FBI: Law Enforcement Searches Home of Suspect Involved in Ricin Mailings

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email
The FBI says laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of ricin in letters mailed to a U.S. senator and to President Barack Obama.

Suspect Paul Kevin Curtis (Credit: AP)

Associated Press Release

By HOLBROOK MOHR and JESSICA GRESKO

OXFORD, Mississippi (AP) -- The ricin mailed to the president and a U.S. senator is relatively easy to make but generally can't be used to target a large number of people, experts say.

Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, has been charged with mailing letters laced with the naturally occurring toxin to President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. Authorities say he sent a third threatening letter to a state judge, though that letter is still being tested for the presence of ricin. Curtis has denied making the ricin and mailing the letters.

The FBI has not yet revealed details about how the ricin was made or how lethal it may have been. It was in a powdered form inside the envelopes, but the FBI said no one has been sickened by it so far. A senate official said Thursday that the ricin was not weaponized, meaning it wasn't in a form that could easily enter the body.

More than a dozen officials, some wearing hazardous materials suits, were searching the home Friday where Curtis was arrested in Corinth, Mississippi. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden would not say if authorities have found ricin or materials used to make it in Curtis' home, and officials have not provided details about how Curtis may have either obtained or made the ricin.

Law enforcement agents should be able to test the toxin found in the letters to determine its potency and purity, as well as learn what chemicals may have been used to extract it from widely available castor beans, said Murray Cohen, the founder of the Atlanta-based Frontline Foundation, which trains workers on preparedness and response to bioterrorism and epidemics. Those chemicals might then be able to be linked to purchases made by Curtis or materials found in his home.

Curtis' ex-wife has said he likely didn't have the know-how to make ricin, and she did not know where he would buy it because he was on disability. But Cohen said ricin was once known as "the poor man's bioterrorism" because the seeds are easy to obtain and the extraction process is relatively simple.

"Any kid that made it through high school science lab is more than equipped to successfully make a poison out of this stuff. Any fool can get recipes off the Internet and figure out how to do it," Cohen said.

Those seeds, which look a bit like coffee beans, are easy to buy online and are grown around the world; they are often used to make medicinal castor oil, among other things. However, using the seeds to make a highly concentrated form of ricin would require laboratory equipment and expertise to extract, said Raymond Zilinskas, a chemical and biological weapons expert.

"It's an elaborate process," he said.

Cohen said ricin is not common because other poisons, such as anti-freeze, can easily be bought at a store. And it's not a weapon of choice for mass casualties because it would need to be eaten or inhaled to be most deadly.

"You can put this stuff in an envelope, but how are you going to get the intended person to inhale or ingest it?" Cohen said.

Authorities say Curtis sent a letter that may have contained ricin to Sadie Holland, a judge who sentenced him to six months in jail in an assault case a decade ago. Holland's son, Democratic Rep. Steve Holland, said Friday that his 80-year-old mother has undergone medical tests and had no signs of poisoning. He said she had done a "smell test" of the threatening letter, telling him it burned her nose a bit.

If swallowed, the poison can in a matter of days shut down the liver and other organs, resulting in death, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If inhaled, it can cause respiratory failure, among other symptoms. No antidote exists.

The most notable case of ricin poisoning was in 1978, when a Bulgarian dissident was lethally injected with ricin by an operative of that country's secret service.

Meanwhile, Curtis is scheduled to appear in federal court Friday afternoon in Oxford, Mississippi.. Family and acquaintances have described him as a caring father and enthusiastic musician who struggled for years with mental illness and pursued a conspiracy theory to its farthest reaches.

He claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy to sell body parts on the black market while he was working at a Mississippi hospital and tried for years to publicize it. That hospital confirmed he worked there but denied a conspiracy, saying it does not receive payment for donated organs, which are immediately transported to recipients by another agency.

According to an FBI affidavit, the letters he sent read: "Maybe I have your attention now even if that means someone must die."

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Gresko reported from Washington. Associated Press Photographer Rogelio Solis in Corinth and writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Jay Reeves in Oxford and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.


Associated Press Release

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI says laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of ricin in letters mailed to a U.S. senator and to President Barack Obama.

The FBI said Thursday that further tests are still being done, but that lab results show the toxin was used in the mailings.

There are no known illnesses from the exposure.

Paul Kevin Curtis, of Corinth, Miss., is suspected of sending the letters to Obama and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. He appeared in federal court Thursday on charges of threatening Obama and others, but he did not enter a plea.

