WASHINGTON -- A Mississippi man was arrested late Wednesday as a suspect in the mailing of letters sent to President Barack Obama and one of the man's home-state senators that tested positive for the poison ricin.
Authorities still waited for definitive tests on the letters to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and chased false alarms for suspicious packages on Capitol Hill and congressional offices outside Washington. The activity came as tensions were high in Washington and across the country following Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon, but the FBI said there was no indication of a connection.
Paul Kevin Curtis was arrested about 5:15 p.m. at his home in Corinth, Miss., the FBI said Wednesday night. He allegedly mailed three letters with suspected ricin to the White House, to the senator and to a local justice official in Mississippi, the FBI said. He believed he had uncovered a conspiracy to sell human body parts on the black market and sometimes performed as an Elvis Presley impersonator.
Curtis, of Tupelo, Miss., is well known to law enforcement as a frequent letter writer to lawmakers, The Washington Post said.
"We're all in shock. I don't think anybody had a clue that this kind of stuff was weighing on his mind," his cousin Ricky Curtis said by phone. Ricky Curtis said his cousin had written about problems he had with a cleaning business and that he felt the government had not treated him well.
Multiple posts on various websites under the name Kevin Curtis refer to a body-parts conspiracy he claimed to have uncovered while working at a local hospital from 1998 to 2000.
The letters being tested were postmarked from Memphis, Tenn., April 8, a week before the marathon, according to an FBI intelligence bulletin.
Both letters said: "To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance," according to the bulletin. Both were signed, "I am KC and I approve this message."
The letters were intercepted before reaching the White House or the Senate. The FBI said that more testing was under way. Preliminary field tests can show false positives for ricin.
As authorities scurried to investigate three questionable packages discovered in Senate office buildings, reports of suspicious items also came in from at least three senators' offices in their home states.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said a staff member at his Saginaw, Mich., office would spend the night in a hospital as a precaution after discovering a suspicious letter. The staff member had no symptoms, Levin said in a statement. He expected to learn preliminary results of tests on the letter by today.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said suspicious letters at his Phoenix office had been cleared, with nothing dangerous found. A package at GOP Sen. John Cornyn's Dallas-area office also was declared harmless, a fire department spokesman said.
All three suspicious packages in the Capitol complex turned out to be safe, Capitol Police spokeswoman Makema Turner said late yesterday. But a man was still being questioned after being stopped in connection with those packages, she said.
At a House hearing, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe noted that procedures are in place to protect postal employees and help track down culprits.
Ricin, derived from the castor plant, is at its deadliest when inhaled. With Ellen Yan
WHAT IS RICIN?
The deadly poison ricin is derived from the castor plant that makes castor oil. What makes it scary is that there is no antidote and it is at its deadliest when inhaled or injected. It is not contagious.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes ricin as a "Class B" threat, which is the agency's second-highest threat level, behind anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers.
It can be aerosolized, released into the air and inhaled. A Department of Homeland Security handbook says the amount of ricin that fits on the head of a pin is enough to kill an adult, if properly prepared.
If a person is exposed to ricin, his or her clothing should be removed and the person should be washed vigorously with soap and water and get medical attention, the handbook says.