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The 48-hour whirlwind of mild panic on Capitol Hill subsided Thursday, but not before taking a turn for the absurd when the suspect arrested in connection with mailing ricin-laced envelopes to President Barack Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker was revealed to have been an Elvis impersonator that the Mississippi Republican had employed years before.
Even as lawmakers and law enforcement officials took a collective deep breath, there was a lot to process.
The backstory of the suspect in custody, 45-year-old Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss., revealed a colorful character of questionable psychological stability. Adding an almost unbelievable bent to the story was the news that Wicker and his wife had hired Curtis as an Elvis impersonator for an event years ago.
“My impression is that since that time, he’s had mental issues and perhaps is not as stable as he was back then,” Wicker mused.
In fact, court documents show that Curtis’ ex-wife reported to a local police department in 2007 that he was “extremely delusional, anti-government, and felt the government was spying on him with drones.”
New evidence and information tamped down speculation that the ricin letters had any connection with the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon; court records show that the envelopes were postmarked April 8. Also, none of the suspicious letters received by the state offices of Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., tested positive for hazardous materials, both lawmakers confirmed, even though they appeared to fit the description of the envelope received by Wicker.
There was still some confusion Thursday, as some media outlets sought to advance the story with reports that the substance in Wicker’s letter had only just been officially verified as poisonous. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer stressed to CQ Roll Call that tests by Capitol Police and by a private laboratory confirmed by Tuesday that the material in the letter was indeed deadly ricin.
“We did our field test, we did our lab test, it was ricin,” he said. “It was a deadly version. It may not have been weaponized, it may not have been a lot of it ... but it will kill you.”
The FBI on Thursday confirmed the presence of ricin.
It’s been somewhat of a challenge for Gainer, the notoriously loquacious chief law enforcement officer for the chamber, to keep people informed of unsettling events while also trying to reinforce a sense of reality.
“A series of unrelated incidents — the bombing in Boston; ricin discovered in mail by our postal personnel; another letter, of similar content intercepted, but intended for the President; the capture of a man with a gun on the east front [Tuesday]; and the information that suspect packages in a few state offices — contributed to a bit of anxiety,” Gainer wrote in a Wednesday night memo.
The Hart and Russell Senate Office buildings were shut down for part of Wednesday as Capitol Police investigated “suspicious packages.” Scared staffers clamored for more information that couldn’t be immediately provided and reporters on deadline added fuel to the fire.
“Our media partners, bless their inquisitive hearts, were also doing their jobs as they too were trying to get it right,” Gainer wrote to the Senate community. “You were flooded with much information of mixed value, which sometimes doesn’t seem quite sufficient.
“The bottom line of this multifaceted event was a positive one,” he continued. “The packages were not dangerous; they contained nothing hazardous; and the person of interest was, while interesting, not particularly harmful although terribly disruptive. He was admonished but released. (This is the price of an open campus).”
But, Gainer concluded, “Failure to discover the suspect package can be catastrophic. After this week, is there any question of that?”
There were reasons to be antsy. Ricin is, after all, a deadly substance.
And in a sworn affidavit by FBI Special Agent Brandon M. Grant, it was revealed that the letter Curtis sent to Wicker was threatening.
“No one wanted to listen to me before,” reads the note, according to Grant’s statement. The message is arranged much like a poem, with line breaks, and is at times lacking punctuation. “There are still ‘Missing Pieces’/Maybe I have your attention now/Even if that means someone must die./This must stop./To see a wrong and not expose it,/is to become a silent partner to its continuance/I am KC and I approve this message.”
Curtis was scheduled to appear at the U.S. District Courthouse in Oxford, Miss., on Thursday and is facing charges of “knowingly depositing for conveyance in the mail and for delivery from any post office any letter, paper, writing or document containing threats to take the life of or inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States” and “knowingly depositing and causing to be delivered by the Postal Service according to the directions thereon, communications addressed to other persons, and containing a threat to injure the person of others.”
If convicted, Curtis will face maximum possible penalties of 15 years imprisonment, $500,000 in fines and three years of supervised release.
Daniel Newhauser and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.