A Mississippi man accused of mailing letters with suspected ricin to national leaders believed he had uncovered a conspiracy to sell human body parts on the black market and claimed "various parties within the government" were trying to ruin his reputation.
Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, is charged with threatening President Barack Obama and others, according to a Thursday news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Curtis made a brief court appearance Thursday, wearing shackles and a Johnny Cash T-shirt. Attorney Christi R. McCoy said he "maintains 100 percent" that he is innocent. He did not enter pleas to the two federal charges against him — charges that could put in prison for up to 15 years if he is convicted. He is due back in court Friday afternoon.
An affidavit says the letters sent to Obama, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and a judge in Mississippi told the recipients: "Maybe I have your attention now even if that means someone must die."
On Thursday, the FBI said that further laboratory testing had confirmed the presence of ricin in the letters Curtis is accused of sending, after initial lab tests had shown some levels of the poison but given inconclusive results. Further forensic testing is still being conducted, NBC News reported Thursday.
Curtis was arrested Wednesday at his home in Corinth, near the Tennessee state line. He was being held in the Lafayette County jail in Oxford, Miss.
Curtis had been living in Corinth, a city of about 14,000 in extreme northeastern Mississippi, since December, but local police had not had any contact with him prior to his arrest, Corinth Police Department Capt. Ralph Dance told The Associated Press on Thursday. Dance said the department aided the FBI during the arrest and that Curtis did not resist being taken into custody. Since Curtis arrived in the town, he had been living in "government housing," Dance said. He did not elaborate.
Police maintained a perimeter Thursday around Curtis' home, and federal investigators were expected to search the house later in the morning, said local officers on the scene who declined to be identified. Four men who appeared to be investigators were in the neighborhood to speak to neighbors. There didn't appear to be any hazardous-material crews, and no neighbors were evacuated.
An FBI intelligence bulletin obtained by NBC News said the two letters were postmarked Memphis, Tenn., on April 8. Both letters said: "To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance." Both were signed, "I am KC and I approve this message."
The letters had Washington on edge in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing. As authorities scurried to investigate three questionable packages discovered in Senate office buildings Wednesday, reports of suspicious items also came in from at least three senators' offices in their home states. The items were found to be harmless.
In addition, a Mississippi state lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, said Wednesday night that his 80-year-old mother, Lee County Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland, received a threatening letter last week with a substance that has been sent to a lab for testing. He said this letter was also signed "K.C."
"She opened it herself" on April 11 and told Holland about it three days later, Holland said.
He said she had not been to the doctor, but he planned to take her Thursday.
"She's fine," Holland said. "She's had no symptoms."
Curtis was described Thursday as a good father, a quiet neighbor and an entertainer who impersonated Elvis at parties. But accounts also show a man who spiraled into emotional turmoil trying to get attention for his claims of uncovering a conspiracy to sell body parts on the black market.
He detailed in numerous Web posts over the past several years the event that he said "changed my life forever": the chance discovery of body parts and organs wrapped in plastic in small refrigerator at a hospital where he worked as a janitor more than a decade ago.
He tried to talk to officials and get the word out online, but he thought he was being railroaded by the government. Authorities say the efforts culminated in letters sent to Obama, Wicker and Judge Holland.
"He is bipolar, and the only thing I can say is he wasn't on his medicine," his ex-wife, Laura Curtis, told The Associated Press.
Jim Waide, an attorney for the Curtis family, said Paul Kevin Curtis was prescribed medication three years ago. "When he is on his medication, he is terrific, he's nice, he's functional," Waide said. "When he's off his medication, that's when there's a problem."
Waide represented Curtis in a lawsuit he filed in August 2000 against North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, where he had worked from 1998 until he was fired in 2000. Waide said he withdrew from the case because Curtis didn't trust him. The suit, claiming employment discrimination, was dismissed.
"He thought I was conspiring against him," Waide said. "He thinks everybody is out to get him."
In several letters to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, and other officials, Curtis said he was writing a novel about black market body parts called "Missing Pieces."
Curtis also had posted language similar to the letters on his Facebook page. The documents indicate Curtis had been distrustful of the government for years. In 2007, Curtis' ex-wife called police in Booneville, Miss., to report that her husband was extremely delusional, anti-government and felt the government was spying on him with drones.
