By Robbie Ward
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - A Mississippi martial arts instructor was charged on Saturday with attempting to use a biological weapon after a ricin-laced letter was sent to President Barack Obama earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice said.
Everett Dutschke, 41, was arrested at his Tupelo home shortly after midnight by FBI agents following searches of the residence and a former business as part of the ricin letter investigation.
He was later charged with "developing ... and possessing" ricin and "attempting" to use it "as a weapon," according to a joint statement by the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Mississippi and the head of the FBI's Mississippi office.
Ricin is a highly lethal poison made from castor beans.
If convicted, Dutschke faces maximum possible penalties of life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
His arrest came several days after U.S. prosecutors dropped charges in the case on Tuesday against another Mississippi man, Kevin Curtis, who was released from jail after a search of his home revealed no incriminating evidence.
Dutschke's name first surfaced when Curtis' attorney suggested in a court hearing that her client had been framed by someone, and mentioned a running feud between Dutschke and Curtis.
Saturday's announcement did not specify if Dutschke was being charged in relation to the ricin letters, but it noted that the investigation had been conducted by several federal agencies including the U. S. Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Capitol Police.
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.
Dutschke is expected to appear in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Mississippi, on Monday.
Federal agents initially targeted Curtis, an Elvis impersonator, in their efforts to find who sent the letters laced with ricin.
Letters addressed to Obama and Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, were retrieved last week at off-site mail facilities before reaching their intended victims. A Mississippi state judge also received a ricin-laced letter.
Discovery of the letters fueled more national anxiety in the days after the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
The case also brought extra scrutiny for the FBI almost 12 years after a 2001 letter-borne anthrax attack that killed five people and puzzled investigators for years. The anthrax investigation came in the wake of the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks on the United States.
Federal agents in unmarked vehicles were stationed in streets surrounding Dutschke's home on Friday afternoon and all evening.
Agents from the FBI and members of an anti-terrorist response team from the Mississippi National Guard, some wearing hazardous material suits, had searched the 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, his attorney said.
Suspicion had originally fallen on Curtis because of wording contained in all three ricin letters, which included his initials "KC."
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.
Dutschke, who fronted a two-man blues band in Tupelo called RoboDrum, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate in 2007 against Stephen Holland, a 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.
Curtis's brother and fellow Elvis impersonator, insurance agent Jack Curtis, worked for a time with Dutschke and said he believed the feud with Dutschke was 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.
Dutschke faces other charges related to an April 1 indictment for fondling three children between ages 7 and 16, from 2007 to 2013, according to court records.
The FBI said on Thursday that more tests may be necessary to determine the potency of a granular material identified as ricin contained in the letters.
An FBI agent testified in court in Mississippi that the ricin found in the letters was in a crude form and looked like castor beans ground up in a blender, according to media accounts. Experts have said ricin in that form would have a low potency.
Castor bean plants are grown as ornamental shrubs in the Southern United States, but there is no domestic castor oil production and it is mostly imported from India and China.
Milton Leitenberg, senior research scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at the University of Maryland, said the vast majority of ricin cases since the 1960s had involved crude ricin preparations made from recipes published in manuals and on the Internet.
"You could ingest this crude stuff, swallow a couple of tablespoons and you'd probably vomit, but not much more," Leitenberg said in a telephone interview.
A material like that described in the ricin court hearing would pose little danger, Leitenberg said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Lane in Jackson, Mississippi, Marilyn W. Thompson and Susan Cornwell in Washingon; Writing by David Adams; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney)