TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - Federal agents arrested a Mississippi martial arts instructor on Saturday following searches of his home and a former business as part of an investigation into ricin-laced letters sent to President Barack Obama and two other public officials.
Everett Dutschke, 41, was taken into custody by FBI agents at his Tupelo home early Saturday without incident, FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden said in a statement.
It was not immediately known if Dutschke has been charged in the ricin investigation.
Dutschke faces other charges related to an April 1 indictment for fondling three different children between ages 7 and 16, from 2007 to 2013, according to court records. He was released on $25,000 bond in that case.
U.S. prosecutors dropped charges on Tuesday against another Mississippi man, Elvis impersonator Kevin Curtis, who was released from jail after a search of his home in nearby Corinth revealed no incriminating evidence.
Prosecutors said at the time that the investigation had “revealed new information” but provided no details.
Dutschke’s attorney, Lori Basham, did not return calls seeking comment but she told Reuters earlier in the week that her client denied having anything to do with the ricin letters.
Agents from the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police, as well as members of an anti-terrorist response team from the Mississippi National Guard, some wearing hazardous material suits, had searched Dutschke’s home on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as the premises of a former martial arts studio Dutschke ran in the city.
Dutschke was cooperating with federal officials during the searches this week, the attorney said.
Agents in unmarked vehicles were stationed in streets surrounding Dutschke’s home on Friday afternoon and all evening. He was arrested at 12:50 a.m. CDT (0550 GMT), the FBI said.
Letters addressed to Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, and Democratic President Barack Obama were retrieved last week at off-site mail facilities before reaching their intended victims. A Mississippi state judge also received a ricin-laced letter.
The discovery added another layer of anxiety as authorities were already dealing with bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Ricin, which is made from castor beans, can be deadly to humans and is considered a potential terror weapon, particularly if refined into an aerosol form.
The case has brought extra scrutiny on the FBI almost 12 years after a 2001 letter-borne anthrax attack that killed five people and took seven years to solve. The anthrax investigation also came in the wake of a major attack in the United States- the September 11 hijackings.
Dutschke’s name first surfaced in a federal court hearing on Monday for Curtis where his attorney suggested her client had been framed by someone. She mentioned a running feud between Dutschke and Curtis, albeit over a number of seemingly petty issues.
Suspicion had originally fallen on Curtis because of wording contained in all three ricin letters.
“Maybe I have your attention now / Even if that means someone must die,” the letters read in part, according to the affidavit. The letters ended: “I am KC and I approve this message.”
The mention of “KC” led law enforcement officials to ask Wicker’s staff if they were aware of any constituents with those initials, and the focus of the investigation then turned to Curtis, according to an affidavit from the FBI and the Secret Service.
In 2007, Dutschke ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate against Stephen Holland, an incumbent Democratic state representative from the Tupelo area. Holland’s mother, Sadie, is the judge to whom one of the ricin-tainted letters was mailed this month.
During the state campaign Dutschke produced a video titled “The Aliens are Coming,” attacking his opponent for being soft on immigration, which stated that Holland was a “friend” of the September 11 hijackers.
Dutschke has told local media that he knew Curtis but had only had contact with him three times, and not since 2010.
Curtis, 45, told the Northeastern Mississippi Daily Journal that he believed Dutschke deliberately sabotaged his career as a performer by calling sponsors and telling them about Curtis’ numerous prior arrests. “I lost 12 really big shows in 2011 and eight in 2012 directly linked to him,” Curtis told the newspaper.
Curtis’s brother and fellow Elvis impersonator, insurance agent Jack Curtis, worked for a time with Dutschke and says he believes the feud with Dutschke is related to his brother’s efforts to publicize allegations about a black market for body parts at a local Mississippi hospital.
Kevin Curtis was fired as a janitor from North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo after raising questions about body parts he said he observed there. The hospital strongly denied the allegations.
Curtis asked Dutschke’s help in getting a book he had written published, titled “Missing Pieces,” but Dutschke said he turned him down.
Curtis told local media that he later suspected Dutschke of stalking him on the Internet. He put up a fake certificate on his Facebook page claiming to be a member of the high-IQ society, Mensa, to see if Dutschke was monitoring his posts. It worked and Dutschke fired off an angry message to Curtis accusing him of lying.
The American chapter of Mensa confirmed that Dutschke was a member of its organization between 2008 and 2012. It said it had no record of Curtis ever being a member.
One of Dutschke’s alleged child molestation victims was 7 years old at the time and was a female student in his tae kwon do class, court documents show.
Dutschke was released on bond with instructions to have no contact with the victims or victims’ families or to be around any children other than his family. He was also instructed to remain in the state within a restricted area. (Additional reporting by Emily Lane in Jakcson, Mississippi; Writing by David Adams; Editing by Bill Trott)