But Laura Curtis said Thursday that she doesn't believe the allegations about her ex-husband. "He just likes to speak out," she said.
"What they say he did is so unlike him, it's unreal," she added. "Until I hear him say he did it, I would not, I would not, I could not believe it."
During their 10-year marriage, the couple lived in Booneville in north Mississippi. Curtis said she moved to a house next door after the split. Her ex-husband moved to Birmingham but eventually back to Mississippi, most recently the small town of Corinth, where he was arrested Wednesday. Laura Curtis said he would visit their four children — ages, 8, 16, 18 and 20 — almost every day. He recently bought his youngest child a bicycle, she said.
But others say Curtis' behavior was often erratic.
Curtis and his brother worked as Elvis impersonators, and David Daniels, an attorney in Tupelo, said Curtis was in a show he helped organize about 10 years ago. He said that while he had no problems with Curtis' brother, he had an altercation with the man now suspected of mailing threats to three officials.
Daniels said was sitting in his vehicle one night after rehearsal when Curtis walked up. "He started beating on the windows and screaming and hollering," Daniels said. "I thought he was kidding, but he was serious. He was throwing a fit like I've never seen a grown man throw before."
Daniels said Curtis was holding a beer bottle and threatening him with it. Daniels said he pointed the pistol he kept in his car at Curtis. "I told him, 'If you try to hit me with that bottle, Kevin, I'm going to shoot you,'" Daniels said.
But he said Curtis stayed by the vehicle for as long as 15 minutes. "He was screaming and ranting and raving about body parts being sold," Daniels said.
Daniels eventually filed simple assault charges, and he said the judge who handled the case was Sadie Holland — one of the three people who received a letter suspected of containing ricin, according to authorities. Records show she sentenced Daniels to six months in the county jail.
Daniels was an assistant district attorney at the time of the encounter with Curtis. "He launched a smear campaign against me, saying I attacked him and tried to shoot him," Daniels said Thursday.
"It made my life miserable for almost two years, having to deal with this guy," he said.
On Thursday, North Mississippi Medical Center confirmed Curtis' employment and said in a statement he was not terminated in response to allegations about the facility.
Under the name Kevin Curtis, multiple online posts describe the conspiracy Curtis claimed to uncover when working there. The posts say the conspiracy began when he "discovered a refrigerator full of dismembered body parts & organs wrapped in plastic in the morgue of the largest non-metropolitan health care organization in the United States of America."
The hospital's statement says it works with an agency that specializes in harvesting organs and tissue from donors, and then immediately transports those organs for donation. The hospital says it does not receive payment for the donated organs.
Curtis wrote in his postings that he was trying to "expose various parties within the government, FBI, police departments" for what he believed was "a conspiracy to ruin my reputation in the community as well as an ongoing effort to break down the foundation I worked more than 20 years to build in the country music scene."
In one post, Curtis said he sent letters to Wicker and other politicians.
"I never heard a word from anyone. I even ran into Roger Wicker several different times while performing at special banquets and fundraisers in northeast, Mississippi but he seemed very nervous while speaking with me and would make a fast exit to the door when I engaged in conversation..."
Wicker said Thursday in Washington that he had met Curtis when he was working as Elvis at a party Wicker and his wife helped throw for an engaged couple about 10 years ago.
Wicker called him "quite entertaining" but said: "My impression is that since that time he's had mental issues and perhaps is not as stable as he was back then."
Early Thursday evening, the FBI said lab tests have confirmed the presence of ricin in the letters mailed to Obama and Wicker. Holland's son, Mississippi state Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, said the letter sent to the judge was being tested.
Raymond Zilinskas, a chemical and biological weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, called the process to make ricin elaborate. She said it would not be difficult to create a low-concentration version using instructions from the Internet, but a finer and more concentrated version would require laboratory equipment and expertise, she said.
Laura Curtis said she doesn't think her ex-husband has the knowledge required to make ricin. She said he collects a monthly disability check, and she did not know where he would get ricin.
She said she cried when she heard about the arrest.
"It's more sinking in today, because you see the longer picture," Curtis said. "It's just me and the kids."