Evidence on Current Ricin Suspect Starts to Pile Up

Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:49pm

Federal authorities conceded two weeks ago that they had arrested the wrong man in connection with mailing ricin-laced letters to public officials, among them Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

And now that new evidence has been released, it appears the authorities have a stronger basis for the suspect they currently have in custody for the crime.

In his sworn affidavit made public Tuesday afternoon for the first time, FBI Special Agent Stephen E. Thomason confirmed April 26 that the current suspect, James Everett Dutschke, left behind traces of ricin and ricin production materials in the two taekwondo studios he used to operate out of Tupelo, Miss.

The presence of the poisonous substance in Dutschke’s properties is the kind of evidence prosecutors could not provide when seeking to implicate their first suspect, Corinth, Miss., native Paul Kevin Curtis. The ricin-contaminated envelopes were sent to Wicker, President Barack Obama and Lee County Judge Sadie Holland.

Thomason’s eight-page affidavit provides a great deal of the backstory leading up to Dutschke’s arrest, including details relating to the content of the three letters and the information that led law enforcement officers to believe Curtis was responsible. Curtis was arrested April 17.

Agents’ attention refocused on Dutschke, however, when Curtis, backed up by others, suggested he might have been framed by Dutschke, a longtime adversary with whom he had a contentious relationship that had gradually “manifested itself in e-mail traffic and social media postings.”

Even before Curtis was cleared April 23, officers were starting to see that they might be able to substantiate suspicions about Dutschke. According to the affidavit, law enforcement agents interviewed a witness April 19 who said that “years ago, Dutschke told [her] that he could manufacture a ‘poison’  . . .  that he could place the poison in envelopes and send them to elected officials  . . .  [and] made reference to having ‘a secret knowledge’ for ‘getting rid of people in office.’”

On April 22, Thomason continued, FBI and Mississippi Office of Homeland Security agents recovered a trash receptacle from outside Dutschke’s residence and found “different types of yellow paper, address labels, and a dust mask.” The paper and labels seemed to match those used to send the contaminated letters to Wicker, Obama and Holland.

Later that same day, Dutschke told FBI agents that he had to go into his former business, Tupelo Taekwondo Plus, to “recover a fire extinguisher, a mop, and a bucket he left at the location.” He was under surveillance by law enforcement officials, however, and was followed in his car “approximately 100 yards,” where he was “observed discarding several items through the window of the vehicle into a public garbage receptacle.”

The officials removed the discarded items and found “the box for a Black and Decker Smart Grind coffee grinder, a box containing latex gloves, a dust mask, and an empty bucket of floor adhesive.”

“Based on my training and experience, I know that a coffee bean grinder could be utilized in the process of extracting ricin from castor beans,” Thomason continued in his sworn statement.

On April 24, agents searched another one of Dutschke’s former studios, wherein they removed drain traps from two rooms and took swabs from multiple locations throughout the building, Thomason reported.

All of the items and swabs taken in the two studios tested positive for ricin. Agents also found records indicating Dustchke had ordered castor bean seeds through eBay late last year. Castor beans are the source material for ricin, which can be deadly, especially when inhaled.

In hindsight, officials could have surmised back in January that Dutschke was up to something. On Jan. 18, pursuant to his arrest on state charges of child molestation, his computer and hard drives were subject to a full search by police. At that time, officers uncovered two publications downloaded on Dec. 31, 2012: One was called, “Standard Operating Procedure for Ricin,” and the other, “Immunochromatography Detection of Ricin in Environmental and Biological Samples.”

Dutschke was arrested April 27 and is scheduled to appear in an Oxford, Miss., courthouse on Thursday morning.