Elvis Impersonator Accused of Ricin Letters Sowing FearMargaret Newkirk, William Selway and Jeanna Smialek
Paul Kevin Curtis played the young Elvis at an annual Tupelo festival honoring the Mississippi city’s most famous son and strummed his guitar at night outside his home in a subsidized housing project an hour to the north.
He also ranted online and worked on a score-settling novel called “Missing Pieces” about stolen body parts, intended to lay bare Lee County’s corruption.
Yesterday, Curtis appeared for a first hearing in U.S. District Court in Oxford, charged with sending poison ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi and a judge.
Court records and interviews with friends, acquaintances and neighbors paint a divided picture of a divorced, one-time janitor who’s at the center of a national terror scare that followed the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon and evoked memories of the anthrax attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.
Authorities say Curtis, 45, of Corinth sent envelopes to Obama and to Wicker, a Republican. Both tested positive for ricin, according to sworn affidavits by federal agents. A similar letter was sent to a Lee County judge.
Curtis appeared in court wearing a black t-shirt and running pants, his sideburns closely shorn, sitting quietly through the five-minute hearing. He didn’t enter a plea, and is expected to appear again in court today.
The ricin charges have left those who know him questioning what happened to Curtis, who friends describe as both “gentle” and “paranoid.”
“I was absolutely shocked,” said Jamie Wiley, executive director of the Concordia Chamber of Commerce in Vidalia, Louisiana. “He’s just gentle and sweet,” she said. “He spends a lot of time talking about his family, his kids and his mom.”
Curtis, a Louisiana native, graduated from South Natchez High School in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1987 and from Louisiana Business College in 1990, according to his Facebook page.
Bryant White, 44, attended high school with Curtis and is now a chaplain working north of Atlanta. He remembers him as a reserved teenager with few friends, of average intelligence and a musical bent.
“He sang in the choir and was a pretty quiet guy,” White said.
Curtis’s musical talent steered him to Elvis Presley performances, both in Mississippi and beyond.
Brenda Mills, 66, who lives a few blocks from Curtis’s brother, Jack, in Tupelo, used to see Curtis singing Elvis songs at a local karaoke bar and recalls him as outgoing and friendly. At six-feet-one, he played Elvis in an act called “Double Trouble” alongside his brother, who mimicked the singer’s waning Las Vegas days.
“I’m really disturbed,” she said. “It must be another side of him that I didn’t know.”
In May 2003, Curtis was set to sing as Elvis in a band at Tupelo’s annual festival for the singer. One of his band mates was David Daniels, a guitar player and assistant district attorney for Lee County. Curtis bore a grudge: He faulted Daniels for arriving late to rehearsals and missing chord changes during a 2002 performance together.
“David messed my show up pretty bad,” he wrote in an e-mail on file in the Lee County courthouse. “He seemed to show little to no commitment to the overall production of the show. Not to mention, he had an attitude with me. The rest of the band always made it to rehearsal On Time, were professional and everyone got along, but Mr. Daniels seemed to be on an ‘‘ego’’ trip.”
That month, he threatened Daniels while brandishing a beer bottle in a parking lot and was charged with assault. Daniels received a restraining order barring Curtis from coming within 500 feet of him. In a court filing, Daniels said Curtis’s family members told him of his history of violence. Daniels didn’t return a phone call to his office seeking comment.
Curtis said he was unable to fight the charges because he was facing an experienced attorney. He said he contacted 75 lawyers in Mississippi, all of whom refused, citing a “conflict of interest.”
Daniels wasn’t the only one he clashed with. For a decade until 2002, Curtis worked as a janitor, sweeping the halls at the North Mississippi Medical Center’s sprawling hospital on Tupelo’s south side from 1998 through 2000. He told Louisiana’s Wiley that he found body parts in the hospital, an episode he planned to expose with a book and screenplay.
