Footnote to the News (1): Missing Pieces in Mississippi

Anyone who doubts that history repeats itself has not been paying attention to the news this past week. If you recall, in 2001, as all attention seemed to be focused on the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, letters containing anthrax started showing up at the offices of newspapers and U.S. Senators. This week, as all attention was focused on the carnage at the Boston Marathon and then the identification and the pursuit of the suspected terrorists, letters containing ricin started showing up at the offices of U.S. Senators.

In the 2001 case, investigators seemed for half a decade to be singularly focused on bioweapons scientist Steven J. Hatfill without ever being able to make their case against him. Then their attention suddenly shifted to a bacteriologist named Bruce E. Ivins. After Ivins committed suicide by a drug overdose, law enforcement made public their case that he had been responsible for mailing the anthrax and for the illnesses and deaths that had resulted. He had some history of carrying grudges and making murderous threats. Nonetheless, there are many who remain very unconvinced that Ivins was, in fact, the perpetrator of those crimes.

Despite the sinister posthumous characterization of Ivins, the anthrax case involved pretty run-of-the-mill characters when compared to the ongoing ricin case.

The first suspect, Paul Kevin Curtis, has made the exposure of a secret traffic in human body parts something close to his life’s mission. This obsession has funneled into a novel-in-progress with the title Missing Pieces. Although he has been cleared as a suspect in the ricin case, Curtis has reportedly been arrested four times since 2000 on various charges, including online harassment. He is an Elvis impersonator, and he has a dog named Moo Cow that for a time went missing while Homeland Security was executing a warrant to search Cutis’ home.

The new suspect, James Everette Dutschke, is a martial arts instructor. In January of this year, he was charged with two counts of child molestation, and according to news reports, he has previous convictions for indecent exposure. Nonetheless, in 2007, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Curtis and Dutschke are well acquainted, and they chronicled the deterioration of their relationship in a series of e-mails that authorities have recovered and secured. Apparently, they almost came to blows after Curtis claimed to be a member of Mensa. Dutschke has long claimed to be a member of Mensa and threatened to sue Curtis for making a false claim that damaged the reputation of the group.

So the theory seems to be now that Dutschke may have tried to frame Curtis for the ricin mailings in order to exact some sort of revenge.

I suspect, however, that law enforcement very quickly doubted that Curtis was a viable suspect when during their interrogation they asked him about mailing ricin in some letters. He apparently misheard the accusation as “mailing rice in some letters.” And, as he afterwards explained to reporters, he told his interrogators, “I don’t even eat rice.”

Perhaps I have simply been overwhelmed by the seemingly endless news reports and speculation about the Tsarnaev brothers, but I find these two guys from Mississippi more fascinating.

By the way, Curtis was interrogated in Oxford, where William Faulkner lived and wrote, and both men have lived and worked—for a time at the same insurance agency—in Tupelo, most famous for being Elvis’ birthplace.

It’s almost more than the Southern gothic tradition can contain.

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