TUPELO, Miss. - What looked at first like classic terrorism - poisoned letters sent to the president and other public officials - now seems more likely to be the product of a local feud between two not-so-good-old boys straight out of a Faulkner story, albeit with Facebook pages.
In the past week, the FBI has arrested Kevin Curtis, released him, and then, on Saturday, arrested his online sparring partner, Everett Dutschke.
Each has accused the other of trying to frame him as the sender of ricin-tainted letters that, coinciding with the Boston Marathon bombing, reminded a jittery nation of the deadly anthrax attacks that followed 9/11.
Dutschke faces a federal charge of producing and possessing a biological agent for use as a weapon, U.S. Attorney Felicia Adams said Saturday. The charge can result in a life sentence and a $250,000 fine. Dutschke is expected to appear in court Monday.
A terrorism motive, at least, might have some logic. But the story spinning out in this city of Elvis Presley's birth is as implausible as an Elvis sighting.
Who knows what The King would have made of Curtis and Dutschke? But William Faulkner, the Nobel laureate who lived down the road in Oxford, would have appreciated their Southern Gothic obsessions and secrets, their eccentricities, their capacity for vendetta.
Curtis, 45, is a sometime Elvis impersonator with bipolar disorder who has long warned of a seemingly imaginary underground traffic in stolen body parts at the hospital from which he was fired as a janitor.
Dutschke, 41, is a blues band front man, martial arts teacher, failed political candidate and indicted child molester. He's also a former member of Mensa, the society for those with high IQs.
If the sender of the ricin letters did come from Tupelo or environs, it would be the biggest crime here since the gangster Machine Gun Kelly robbed a local bank in 1932. Most people don't know what to make of this case, other than they don't like the attention.
Tupelo is known worldwide for Elvis, says local resident Carley Johnston, "and we want to keep it that way.''
Another perspective is offered by Curtis Wilke, a former national correspondent for the Boston Globe who teaches at the University of Mississippi.
"I've thought, 'God, I wish I were still a reporter; it'd be fun to cover this story.' " Wilke says. "Neither of them seems very sophisticated. Make a weapon of mass destruction from a bunch of beans?''
Ricin is a potentially lethal poison made from castor beans. Earlier this month, letters with grains of it were mailed from Memphis to President Obama, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who is from Tupelo, and an 80-year-old local judge, Sadie Holland.
Terrorism experts have warned about ricin in aerosol form, but the FBI says this ricin was crude, as if the beans had been mixed in a blender. And Judge Holland's son says she sniffed the letter with no ill effects.
Investigators immediately focused on Curtis, because the letters contained phrases like ones he often used online, including, "I am KC and I approve this message.''
He also had a possible motive. Holland had sentenced him to six months in jail in 2004 for assaulting a musician in his band (who also happened to have been an assistant district attorney).
Things looked so bad for Curtis that his brother issued a statement that Kevin sometimes failed to take medications prescribed to control his psychiatric disorder. "I was trying to help him legally,'' the brother later told the local Northern Mississippi Daily Journal.
But when the FBI searched Curtis' home, they found no trace of castor beans or anything else to corroborate the circumstantial evidence. The telltale phrasing, Curtis' lawyers pointed out, could have been written by anyone familiar with his online rants.
Nor did Curtis seem a likely chemist. When questioned by the FBI, "I thought they said 'rice,' " Curtis told reporters. "I told them, 'I don't even eat rice.' "
Before they set him free, agents asked Curtis: Is there anyone who'd want to set you up?
Enter Dutschke. He and Curtis, who share an interest in music and tae kwon do, first met in the mid-2000s. Curtis saw in Dutschke, who was then putting out a newsletter, a publisher for his book about trafficking in harvested human organs. He even had a title: Missing Pieces.
When this didn't come to pass, the two began to squabble. There was a physical confrontation at a buffet restaurant, after which they took things online.
Curtis, convinced Dutschke was spying on him, says he set a trap. He claimed on his Facebook page that he was a member of Mensa.
Dutschke, a proud Mensan, took the bait, denouncing Curtis as a liar and threatening to sue.
This was in 2010, after which Dutschke has said he had nothing to do with Curtis.
If Dutschke sent the ricin letters - even before his arrest Saturday, he had said he's innocent - he could have been killing two birds with one stone.
In 2007, he ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature against Judge Holland's son Steve, the incumbent. Dutschke liked to compare Holland to Boss Hogg, the corrupt county commissioner on The Dukes of HazzardTV series. Once, at an event where the candidates were speaking, Judge Holland got up on stage to rebuke Dutschke and demand that he apologize.
After Curtis was released and before he himself was arrested, Dutschke told the Associated Press that he had no quarrel with Sadie Holland: "Everybody loves Sadie, including me."
Last Tuesday, when Curtis was freed, the feds rousted Dutschke from bed and searched his house. They also sealed off a shabby commercial strip where his former martial arts studio was located; investigators in hazmat suits carried material to a mobile lab they'd set up outside.
The studio had closed after Dutschke was charged earlier this year with fondling several girls who'd been students there. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $25,000 bail. He'd previously been convicted of indecent exposure in a case involving a minor in his neighborhood.
FBI agents arrested Dutschke around 1 a.m. Saturday at his one-story brick house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Tupelo. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden said he was taken into custody "without incident.'' She referred questions about specific charges to federal prosecutors.
It's hard to say whose image has fared worse - the FBI's or Tupelo's, a city of 37,000 proud of its reputation for tolerance and a certain elegance.
When Curtis was released, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson editorialized that "America got a good lesson in 'innocent until proven guilty.' "
"It's bad publicity,'' says Dick Guyton, a resident for all his 73 years and director of the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum. "And people don't think too much of Mississippi to begin with.''
Sid Salter, a veteran political analyst in the state, disagrees: "The notion that the ricin case 'reflects' on Mississippi at all is ludicrous. It's like suggesting that everyone who lives in rural Montana bears some sort of corporate guilt for the Unabomber.''
But Wilke, a native Mississippian, says "the woods here are full of colorful characters like them,'' referring to Curtis and Dutschke. "Maybe that's why we've produced so many great novelists.''
Contributing: The Associated Press; The (Jackson, Miss.)Clarion-Ledger