Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Federal investigators, some in hazmat suits, search Wednesday outside a retail space in Tupelo, Miss., where nearby business owners said Everett Dutschke used to operate a martial arts studio.

Peculiar pair's rivalry is at center of probe into ricin-laced letters

Published: Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 7A
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 - 7:07 am

TUPELO, Miss. – Paul Kevin Curtis and Everett Dutschke have a lot in common, though they would probably not like to think of it that way.

Both are musicians, both are interested in martial arts, both have irked friends and associates by their particular way of seeing the world. And in the past week, both have drawn the attention of the authorities in an increasingly bizarre but still-unsolved federal criminal case.

"I have told Kevin, 'You two are so much alike, you should be friends,' " said Curtis' former wife Laura. "It's very ironic these two men are in this situation. They are basically good men. It's a nightmare."

What initially appeared to be an odd if rather uncomplicated story – a conspiracy-minded Elvis impersonator mailing ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and a local judge – began to grow much stranger over the course of a federal hearing.

An FBI agent testified that physical evidence had not been found tying the letters to Curtis, who was arrested last week.

Curtis' lawyer, Christi McCoy, suggested that her client might have been framed. And on Tuesday, the charges against Curtis were dropped as the focus turned to Dutschke, 41, a martial arts instructor, sometime politician and, as of this year, a child molest suspect.

"My only response is what McCoy has done is dangerous and reckless and put my family at a great deal of risk," Dutschke said Tuesday.

Dutschke's lawyer said Wednesday that the FBI had searched his home and his now-shuttered martial arts studio, Tupelo Taekwondo Plus. Dutschke has not been charged.

While Curtis, 45, has battled mental illness and been in and out of jail on various misdemeanor charges, he rarely struck those who knew him as someone with hurtful intentions. A father of five, he worked in the late 1990s as a cleaner at the North Mississippi Medical Center. On Dec. 17, 1999, when he was mopping up a room, he says, he opened an industrial refrigerator to find frozen body parts.

"My whole world turned upside down," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Curtis was fired shortly afterward, and contends that his firing and all of his troubles since have come because he exposed what he claimed was an organ-harvesting scheme at the hospital.

That belief touched off a relentless one-man campaign, that culminated in a manuscript titled "Missing Pieces." The hospital, in a statement, rebutted his allegations, saying it "does not, nor has ever, sold 'body parts.' "

Those who know Dutschke described him as very intelligent if rather difficult and often haughty.

When he made his first court appearance earlier this year on charges that he had fondled three underage girls, he signed his appearance papers with a smiley face, said James Moore, a prosecutor in Tupelo.

In 2007, Dutschke entered a state legislative race as a Republican against a five-term incumbent, Rep. Steve Holland (whose mother, Judge Sadie Holland, was the addressee of one of the ricin letters).

"I knew he was going to get his brains kicked in when he ran," said Mike Maynard, the chairman of the Lee County Republican Club. "And he did." Maynard pointed out that Dutschke later ran for election commissioner – as a Democrat.

It was sometime in 2007, Curtis said, that he heard that somebody was asking around about him. He assumed it was a jealous husband.

"It's just one of those things with the music business," he said. "Lot of Elvis fans."

He said he learned that it was Dutschke, who at the time was putting out a local newsletter. Around the same time, at a Tupelo restaurant called Barnhill's Buffet, Curtis publicly challenged Dutschke to publish an article about his allegations about the hospital (Dutschke also described this confrontation in an interview with the Daily Journal of Tupelo.)

Several years later, Curtis said, they clashed again. This time it was over their music careers, after Dutschke started a band.

And when Curtis posted a fake Mensa certificate online, the online rebuke from Dutschke (an actual Mensa member) was seen by the Curtis family as so harsh that they approached a local lawyer to ask if they should take legal action.

Curtis continued to send rafts of emails to public officials about the hospital. He always signed them "I am KC and I approve this message" – as did whoever sent the ricin letters, who also referred to "Missing Pieces."

Then last week, at his house in Corinth, Miss., armed federal agents took him into custody and, according to Curtis' stepfather, tore his home apart in a search for evidence.

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