TUPELO — A Mississippi man appeared briefly in court today on a charge that he made a deadly poison that was sent in letters to President Barack Obama, a senator and a judge.
James Everett Dutschke was brought to federal court in Oxford wearing an orange jumpsuit with his hands shackled. The 41-year-old suspect said little during the brief hearing other than to answer the judge’s questions about whether he understood the charges against him. He said he did.
Dutschke’s arrest early Saturday on a charge of making and possessing ricin capped a week in which investigators initially zeroed in on a rival of Dutschke’s, then decided they had the wrong man. Dutschke has denied involvement in the mailing of the letters, saying he’s a patriot with no grudges against anyone.
The judge ordered Dutschke to remain jailed until a preliminary and detention hearing scheduled for Thursday. More details are likely to emerge at that hearing, when prosecutors have to show they have enough evidence to hold him.
An attorney from the public defender’s office appointed to represent Dutschke declined to comment after today’s hearing. Another attorney who had been representing Dutschke, Lori Nail Basham, no longer is.
Dutschke’s house, business and vehicles in Tupelo were searched last week, often by crews in hazardous materials suits, and he had been under surveillance.
He faces up to life in prison if convicted. A news release from federal authorities said Dutschke (pronounced DUHS’-kee) was charged with “knowingly developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring, acquiring, retaining and possessing a biological agent, toxin and delivery system, for use as a weapon, to wit: ricin.”
He already had legal problems. Earlier this month, he pleaded not guilty in state court to two child molestation charges involving three girls younger than 16. He also was appealing a conviction on a different charge of indecent exposure. He told The Associated Press last week that his lawyer told him not to comment on those cases.
The letters, which tests showed were tainted with ricin, were sent April 8 to Obama, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Mississippi judge Sadie Holland.
The first suspect accused by the FBI was Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, an Elvis impersonator. He was arrested on April 17 at his Corinth home, but the charges were dropped six days later and Curtis, who says he was framed, was released from jail.
The focus then turned to Dutschke, who has ties to the former suspect and the judge. Earlier in the week, as investigators searched his primary residence in Tupelo, Dutschke told the AP, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“I’m a patriotic American. I don’t have any grudges against anybody. … I did not send the letters,” Dutschke said.
Curtis’ attorney, Christi McCoy, said Saturday: “We are relieved but also saddened. This crime is nothing short of diabolical. I have seen a lot of meanness in the past two decades, but this stops me in my tracks.”
Some of the language in the letters was similar to posts on Curtis’ Facebook page and they were signed, “I am KC and I approve this message.” Curtis often used a similar online signoff.
Dutschke and Curtis were acquainted. Curtis said they had talked about possibly publishing a book on a conspiracy that Curtis insists he has uncovered to sell body parts on a black market. But he said they later had a feud.
Curtis’ attorneys have said they believe their client was set up. An FBI agent testified that no evidence of ricin was found in searches of Curtis’ home. Curtis attorney Hal Neilson said the defense gave authorities a list of people who may have had a reason to hurt Curtis and Dutschke’s came up.
Judge Holland also is a common link between the two men, and both know Wicker.
Holland was the presiding judge in a 2004 case in which Curtis was accused of assaulting a Tupelo attorney a year earlier. Holland sentenced him to six months in the county jail. He served only part of the sentence, according to his brother.
Holland’s family has had political skirmishes with Dutschke. Her son, Steve Holland, a Democratic state representative, said he thinks his mother’s only encounter with Dutschke was at a rally in the town of Verona in 2007, when Dutschke ran as a Republican against Steve Holland.
Holland said his mother confronted Dutschke after he made a derogatory speech about the Holland family. She demanded that he apologize, which Holland says he did.
Dutschke said Steve Holland exaggerated the incident, and that he has no problem with Sadie Holland. “Everybody loves Sadie, including me,” he said.
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