Federal authorities detained a Mississippi man suspected of mailing letters to President Barack Obama and a U.S. senator that initially tested positive for the poison ricin and heightened tensions after the Boston bombings.
Paul Kevin Curtis was arrested yesterday at his home in Corinth, Mississippi, by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and local authorities, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said in an e-mailed statement. Curtis is also suspected of mailing a tainted letter to an unnamed Mississippi justice official, Bresson said.
The FBI didn’t say where Curtis was being held. In an earlier statement, it said there was “no indication” the letters were connected to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured more than 170 others.
The ricin alert in Washington was sparked by the discovery on April 16 of a letter to Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, that initially tested positive for the toxin at a congressional mail facility. That letter prompted Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer to send an e-mail alert yesterday to senators’ staff members urging them to be “vigilant” and to not accept sealed envelopes that haven’t been screened.
The letter to Obama was identified at a mail facility separate from the one that sorts congressional mail, where the letter to Wicker was discovered.
The letter to the president was quarantined at an off-site mail center after an initial test indicated it contained ricin, U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said in an e-mail. The sample will require more tests to confirm the early results. There was no effect on White House operations, the FBI said.
Someone sending a letter with ricin to Obama could face federal charges, including attempting to assassinate the president, according to former prosecutors.
“Without a doubt that would be a charge any prosecutor would consider,” Roscoe Howard Jr., who was U.S. attorney in Washington when letters containing anthrax were mailed to lawmakers in 2001, said in a phone interview. “A logical standpoint is why else mail ricin to the president.”
The FBI doesn’t have the final test results back on the Wicker or Obama envelopes, according to a federal law enforcement official. While preliminary test results were positive for ricin, they also showed mixed results.
Field tests can at times be unreliable, so federal officials sent the envelopes to an accredited lab for further testing. It typically takes 24 to 48 hours for the results to come back, said the official, who asked to not be named in describing the procedures.
Ricin is a poison made from castor beans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is harmful and potentially fatal if inhaled or ingested, and isn’t contagious, the CDC said on its website.
“You must inhale or ingest it,” said Jim Romagnoli, the vice president of emergency management at the North Shore - LIJ Health System in Great Neck, New York.
Symptoms depend on the purity, route of exposure and the dose. Initial symptoms from inhalation occur as early as four to six hours after the exposure, and symptoms include difficulty breathing and a cough, according to the CDC.
The symptoms can progress rapidly to fluid within the lungs and eventually respiratory failure. Deaths from the poison usually happen within 36 to 72 hours. While no antidote exists, doctors can counteract the effects of the poisoning by helping victims breathe or giving them fluids.
If ricin is confirmed present in the letters, the person who sent them also could be charged with attempted murder, use of a weapon of mass destruction and threatening the president, said Benton Campbell, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP in New York, who was a Justice Department prosecutor for 16 years. From 2007 to 2010, he was the interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
The suspect letter to Wicker was postmarked from Memphis, Tennessee. The Secret Service is working with the U.S. Capitol Police and the FBI in an investigation into the contaminated mail.
Wicker was accompanied yesterday by two plainclothes Capitol police officers as he left a luncheon meeting of the Senate Republican Steering Committee. Last night, after the announcement of Curtis’s arrest, the senator and his wife praised authorities for their work on the case.
“Gayle and I want to thank the men and women of the FBI and U.S. Capitol Police for their professionalism and decisive action in keeping our family and staff safe from harm,” Wicker said in a statement posted on his official website.
Gainer said in his e-mail that while previously screened Senate mail was being distributed yesterday, delivery will be suspended today and tomorrow while the investigation is carried out and additional testing is completed.
The government constructed a new White House mail-screening facility in 2010 that isn’t on the mansion’s grounds, U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told Congress at the time.
Previous reported incidents involving ricin, according to a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, include a man in Las Vegas poisoned himself in 2008 manufacturing ricin in a hotel room. He survived and was subsequently convicted of possession of a biological toxin, according to the CRS.
The report cites two cases directed at officials in Washington. In November 2003, the U.S. Secret Service reportedly intercepted an envelope containing ricin addressed to the White House. In February 2004, ricin was detected in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in the mailroom of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing yesterday, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the postal inspection system has been effective at catching tainted letters.
“We’ve had these incidents before going back to the anthrax attacks over 10 years ago,” Donahoe told lawmakers. “If anything happens, we react.”
Since that 2001 scare, in which letters containing anthrax spores were sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, all mail to lawmakers is first sorted at an off-site facility before being sent on to Capitol Hill.
Though no lawmakers were harmed in the anthrax case, mailings containing the substance claimed five lives across the country.