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Latest Ricin News Puts Hill Back on Edge

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Wicker, the target of one of the ricin laced letters sent to the Senate, said he can’t comment on the ongoing investigation into who sent the letters.

Six days ago, law enforcement officers told the congressional community that officials had arrested a suspect in connection with a ricin-laced letter mailed to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer both praised in-house investigators and officers, who they said did the brunt of the work in identifying and apprehending Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss.

And the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi said in a statement, “The public should be assured that the threat of danger has been averted.”

They might have spoken too soon.

On Tuesday, Curtis was released from custody and the U.S. attorney overseeing the case moved to dismiss the case against him.

In statement outside the courthouse, Curtis said, “I’d like to thank Sen. Wicker for his kind words about me in the press and I have always felt he was a good and honest man.” Wicker had previously hired Curtis in his capacity as an Elvis impersonator.

Federal agents now have a new suspect in J. Everett Dutschke, a Tupelo, Miss., resident and taekwondo studio proprietor who has faced previous allegations of child molestation and who once ran for a seat in the Mississippi House on the Republican ticket.

Curtis’ attorneys argue that Dutschke might have framed their client. The two have an adversarial relationship, sources say. And, it would explain why Lee County Judge Sadie Holland was targeted with a contaminated letter along with Wicker and President Barack Obama; she is the mother of state Democratic Rep. D. Stephen Holland, whom Dutschke challenged in 2007.

The bewildering turn of events suggests that some other perpetrator has been at large for nearly a week. The news that a credible suspect had been caught had a great deal of effect in settling rattled nerves on Capitol Hill last week.

Capitol Police spokesman Shennell Antrobus declined to comment, as the investigation is ongoing. Gainer told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon that Curtis’ release didn’t change the fact that members, staffers and visitors are still safe.

“Our Capitol community should be aware that all mail is being screened, as it was when our mail technicians intercepted the first letter before it ever reach[ed] the Senator,” Gainer wrote in an email. “They should not feel at risk, we have their backs.”

Whether news of Curtis’ release at all contradicts or undercuts the “mission accomplished” sentiment of statements late last week, Gainer said this wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“In the criminal justice system, as I have experienced over these 45 years in law enforcement, an arrestee is eligible for bail, including one’s own recognizance after charging. I believe that is the case here,” Gainer said earlier in the day, before Curtis was effectively cleared. “At this point, I am not privy to the prosecutorial strategy. The investigation is continuing, again a normal process even when an arrest is made.”

The contaminated letters were discovered in the days immediately following the Boston Marathon bombings. Only later was it revealed that they were postmarked on April 8, making the timing of their arrival a sheer coincidence.

But fears that the ricin mailings could possibly be linked to the Boston attacks were enough to put an already anxious Washington over the edge, particularly when other suspicious packages arrived at members’ offices last week.

One might imagine there would be anger and frustration that the investigation, which one appeared as good as closed, is now ongoing.

In the meantime, Wicker was still being trailed by a security detail.

“I’ve been told not to comment,” Wicker said.

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