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Judge sends ricin-letters case to grand jury

Everett Dutschke works on his mini-van in his driveway in Tupelo Mississippi on April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Wells
Everett Dutschke works on his mini-van in his driveway in Tupelo Mississippi on April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Wells

By Robbie Ward

TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Thursday that there was enough evidence for a grand jury to consider indicting a Mississippi man accused of mailing poison-laced letters to President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials.

James Everett Dutschke, a 41-year-old martial arts instructor from Tupelo, Miss., was arrested on April 27 and charged with developing and possessing the deadly poison ricin and attempting to use it as a weapon.

U.S. Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander said he agreed with prosecutors that evidence against Dutschke justified referring the charges to a grand jury to consider whether he should stand trial, said Dutschke's attorney, George Lucas.

During a preliminary hearing in Oxford, the judge also ruled that Dutschke continue to be held without bond.

Dutschke has denied any connection with the letters sent last month to Obama, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi and a Mississippi judge. The letters to Obama and Wicker were intercepted before reaching their intended recipients.

Authorities have not said whether the ricin, which is made from castor beans, was potent enough to harm anyone.

In an affidavit unsealed on Tuesday, FBI investigators said a dust mask and other items seized from a former taekwondo studio used by Dutschke tested positive for ricin. Agents described witnessing Dutschke enter the studio and remove several items and later throw them in a nearby trash container, according to the affidavit.

Traces of ricin were also discovered on other items found at the studio, including liquid removed from a drain and a filter containing items vacuumed from the studio floor, according to the affidavit.

FBI agents also said they found evidence that he made two purchases each of 50 red castor beans in November and December, 2012, using a PayPal account on eBay and downloaded manuals on a laptop computer detailing how to handle and store the poison.

FBI Special Agent Stephen Thomason, who prepared the affidavit and was the sole witness during the hearing on Thursday, told the court that evidence of a third purchase had been found and a new search warrant had been issued for another location tied to Dutschke.

If convicted, Dutschke faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Lucas declined to comment on the details of the case.

Dutschke was arrested after U.S. prosecutors dropped charges in the case against another Mississippi man, Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator who was released from jail after a search of his home failed turn up any evidence of his involvement.

Dutschke's name surfaced when Curtis' attorney suggested in a court hearing that Curtis had been framed and mentioned a running feud between the two men.

Dutschke also faces child-molestation charges in a separate case involving three girls under the age of 16, according to court records.

He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for a seat in Mississippi's House of Representatives in 2007.

(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Paul Simao)

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