Mississippi Mud

Paul Kevin Curtis and J. Everett Dutschke: Epic Feud and Ricin Letters

Winston Ross travels to Tupelo, Mississippi, to find what might have driven the latest suspect in the letters.

As the sun set Wednesday on the birthplace of the king of rock and roll, federal agents in hazmat suits wrapped up their daylong scouring of a tae kwon do studio on the edge of town, a watchful throng of reporters standing vigil, waiting to see what the hell could possibly happen next.

It’s been quite a week here in Tupelo, what with the arrest last week of a 45-year-old Elvis impersonator on suspicion of sending letters laced with ricin to President Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), and a local judge, Sadie Holland. Then came the stunning announcement Tuesday that Paul Kevin Curtis was free to head back to Heartbreak Hotel and shake his exonerated pelvis all over Mississippi again. Then news broke that another man—a 41-year-old blues singer, karate master, insurance salesman, Mensa member, accused child molester, and one-time GOP candidate for the Mississippi House of Representatives named J. Everett Dutschke—had become the focus of the investigation. Then stories spread that this Curtis fella and this Dutschke fella had it out for each other and were trading nasty emails about body parts allegedly found at a hospital and fraudulent Mensa memberships and snarky comments left on each other’s YouTube pages about all that. Then rumors swirled Wednesday that Dutschke had skipped town, and the cops had a BOLO (be on the lookout) for his van. Then Dutschke showed up at the studio—in the van!—and the men in the white suits searched that, too, as the karate master, who has not been named a suspect or charged with any terrorism-related crime, shifted his public-relations strategy from talking to any reporter within earshot to pacing beneath the green awning of a tattoo parlor across the street. Then Curtis, the Elvis impersonator, hopped on a plane to New York City with his lawyers in tow, set to celebrate his independence Thursday morning on Good Morning America, among other places.

Good luck sorting that all out, FBI. But here’s what we know so far:

First and most important, Curtis is not just an Elvis impersonator. His longtime friend Nancy Lee Smith Hakes told The Daily Beast that she was shocked not only to hear of his arrest last week on federal charges, but that everyone kept calling him an Elvis impersonator, as if the King was the only person Curtis could impersonate. He also does a mean Conway Twitty, Prince, and Alan Jackson. Oh, and Randy Travis. He does Travis “really well.” Indeed, one of Curtis’s lawyers said his client broke into a spontaneous Travis bit when the lawyer saw him for the first time since being released from federal lockup Tuesday.

Curtis is also a guy with more to him than wacky celebrity impersonations, his ex-wife said. This can be a good and a bad thing.

The good part? Man, is he mixed up in a whole lot of different stuff, from karate to Elvis impersonating to fiction writing. The bad part? Man, has he been pissing people off while being mixed up in a whole lot of different stuff, from karate to Elvis impersonating to fiction writing.

The fiction writing is based on a true story, at least according to Curtis, based on the years he spent working at a hospital in north Mississippi—until one day he discovered a bunch of body parts strewn about in the morgue and wrapped in plastic. “Even a severed head,” Curtis later wrote. Curtis blew the whistle on what he quickly determined was some kind of underhanded scheme to sell the body parts, only to find himself summarily fired and kicked out of the hospital for life, not to mention “countless court battles, cops harassing me weekly, death threats, personal & financial losses, several thefts, my home burned down, car exploded, marriage dissolved and bankruptcy.”

More on that later. The moral of the story, says Laura Curtis: “Kevin is outspoken. He makes enemies freely. That’s the reason we divorced. Kevin doesn’t want any friends, and I do.”

The karate part wouldn’t have been a bad thing if not for the toxic, bizarre relationship Curtis eventually found himself in with the owner of the studio he at one point attended: J. Everette Dutschke, who is also mixed up in a whole lot of different stuff.

Dutschke is a Kentucky-born, Texas-reared, Mississippi jack-of-all-trades like no other, as is made clear by a digital trail of crumbs that makes the Cookie Monster look like a finicky eater. By his own description on his MySpace page, Dutschke once wanted to specialize in psychiatric nursing, but wound up in radio and then the insurance business. He is a proud member of Mensa. He’s in a rock band called Dusty and the RoboDrum that, according to itsFacebook page, includes “tons of lasers.” And assuming the various profiles and avatars linked to him are truly him, Dutschke has few qualms about speaking his brilliant Mensa mind on the Internet.

Here he is in 2008, insisting an 800 number hawking a “major medical plan” is a “SCAM... all it pays is $100 a day as an inpatient...that won’t even pay for the I.V. and tylenol at a hospital. These people are a rip-off scam artist group of con-men who may not even be licensed insurance agents!” Here he is again in one of a series of YouTube videos he filmed by pointing his phone at himself while driving or at the mirror in his karate studio as he walks through it. One is about illegal aliens. Another, about Mississippi being the unhealthiest state in the nation. Another is about how dogs are good people, and another (parody?) about how “George Bush hates white people.” The best one, objectively, is where he pretends to solve a Rubik’s Cube as an analogy for the problems he’d solve if elected to office.