In 2003, he posted the first three chapters of “Missing Pieces” online. “I have launched a campaign to expose the corruption taking place in Lee County & will win,” he wrote in a note. “The characters in my book & screenplay have been changed to protect the guilty. They know who they are.”
In an FBI affidavit, agents said Curtis was reported by his wife to the Booneville Police Department in 2007. She told them he was “extremely delusional, anti-government, and felt the government was spying on him with drones,” they said.
Louisiana’s Wiley hired Curtis in both 2011 and 2012 to perform at Vidalia’s Jim Bowie Festival, and she said they became friends and talked regularly until September. She described Curtis as kind and said he tried during his performances to include older women who seemed left out in the crowd.
“He reminded me of a Vince Gill,” she said, referring to the country music star. “He just seemed like a genuinely good-hearted person.”
Curtis hasn’t talked to Wiley since shortly after the September 2012 Jim Bowie show. Curtis had a crush on her which she didn’t return, she said, and stopped communicating with her. She said Curtis never mentioned Obama during their talks, but voiced distrust of authorities.
“He told me the story about finding body parts,” she said. “He had gone to the hospital administration, went to the Senate and could not get anyone to respond and even acknowledge that he had seen anything.”
“I hate to use the word paranoid, but he was, about somebody watching him,” Wiley said. “He said he had been harassed, even arrested. He told me that he wanted to get the truth out there, get to the bottom of it.”
The letters to Obama and Wicker included the phrases: “No one wanted to listen to me before. There are still ‘Missing Pieces’ Maybe I have your attention now Even if that means someone must die.” They were signed “I am KC and I approve this message.”
Ricin is made from castor beans and can be fatal if inhaled or ingested, according to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Wicker had met Curtis prior to receiving the letter, he told reporters in Washington yesterday.
The senator pitched in to hire Curtis as an Elvis impersonator at a party that he and his wife gave about a decade ago, Wicker told media outlets, including Politico.
“My impression is that since that time he’s had mental issues and perhaps is not as stable as he was back then,” the senator said, according to Politico.
Ryan Annison, a spokesman in Wicker’s office, confirmed in a phone interview that Wicker made the comments, though he couldn’t elaborate on any specific facts because of the investigation.
Inquiries with Wicker’s staff turned up previous letters to his Washington office with the signoff “this is Kevin Curtis and I approve this message,” according to the affidavit.
Curtis moved to Corinth, about an hour north of Tupelo, in December, according to Ralph Dance, captain of detectives for the Corinth Police Department.
“We’ve never booked him in our jail; he’s never given us any trouble,” Dance said. “We were oblivious to him being here.” The obscurity ended yesterday, he said, when the FBI asked the police to locate Curtis and help them to secure his residence, Dance said.
Curtis’s new three-bedroom home is on Redwood Drive, a cul-de-sac in a subsidized subdivision of single-story brick homes with metal roofs, grouped along a circular main road. The subdivision, owned by the Tennessee Valley Regional Housing Authority, is nicknamed the “mini-city” by residents. Rents are on a sliding scale and based on income, said Lacey Ross, 29, a mother of two who lives near Curtis.
Yellow tape surrounded Curtis’s cul-de-sac yesterday, with police blocking road access to all but residents, some of whom said they waited until after midnight that day to learn whether they would have to be evacuated. His Ford Escape was parked on the street, with a music note and a dancing young Elvis adorning its license plates.
Ross said she believes she’s one of the few in the neighborhood who ever talked to Curtis. Her one encounter was friendly. He was out walking a Maltese puppy, and Ross stopped him to ask for advice on what dog to get for her mildly autistic daughter.
“We just talked about dogs,” she said. “He was very nice.”
Another neighbor, Matthew Latch, 20, said he’d notice Curtis across the driveway at night, sitting outside with his guitar.
“He’d just sit in a chair in his front yard, ” Latch said. “It was just kind of quiet, rambling stuff.”
The case is U.S. v. Curtis, 13-mj-00019, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Mississippi (Oxford).