James Everett Dutschke after his arrest. Photo: AFP

Man makes court appearance in ricin letters case

A Mississippi martial arts instructor suspected of mailing letters containing the deadly poison ricin to President Barack Obama and other US officials appeared in federal court on Monday for a brief hearing.

James Everett Dutschke, 41, was arrested on Saturday in Tupelo, Mississippi, after authorities searched his home and former business. He is charged with developing and possessing ricin and attempting to use the poison as a weapon.

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Dutschke responded briefly to a judge’s questions during the eight-minute hearing in Oxford, Mississippi.

The judge, S. Allan Alexander, later granted an oral motion to keep an affidavit detailing the charges against Dutschke under seal until a detention hearing set for Thursday morning.

Dutschke has denied having any involvement with the ricin letters and said he cooperated with federal officials during their searches.

He faces a possible life sentence if convicted.

Dutschke’s arrest came nearly two weeks after suspicious letters intended for Obama and US Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi were intercepted. Tests showed they were tainted with ricin, a highly lethal poison made from castor beans. A separate ricin-laced letter was also sent to a Mississippi judge.

Authorities initially arrested another Mississippi man, Kevin Curtis, in the case but dropped the charges last week after a search of his house failed to turn up any evidence of his involvement.

Dutschke’s name surfaced at a court hearing when Curtis’ attorney suggested someone framed her client and mentioned a running feud between the two men.

He also faces charges in a separate case related to an April 1 indictment for fondling three children between ages 7 and 16, from 2007 to this year, according to court records.

The ricin-tainted letters were discovered just days after the bombings of the Boston Marathon and during the massive police manhunt for those responsible, helping to fuel anxiety in the United States, especially in the capital.

The case rekindled memories of the 2001 US anthrax attacks that killed five people and puzzled investigators for years. The Justice Department later said that a US scientist who committed suicide was responsible.