TOPICS > Politics

Search for Sender of Ricin Letters Turns Up Odd Twists, Echoes of Anthrax Case

April 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Federal investigators searched a home in Tupelo, Miss., in the hunt for who sent politicians letters tainted with ricin. Gwen Ifill talks to Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post and Marilyn Thompson of Reuters about strange twists in the investigation, including conflict between a karate teacher and an Elvis impersonator

GWEN IFILL: Now an update on the probe into a poison pen mystery.

Federal investigators swarmed a Tupelo, Miss., home last night, hunting for the sender of ricin-tainted letters mailed to government officials.

The home belongs to Everett Dutschke.

EVERETT DUTSCHKE, Resident of Mississippi: Everybody has something suspicious in their house, but, no, there is nothing that is related to these letters.

GWEN IFILL: Dutschke has not been arrested, and no charges have been filed. Last night’s search came after yesterday’s sudden twist, when a first suspect was released.

Without explanation, federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss. An FBI agent testified that a search of Curtis’ home found no evidence of the dangerous substance. Curtis, who was released yesterday evening, said he told investigators all along that he was innocent.

PAUL KEVIN CURTIS, Former Suspect: I respect President Obama. I love — love my country and would never do anything to pose a threat to him or any other U.S. official.

GWEN IFILL: But it turns out Curtis has some history with Dutschke, who once threatened to sue him. Dutschke, seen in this 2007 photo with Sen. Roger Wicker, one of the officials who received the poisoned letters, also maintains he didn’t mail them.

EVERETT DUTSCHKE: My family knows I didn’t have anything to do with this. The people that actually know me know I don’t have anything to do with this.

GWEN IFILL: The case bears some resemblance to the deadly anthrax mailings in 2001. Scientist Steven Hatfill was under suspicion in that case for six years.

STEVEN HATFILL, Biological Weapons Scientist: I am not the anthrax killer. I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime.

GWEN IFILL: The government later cleared Hatfill and paid him a five million dollar settlement. Another scientist, Bruce Ivins, emerged as the prime suspect, but killed himself after his name surfaced.

Now the turn of events in the ricin investigation has official Washington on edge again. There was a brief scare yesterday that another tainted package had turned up, but it turned out not to be true.

And for more on what investigators do and do not know about the ricin scare, we turn to Kimberly Kindy, who is covering the investigation for The Washington Post, and Marilyn Thompson, Washington bureau chief for Reuters and author of “The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed.”

I spoke with them a short time ago.

Welcome, Kimberly Kindy and Marilyn Thompson.

Kimberly, tell us what’s the latest we know on this, what’s turning into a very odd investigation.

KIMBERLY KINDY, The Washington Post: It is. That’s for sure.

Well, today, FBI went to the former karate studio of the person who they are now focused on who they are at least — we can say they are investigating, and that’s James Everett Dutschke. The bizarre twist kind of is for — that, yesterday, after they dropped charges against Kevin Curtis, he and his attorney actually pointed their finger at Mr. Dutschke and said that they thought he framed them.

Whether or not there’s other evidence out there that is causing them to focus on Mr. Dutschke, I talked to his attorney, and they said they are unaware of any other evidence that would have caused them to now be looking at him.

GWEN IFILL: But these two men have had some conflicts, we are given to understand.

KIMBERLY KINDY: Yes, according to Mr. Curtis, yes, according to Mr. Dutschke’s lawyer, no.

She said that her client says that there has not been any conflict or anger that she knows about. And she said that — her attorney said that the last time they were in contact with one another was in 2010. She said they have had three or four encounters with one another and that they are acquaintances.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know whether there is any — there have been any other searches or there’s anyone else who the spotlight has fallen, as the FBI and other institutions continue this investigation?

KIMBERLY KINDY: Not that we know of, just Mr. Dutschke at this point.

GWEN IFILL: Marilyn Thompson, does this ring a bell for you? You wrote a book about the search of the — the search for the anthrax killer. People actually died in that case back in 2001. And this seems the same in some ways, kind of poison pen letters sent to government officials. Is it the same, or is it different?

MARILYN THOMPSON, Reuters: Well, it has some similarities, Gwen.

It’s quite interesting to see the parallels and to try to examine what the FBI actually learned from the horrific events of 2001 about investigating this type of case. They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in beefing up their bioterror capabilities, and yet in many ways this really feels like the Keystone Cops out on the trail of an Elvis impersonator and a karate teacher. It’s a really bizarre criminal investigation.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s been 12 years since that case. Do we know that authorities have learned anything on how one begins to get to the bottom of these kinds of biological weapon — weaponization cases?

MARILYN THOMPSON: Well, what they should have learned in 2001 after a very rigorous, sophisticated investigation that took them all over the world was that the science of a bioterror agent is what can ultimately convict a criminal.

They spent, as I said, untold amounts of money getting to the bottom of what the anthrax really was. And, ultimately, using DNA fingerprints of the material, they were able to finger an exact vial in the Fort Detrick laboratories that happened to be in the possession of a scientist there, Bruce Ivins. And so they felt that they could then go to court with absolute certainty about what this material was, how lethal it was, and where it came from, which is very important in proving a criminal case.

GWEN IFILL: So it would have been impossible, for instance, for the first suspect to have had anything to do with this if there was no evidence of ricin either on his keyboard, anywhere in his home, anywhere at all?

KIMBERLY KINDY: Right. That’s exactly right.

And everyone that I’m talking to today who has watched the case that Marilyn knows so much about, the anthrax case, said that this is — they don’t understand why they didn’t learn precisely what Marilyn was just talking about. Look for evidence before you arrest somebody. Was there evidence? Apparently, there wasn’t. Much of what they were looking at, circumstantial, you know, the letters that referenced a book that he was writing, the fact that he was out there and talking a lot.

These are some of the same things that kind of tripped them up and led them to make a false arrest, a wrong arrest the last time around. So why didn’t they learn and hold back until they had true physical evidence before they made the arrest? That’s the big question that — everybody who’s watched the FBI over the years investigate these cases, that’s the question they’re asking.

GWEN IFILL: And, also, Kimberly, do we know whether — what do we know about the letter that was sent to the judge? We — everyone’s focused on the letter that was sent to the president, sent to Sen. Wicker. But do we know whether anyone has been able to point the finger at where that letter came from?

KIMBERLY KINDY: I do not have any information on that. They believe that it is from the same person, that it’s related. They just don’t obviously know exactly who it is.

Apparently, some of the same things that were referenced in the letter that went to the White House and the letter that went to Sen. Wicker very similar. But I do not have somebody saying that the sign-off, for instance, was, “This is K.C. and I approve this message,” things like that that led them to Kevin Curtis.

GWEN IFILL: Marilyn Thompson, is there any evidence that, in these cases, there is sometimes just pressure to get it done, to come up with a solution, especially with so many other — so much other nervousness around the world about the Boston bombing and other outstanding investigations?

MARILYN THOMPSON: There’s absolutely no question, Gwen, that these cases are fraught with political pressure, especially when the intended targets are members of Congress, the U.S. Senate, and the president of the United States.

The FBI, being a political agency itself, has to show and be held accountable on the Hill for every action they take in these cases. They go over regularly, as they did in the anthrax case, to brief members about the progress of their investigation. I’m sure they have talked with President Obama about it by this point.

They are under a lot of pressure to do something fast and show that they’re in control of the situation, no question.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I know you will — I know you will both be following what happens next.

Marilyn Thompson, author of “The Killer Strain,” at Reuters, now at Reuters, and Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post, thank you both so much.

MARILYN THOMPSON: Thank you, Gwen.