By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – An FBI special agent testified Thursday against a Tupelo man accused of sending poison-laden letters to at least three elected officials.
During the 2 1/2 hour hearing, Stephen E. Thomason told U.S. Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander why former martial arts instructor James Everett Dutschke, 41, should be held and allegations against him turned over to a grand jury.
In the end, that’s exactly what Alexander did.
“The seminal moment” that changed the investigation to Dutschke, Thomason testified, was after he left his karate studio, drove about 100 yards and discarded items into a trash can. The FBI claims it retrieved an empty box of a coffee grinder, a blue dust mask, a near-empty box of latex gloves and a small white bucket.
FBI lab analysis of swabs taken at the studio confirmed the presence of ricin, a deadly poison made from castor beans.
Authorities suggest the ricin in the letters could be made by processing castor beans in a coffee grinder. Investigators continue to look for it and information about its purchase.
During the preliminary hearing:
• The government raised questions in an apparent attempt to explain why it held its first suspect, Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, of Corinth, with no evidence against him while Dutschke was under surveillance.
• Dutschke’s DNA was found on the dust mask retrieved near the karate studio, Thomason said. Analysts continue to try to identify what he termed “secondary DNA” on it.
• Thomason said a third shipment of castor beans to Dutschke was reported to him shortly before court, and a new search was undertaken at a Lee County address where Dutschke is believed to have taken “a bag” of items, including a computer printer.
Later Thursday, the FBI in Jackson confirmed a Dutschke-related search at a Traceview Lane home just northwest of where Barnes Crossing Road meets North Gloster.
George Lucas, Dutschke’s public defender, waived a hearing on bond, but said he reserved the right to bring it up later.
Lucas also insisted to Alexander that the government failed to show the “suspicious substance” in the letters was dangerous.
“True, no one died,” Thomason responded. “It’s ricin, it’s dangerous.”
Dutschke, 41, was arrested about 12:50 a.m. Saturday at his South Canal Street home after multiple interviews and surveillance from law enforcement.
His name came up from Curtis’ family and attorneys when authorities asked who might want to frame the Elvis tribute artist after no link with ricin or the letters turned up.
Curtis was released and charges dismissed six days after his April 17 arrest. He said he and Dutschke feuded over the Internet for years. Each tells a different story about why.
On the stand, Thomason admitted Dutschke’s investigation began during Curtis’ preliminary hearing late Friday, April 19. The hearing resumed the following Monday when Dutschke went under surveillance.
Tuesday, the court unsealed Thomason’s multi-page sworn statement laying out why the government claims Dutschke is the one who mailed the poison letters from Tupelo in early April to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, President Barack Obama and Lee County Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland.
In that affidavit, Thomason also said the investigation turned up eBay orders for castor bean seeds, computer downloads of publications about ricin and materials similar to the poison letters.
If he is indicted and convicted, Dutschke faces life in prison. The grand jury will convene in a few days.