously had written to public officials. Phrases in the ricin letters also matched those on Curtis’s Facebook page.

Investigators had no other evidence against him, according to the FBI affidavit and court testimony. At a hearing a week later, after prosecutors unsuccessfully asked to keep him under house arrest and again tried to postpone the hearing, Curtis was released and charges of threatening the president and other elected officials by mailing ricin-laced letters were dropped.

On Saturday, the second suspect, James Everett Dutschke, was arrested at his home and accused of making ricin and placing it in letters he sent to Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland of Mississippi’s Lee County. Dutschke, who faces a life sentence if convicted, pleaded not guilty this week to a charge of attempting to use a biological weapon.

Conflicting evidence

Even as federal investigators were asking for the psychiatric evaluation of Curtis and the continuance, they knew of evidence suggesting that Dutschke was behind the ricin-laced letters, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed Tuesday.

Curtis and Dutschke have a long-running dispute, and Curtis had accused Dutschke of trying to frame him in the ricin case.

Two days after Curtis was arrested, FBI agents found a witness who told them that Dutschke, a martial-arts instructor and former insurance salesman, had boasted about his ability to manufacture “poison.” He discussed placing it in envelopes and sending it to elected officials and said that “whoever opened the envelopes containing the poison would die,” the affidavit said.

On April 22, FBI agents watched Dutschke discard a coffee grinder, a dust mask and latex gloves in a trash bin. The dust mask tested positive for ricin, and an agent said that the coffee grinder could have been used to extract the poison from castor beans, the affidavit said.

Despite the evidence pointing to Dutschke, one day later federal prosecutors asked that Curtis be placed under house arrest.

“We said, ‘No way,’ ” Neilson recalled. “We were smelling victory at that point. We said, ‘Drop the charges and let him go.’ ”

Curtis’s attorneys sent a letter this week to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI asking them to pay for temporary housing for Curtis and compensate him for damage to his home. FBI agents who searched his house one day after his arrest destroyed framed artwork created by his children, dumped garbage on the floor and tore at least one door from its hinges, making the home uninhabitable, his attorneys said.

Even if the damage was unavoidable as a result of a thorough search, federal authorities are legally required to fully compensate Curtis, according to Scott, the former Boca Raton police chief.

“The proper thing to do, the first moment you realize you have the wrong guy, would be to send over repair people to fix the damage,” he said. “It’s a black eye for law enforcement to make a mistake like this and then to not try to immediately make it right.”

Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

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