About that: Dutschke ran for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2007, against incumbent Democrat Steve Holland, whom he quickly realized he had no chance of beating, but went after with a vicious and unrelenting attack-ad campaign anyway. At some point there was an embarrassing incident involving Holland’s mother demanding a public apology, Steve Holland told reporters this week. Dutschke lost the race—by a whole mess of a lot of votes. Holland’s mother is the local judge who also got a ricin letter in the mail.

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Dutschke’s political tumble would soon be eclipsed by legal woes. In January he was arrested on charges of molesting a 7-year-old girl at his tae kwon do studio. Earlier this month he pleaded not guilty and was released on bond.

Somewhere along the way, Dutschke’s and Curtis’s fates intertwined in the most epic and Southern and Faulkneresque kind of way. At first, when breathless reporters started pestering the two for details of the feud that led one to claim the other had framed him, both insisted they didn’t remember. Curtis told several reporters he had no idea why Dutschke might have it in for him, even as his lawyer was holding press conferences pointing the finger squarely at the bluesman. Dutschke claimed the same: “I met the guy on two occasions,” he told the northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “I wasn’t going to be pulled into his fantasy world.”

But from where Elvis’s ex-wife is sitting, the whole feud is plain as a bluebird day. For one thing, Dutschke is a Republican. Curtis is a Democrat. But the war between the two of them started with the body-parts thing. One of Dutschke’s many endeavors was at one point running a small “newspaper,” one of those hastily published say-whatever-the-hell-you-want-to kind of things, and Curtis tried to convince Dutschke that he ought to write about the hospital’s body-parts scheme, to lay the whole scandal bare. Dutschke refused. Some words were exchanged.

“Everett was worried it would hurt his image,” Laura Curtis says. “It’s the only hospital in Tupelo. They’re powerful.”

Another key battle: Curtis’s Facebook cover photo, which shows a Mensa certificate in his name. Dutschke was infuriated by this, as he is convinced Curtis is not really a Mensa member, and the two exchanged several heated emails about that, too.

“That made Everett so mad, he just came apart,” Laura Curtis says, “threatening to beat him up.”

The two sparred over music, too, Curtis told Talking Points Memo. At one point, he said, Dutschke sent him an email that read: “I’ve created a band called Robodrum and we’re going to throw you off the national circuit.”

The two have gotten along rather foully ever since, with a string of emails back and forth that consisted of “You’re a dumbass,” Curtis’s attorney told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.

By the time Dutschke got arrested in January, the two pretty much hated each other electronically. When Curtis learned the news, he emailed Dutschke, Laura tells The Daily Beast:

“How’s it feel to be on that side?” the email read. On a completely unrelated YouTube video of Dutschke’s, Curtis wrote, “C U in court.”

“Of course Everett went ballistic,” Laura Curtis says.

That’s why, when the FBI came knocking at Laura Curtis’s door last week, she was convinced of two things: her ex-husband’s innocence and that he was framed. Kevin Curtis is nowhere near smart enough to figure out how to make ricin, she tells The Daily Beast.

“Kevin would blow up half of Mississippi trying to make something like that,” she says. Plus, he’s not a violent person. “He’ll send you a thousand emails, but he’s never going to cause you harm.”

(Lest you worry that this comment might offend her ex-husband, he told Piers Morgan on CNN Tuesday night that when the FBI first told him what they thought he’d done, he responded, “I don’t even eat rice!”)

The second thing Laura Curtis is sure of: J. Everett Dutschke was behind all this. He’s a “brilliant” man,” she says. “I told the FBI, I believe this man had something to do with framing Kevin, because they hate each other.” Kevin Curtis’s lawyer said pretty much the same thing, and with a microphone, in front of a bunch of reporters, no less.

Plus, Curtis was ripe for a setup. He had posted about the hospital body-parts conspiracy all over the Internet, and he wrote letters to Wicker and other politicians, signing them, “This is Kevin Curtis & I approve this message.” The signature of the ricin-laced envelope: “I am KC and I approve this message.”

Dutschke did not return several phone calls from The Daily Beast, nor did he answer the door Wednesday at his Tupelo home, which was raided by the FBI on Tuesday. He expressed shock when Talking Points Memo broke the news to him that Curtis had been released. “What did you just say?” he asked the reporter who called. “You’re kidding me.” An hour later the FBI was knocking at his door. But he has professed his innocence several times and in several places over the past couple of days.

“I’m a patriotic American. I don’t have any grudges against anybody. I did not send the letters,” Dutschke told reporters Tuesday. He also lashed out at Curtis and his attorneys for fingering him. “I guess Kevin got desperate. I feel like he’s getting away with the perfect crime.”