The longtime feud believed to be behind the ricin

Matthew Teague / Los Angeles Times /

Published Apr 29, 2013 at 05:00AM

TUPELO, Miss. — Federal agents of all sorts invaded northeast Mississippi several days ago, on a mission: Find the man who sent a poison-laced letter to the president. But the United States government quickly found itself entangled, once again, in a misunderstood land dominated by squabbling tribes and petty vengeances.

Agents first arrested an Elvis Presley impersonator, released him, and then on Saturday arrested his nemesis, a karate instructor. Gradually investigators concluded that what they had descended upon was probably less about the president — or the U.S. senator and retired state judge who also received letters — than a serious case of indigenous bickering.

That shocks no one here. “Tupelo is a kaleidoscope,” said sociologist Mark Franks, who grew up in nearby Booneville. There are true geniuses walking the streets of Tupelo, he said, and incredibly wealthy, generous people. But also, “every wall-eyed uncle and ‘yard cousin’ — just referencing the local pejorative — makes it into Tupelo, Miss. It creates a peculiar culture.”

So people in the area were not surprised when the FBI, Secret Service and other agencies showed up looking for whomever sent letters laced with ricin to President Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and retired Mississippi Judge Sadie Holland.

The agents quickly nabbed a man in nearby Corinth named Paul Kevin Curtis. He worked as an Elvis impersonator, spun wild conspiracies about the local hospital selling body parts and apparently signed the poisoned letters with his own initials.

But the FBI found no evidence of ricin in Curtis’ home and no incriminating research on his computer. They decided he hadn’t sent the letters after all and released him Tuesday. Within hours agents had raided the home of his archenemy: J. Everett Dutschke, karate instructor.

Curtis claimed Dutschke wanted to frame him. It wouldn’t be the first skirmish between Tupelo’s most famous son and a karate man. In 1973, several men climbed on stage during a concert by Presley. The singer felt threatened and fought the men, alongside his bodyguards. He felt sure the men had been sent by estranged wife Priscilla’s new boyfriend, his own nemesis: Mike Stone, karate instructor.

Curtis, 45, and Dutschke, 41, have intertwined for years, feuding over small-town grievances as labyrinthine and intricate as any global conspiracy. They met in 2005, and were friendly for a time. When he wasn’t teaching karate, Dutschke worked for Curtis’ brother Jack at an insurance office. Both men knew Wicker, and both had connections to the 80-year-old Holland.

It’s unclear at what moment the hostilities began, but a few years ago Curtis, who worked at the local hospital, developed a theory that doctors were harvesting organs to sell on the black market. He wrote a book about it called “Missing Pieces.” Dutschke published a local newsletter at the time, and after some negotiations apparently rejected Curtis’ writings.

There was the question, too, of who had the bigger intellect. Dutschke was a member of Mensa, the club for people with high IQs. A few years ago, Curtis posted a fake Mensa certificate on his Facebook page, which sent Dutschke into a rage. “I threatened to sue him for fraud for posting a Mensa certificate that is a lie,” Dutschke told Tupelo’s newspaper, the Daily Journal. “That certificate is a lie.”

“Aw, yeah. I don’t know why Kevin did that,” Curtis’ father, Jack, said recently in Cleveland, Miss. “These boys were just after each other.”

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