His attorney said that the arrest was surprising and that Curtis maintains that he's innocent.


Associated Press Release

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -- A Mississippi hospital says the man charged with mailing letters with suspected ricin was fired from the facility more than a decade ago.

North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo issued a statement Thursday saying Paul Kevin Curtis began working there in 1998 and was terminated in 2000. It did not give a reason for his firing but says it was not because of allegations he made against the hospital.

Curtis has written in online postings that he uncovered a conspiracy to sell human body parts on the black market while working there.

However, the hospital says it works with an agency that specializes in harvesting organs and tissue from donors, and then immediately transports those organs for donation. The hospital says it does not receive payment for the donated organs.


Associated Press Release

By HOLBROOK MOHR and ADRIAN SAINZ

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -- The man charged with mailing letters with suspected ricin to the president and others was surprised by his arrest and maintains he is innocent, according to his attorney.

Paul Kevin Curtis appeared in a federal courtroom Thursday in Oxford, Miss., wearing shackles and a Johnny Cash T-shirt. His handcuffs were taken off during the brief hearing, and he said little.

His attorney, Christi R. McCoy, says Curtis "maintains 100 percent that he did not do this." She says she knows him and his family and that it is hard for her to believe the charges against him.

McCoy says she has not yet decided whether to seek a hearing to determine if Curtis is mentally competent to stand trial.


Associated Press Release
By HOLBROOK MOHR and ADRIAN SAINZ

CORINTH, Miss. (AP) -- The Mississippi man accused of mailing letters with suspected ricin has been charged with threatening President Barack Obama and others.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a news release Thursday that 45-year-old Paul Kevin Curtis faced two federal charges accusing him of threatening the president and others.

Curtis was to appear in federal court Thursday. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

An affidavit says the letters sent to Obama, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and a judge in Mississippi told the recipients: "Maybe I have your attention now even if that means someone must die."


Associated Press Release

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -- A man in Mississippi has been arrested and accused of sending letters with suspected ricin poison to President Barack Obama and other leaders.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Daniel McMullen said the man was arrested Wednesday. His name wasn't immediately released publicly.

Authorities still waited for definitive tests on the letters to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., which had raised concern Wednesday at a time when many people were jittery after the Boston bombings.

An FBI intelligence bulletin obtained by The Associated Press said those two letters were postmarked Memphis, Tenn.


Associated Press Release

By SETH BORENSTEIN

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ever since the anthrax and terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the poison ricin has at times been lumped in with other bioterrorism agents because it comes from a relatively common plant and seems easy to make.

But the reality is that ricin has created far more scares than victims and is more a targeted poison than something to attack lots of people.

On Tuesday, an envelope addressed to Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi tested positive for ricin after it was received at a mail processing plant in suburban Maryland. In 2004, ricin was discovered in the sorting area of a mail room in a Senate office building.

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. It is not contagious.

Still, a draft of a 2010 Homeland Security Department handbook lists only one person killed by ricin. And that was a political assassination, in 1978, of a Bulgarian dissident who was injected -- via a specialized secret-agent style umbrella-- with a ricin pellet.

People have been poisoned with ricin after eating castor beans, but it is not as well absorbed through the digestive track as it is when it is injected or inhaled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC categorizes ricin as a "Class B" threat, which is the agency's second-highest threat level. It ranks behind anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers.

It can be aerosolized, released into the air and inhaled. The 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.

Of all the biological and chemical terror agents, "it is one of the least significant; it is a poison," said University of Maryland bioterrorism expert Milt Leitenberg.

Leitenberg said he was hard pressed to remember any case when an initial chemical test that showed the presence of ricin actually turned out to be ricin. Nearly every time it is a false alarm.

The list of ricin terror acts in the Homeland Security handbook includes several people who obtained or made ricin. And even that isn't as easy as online handbooks say it is, Leitenberg said.

"Ricin is best suited for small-scale attacks rather than mass-casualty scenarios," the Homeland Security handbook said. It says the best "route of exposure" is injection into the bloodstream, like in the Bulgarian case.

The Homeland Security handbook also says inhaling ricin is more dangerous than eating it, but "formulating ricin powder to produce the necessary size to be efficiently disseminated via aerosol requires technical skill."

Ricin powder, the handbook says, "could also be delivered to indoor targets via letters or packages."

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 Homeland Security handbook says.


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