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Suspect in U.S. ricin letter threat obsessed by Elvis, body parts

Paul Kevin Curtis is seen dressed as an Elvis Impersonator in this picture taken in 1999. REUTERS/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
Paul Kevin Curtis is seen dressed as an Elvis Impersonator in this picture taken in 1999. REUTERS/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Paul Kevin Curtis, charged with sending toxic letters to President Barack Obama and a U.S. senator, grew disenchanted with government over a scandal he said he uncovered in a Mississippi hospital, where he found human organs he believed were destined for black market sale.

Curtis, 45, best known in Mississippi as an Elvis impersonator who once went to jail dressed in costume, wrote angry letters to government officials and tried to talk to Senator Roger Wicker at a performance, according to an account posted on the Internet by a Paul Kevin Curtis.

On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department, after an unusually speedy bioterror investigation headed by the FBI, accused Curtis of mailing letters to both Wicker and Obama containing a substance that preliminarily tested positive for ricin, a highly lethal poison made from castor beans.

The letters, intercepted by authorities before they reached their destinations, referenced a book Curtis wrote about black market body parts and observed, "Maybe I have your attention now/Even if that means someone must die."

"He told me about how he knew they were ripping off the body parts, and he had written to all the legislators about it, and no one would listen to him. He became a huge conspiracy theorist," said Verna Gates, of Birmingham, Alabama. She said she knew Curtis several years ago when he lived in the area.

Gates is a freelance journalist who works for Reuters.

Curtis was taken into custody on Wednesday at his home in Corinth, Mississippi, about 50 miles north of Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, told Roll Call newspaper he had met Curtis. "He entertained at a party my wife and I helped give for a young couple that were getting married," the senator said.

Over two dozen videos of a Kevin Curtis impersonating Elvis and other performers are posted on You Tube.

In an online comment on an Elvis blog post in 2007, a Kevin Curtis said he had been a seven-time finalist in the "Images of the King" competition in Tennessee, but had given up Elvis impersonation because competitions "were rigged with hosts and judges getting kick-backs."

The signature was: "This is Kevin Curtis and I approve this message." The FBI said letters to Wicker and Obama ended with the line, "I am KC and I approved this message."

A lawyer for Curtis could not be reached for comment. His family said in a statement that Curtis had "a lengthy history of mental illness," having been diagnosed as bipolar.

"When Kevin is taking his medication as prescribed, he is a loving, compassionate person," the statement said. "He is also highly intelligent with enormous potential." It was signed by Jack Curtis, Curtis' brother.

BODY PARTS IN A FRIDGE

Kevin Curtis' beef with government dates back more than a decade after his discovery while working for a northern Mississippi hospital.

He told acquaintances about having found a refrigerator with body parts that he thought were being sold illegally.

According to court papers, Curtis said in a 2010 blog he was writing a novel about black market body parts, entitled "Missing Pieces."

A former neighbor in Leeds, Alabama, Sue Cook, said she saw Curtis being detained by police in his Elvis costume in October 2009. "He had just finished performing at the Moody Fall Festival. ... The cops were waiting for him," Cook told Reuters.

St. Clair County, Alabama, jail records say Curtis was taken there on October 30, 2009, based on a warrant from Louisiana, but released on November 25 after the warrant was recalled.

When a U.S. Senate mail facility in Maryland earlier this week found an envelope addressed to Wicker with a suspicious granular substance, the U.S. Capitol Police called Wicker's staff to ask whether it had any constituent with the initials "KC" who previously corresponded with the office.

Enclosed in the envelope to Wicker was a letter that said: "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. This must stop."

The letter to Obama held the same message, as did another sent to a Lee County Mississippi judge, court papers said.

The Capitol Police were told that a Wicker constituent named Paul Kevin Curtis had sent multiple communications to Wicker's Washington office, and federal agents descended on Mississippi.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Todd Eastham and Peter Cooney)

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