Share story

TUPELO, Miss. — Paul Kevin Curtis and James Everett Dutschke have a lot in common, though they would probably not like to think of it that way.

Both are musicians, both are interested in martial arts, both have irked friends and associates by their particular way of seeing the world. And in the past week, both have drawn the attention of the authorities in an increasingly bizarre but still-unsolved federal criminal case.

“I have told Kevin, ‘You two are so much alike, you should be friends,’ ” said Curtis’ former wife, Laura. “It’s very ironic these two men are in this situation. They are basically good men. It’s a nightmare.”

What initially appeared to be an odd but relatively straightforward story — a conspiracy-minded Elvis impersonator mailing ricin-laced letters to President Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and a local judge — began to unravel over the course of a federal hearing.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

An FBI agent testified that physical evidence had not been found tying the letters to Curtis, who was arrested last Wednesday.

Curtis’ lawyer, Christi McCoy, suggested her client might have been framed. And on Tuesday, the charges against Curtis were dropped as the focus turned to Dutschke, 41, a martial-arts instructor, sometime politician and, as of this year, a suspected child molester.

“My only response is what McCoy has done is dangerous and reckless and put my family at a great deal of risk,” Dutschke said.

Dutschke’s lawyer said Wednesday that the FBI had searched his home and his now-shuttered martial-arts studio, Tupelo Taekwondo Plus. Dutschke has not been charged. Investigators in gas masks, gloves and plastic suits emerged from the business carrying five-gallon buckets full of items covered in large plastic bags. Once outside, others started spraying their protective suits with some sort of mist.

Dutschke was seen outside the studio observing the search.

Dutschke’s attorney, Lori Nail Basham, said he is “cooperating fully” with investigators.

While Curtis, 45, has battled mental disorders and been in and out of jail on various misdemeanor charges, he rarely struck those who knew him as someone with hurtful intentions. A father of five, he worked in the late 1990s as a cleaner at the North Mississippi Medical Center. On Dec. 17, 1999, when he was mopping up a room, he says, he opened an industrial refrigerator to find frozen body parts.

“My whole world turned upside down,” he said Wednesday.

Curtis was fired shortly afterward, and contends his firing and all of his troubles since have come because he exposed what he claimed was an organ-harvesting scheme at the hospital.

That belief touched off a relentless one-man campaign, which culminated in a manuscript, “Missing Pieces.” The hospital, in a statement, rebutted his accusations, saying it “does not, nor has ever, sold ‘body parts.’ ”

Curtis’ marriage fell apart. Relatives tried, not always successfully, to keep him on medication for bipolar disorder.

“When he’s well, he loves to do things and keeps himself busy,” said his stepfather, Edward Harmen. When he is not, “there are pages and pages written on the computer.”

Until he began receiving disability payments, Curtis supported himself performing, mostly as Elvis, who was born in Tupelo, but also as Conway Twitty, Prince, Roy Orbison and others. He and his brother, Jack, would sometimes perform as a duo: Jack playing the Las Vegas-era Elvis and Kevin the younger one.

In 2007, Curtis met Dutschke. Dutschke had been working in a Tupelo insurance office that Jack Curtis managed.

Those who know Dutschke described him as intelligent if difficult and often haughty. When he made his first court appearance this year on charges that he had fondled three underage girls, he signed his appearance papers with a smiley face, said James Moore, a prosecutor in Tupelo.

In 2007, Dutschke entered a state legislative race as a Republican against a five-term incumbent, Rep. Steve Holland (whose mother, Judge Sadie Holland, was the addressee of one of the ricin letters). Dutschke later ran for election commissioner — as a Democrat.

It was in 2007, Curtis said, that he heard that somebody was asking around about him. He assumed it was a jealous husband. “It’s just one of those things with the music business,” he said. “Lot of Elvis fans.”

He said he learned it was Dutschke, who at the time was putting out a local newsletter. Around the same time, at a Tupelo restaurant called Barnhill’s Buffet, Curtis publicly challenged Dutschke to publish an article about his accusations about the hospital.

Several years later, Curtis said, they clashed again. This time it was over their music careers, after Dutschke started a band. And when Curtis posted a fake Mensa certificate online, the online rebuke from Dutschke (a Mensa member) was seen by the Curtis family as so harsh that it approached a lawyer to ask if legal action should be taken.

Curtis continued to send rafts of emails to public officials about the hospital. He always signed them “I am KC and I approve this message” — as did whoever sent the ricin letters, who also referred to “Missing Pieces.”

Last Wednesday, as he was sitting at his house in Corinth, Miss., his dog Moo Cow in his lap, a swarm of armed federal agents arrived. They took him into custody and, according to Curtis’ stepfather, tore his home apart in a search for evidence.

Dutschke was not, at that moment, foremost in Curtis’ mind, he said. No, he was thinking about the 14 years of pushing to expose what he saw as a wide-ranging organ-harvesting conspiracy, seeing his personal life fall to pieces, and trying to convince anyone who would listen that the authorities were out to get him. And here they were.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.