Arrest over poisonous ricin letters

Last updated 13:20 18/04/2013
Reuters

Suspicious mail was sent to the White House and the US Capitol as the Boston bombing investigation continues. White House says "we will not be terrorised". Deborah Lutterbeck reports.

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A man has been arrested today, accused of sending letters to President Barack Obama and a senator that tested positive for the poisonous ricin and set the US capital on edge a day after the Boston Marathon bombings.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Daniel McMullen said Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, was arrested at his apartment near the Tennessee state line, east of Memphis. It wasn't immediately known where he was being held.

Authorities still waited for definitive tests on the letters to Obama and Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Preliminary field tests can often show false positives for ricin. The letters were intercepted before reaching the White House or Senate.

An FBI intelligence bulletin said those two letters were postmarked Memphis, Tennessee.

Both letters said: "To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance." Both were signed, "I am KC and I approve this message".

As authorities scurried to investigate three questionable packages discovered in Senate office buildings, reports of suspicious items also came in from at least three senators' offices in their home states.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin said a staff member at his Michigan office would spend the night in a hospital as a precaution after discovering a suspicious letter. The staff member had no symptoms, Levin said in a statement. He expected to learn preliminary results of tests on the letter by Thursday.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake said suspicious letters at his Phoenix office had been cleared with nothing dangerous found. A package at Senator John Cornyn's Dallas-area office also was declared harmless, a fire department spokesman said.

All three packages in the Capitol complex turned out to be safe, Capitol police spokeswoman Makema Turner said today. But a man was still being questioned after being stopped in connection with the packages, she said.

All the activity came as tensions were high in Washington and across the US following Tuesday's bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured more than 170. The FBI said there was no indication of a connection between the letters and the bombing. The letters to Obama and Wicker were postmarked April 8, before the marathon.

Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, said mail sent to the White House is screened at a remote site for the safety of the recipients and the general public. He declined to comment on the significance of the preliminary ricin result, referring questions to the FBI.

Capitol Police swiftly ramped up security, and lawmakers and staff were cautioned away from some parts of the Hill complex. After hours of jangled nerves, officials signalled it was safe to move throughout the area and people settled back to normal, if watchful, activity.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said that an individual who was responsible for simultaneous suspicious-package incidents in the Hart and Russell Senate office buildings on Tuesday (local time) was detained and released on Wednesday. The packages were not hazardous.

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Gainer said the man was "not particularly harmful, although terribly disruptive".

At a House of Representatives hearing, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe noted there had been ricin alerts since the notorious 2001 anthrax mailings and procedures are in place to protect postal employees and help track down culprits.

"Over the course of years we've had some situations where there have been ricin scares," Donahoe said. "Until this date, there's never been any actually proved that have gone through the system."

- AP

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