More tests have been ordered after a second set of ricin tests on letters sent to the White House and the Senate came back inconclusive. News4's Pat Collins reports.
A man from Corinth, Miss., has been arrested as a suspect in the case of letters mailed to the president and a Mississippi senator that contained a granular substance that has tested positive for ricin.
Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, has been charged with threatening the life of the president, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
Curtis was arrested about 5:15 p.m. Wednesday at his apartment in Corinth, near the Tennessee state line and about 100 miles east of Memphis, the Associated Press reported.
His family released the following statement Thursday:
Our family is distraught to learn of the claims being made that my brother, Kevin Curtis, sent poison to public officials. We know none of the details about these claims ,and we have been furnished no evidence as to the allegations being made against Kevin.
We are, however, far too familiar with Kevin's lengthy history of mental illness. For years, our family has struggled to obtain medical assistance for Kevin, who has been diagnosed as bipolar. Our family succeeded, approximately three (3) years ago, in finally persuading Kevin to take medication prescribed for that disorder. Unfortunately, because his mental problems cause Kevin to believe he does not require medical treatment, he refused to continue to take the medication. Sadly, we have been informed there is no legal way for us to force him to follow his doctors' instructions.
When Kevin is taking his medication as prescribed, he is a loving, compassionate person. He is also highly intelligent with enormous potential. Our family is hopeful that the federal government will do something to provide some assistance for Kevin's mental illness. We also pray that this situation might create something good by bringing to the public's attention the lack of any way to provide meaningful medical treatment to those persons like Kevin, who so desperately need it.
Family of Kevin Curtis
A second set of tests on the letters confirmed the presence of ricin, authorities said Thursday afternoon. The amount and potency was unknown.
One of the letters was addressed to President Obama and was intercepted Tuesday at a White House mail screening facility in D.C.
That letter was similar a letter found Tuesday in an envelope sent to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. that also tested positive.
"[My wife] Gayle and I want to thank the men and women of the FBI and U.S. Capitol Police for their professionalism and decisive action in keeping our family and staff safe from harm," Sen. Wicker said a statement issued by his office Wednesday evening. "My offices in Mississippi and Washington remain open for business to all Mississippians. We particularly want to thank the people of Mississippi for their thoughts and prayers during this time."
The letter sent to a Mississippi justice official that also initially tested positive for ricin has been sent to the same facility where the other two letters are being tested.
Several reports of suspicious letters and packages sent to lawmakers emerged Wednesday, when news also emerged that two mail screening facilities in Maryland were being investigated after initial tests showed the presence of ricin there.
The envelopes addressed to Obama and Wicker were postmarked April 8 out of Memphis, Tenn., and both letters included the phrase "to see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance" and were signed "I am KC and I approve this message."
There's no way to know whether the substance on the letters really is ricin until it's sent to a laboratory for culturing. Ricin is made from castor beans, but in some threat mailings, the senders simply grind up castor beans, resulting in positive field tests even though it's not ricin.
"There was a letter addressed to the president that at an off-site mail facility was noticed to contain a suspicious substance and tests were undertaken," said White House spokesman Jay Carney in a briefing Wednesday. "The FBI has the lead in that investigation, of course, and has said in its statement that they will be conducting further tests to determine what the nature of the substance is."
Several reports of suspicious packages
Authorities said earlier they were aware of a person who they suspect could be linked to the mailings, but they were waiting for results from the testing of the envelopes.
"The person that is a suspect writes a lot of letters to members," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Tuesday as she emerged from a classified briefing.
Also Wednesday, Sen. Carl Levin, D.-Mich., said a staff member at his Saginaw office received a suspicious letter Wednesday.
The Phoenix office of Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was evacuated briefly after reports of a suspicious package, though that package turned out to be innocuous.
The atrium of the Hart Senate Building was briefly evacuated as authorities examined a suspicious package there and suspicious envelopes on other floors of the Hart and Russell buildings.
The Wicker envelope, which contained a white granular substance, was intercepted about 11 a.m. Tuesday at a Landover, Md., mail facility and did not reach the Capitol.
Both the Landover facility and a screening facility in Hyattsville, Md., which also handles Senate mail and where filters preliminarily tested positive for ricin Wednesday morning, are being investigated, according to the FBI. Mail in the facilities is being tested.
Capitol Police spokesman Shennell S. Antrobus said police were notified that the Landover facility had received "an envelope containing a white granular substance."
"The envelope was immediately quarantined by the facility's personnel and USCP HAZMAT responded to the scene," Antrobus said. "Preliminary tests indicate the substance found was ricin. The material is being forwarded to an accredited laboratory for further analysis."
One congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation wasn't concluded, said evidence of ricin appeared on two preliminary tests.
Mail bore a Memphis postmark, could come from one of several states
Terrance Gainer, the Senate's sergeant-at-arms, said the envelope bore a Memphis, Tenn., postmark but had no return address or suspicious markings.
Mail from a broad swath of northern Mississippi, including Tupelo, Oxford and DeSoto County, is processed and postmarked in nearby Memphis, according to a Postal Service map. The Memphis center also processes mail for residents of Western parts of Tennessee and eastern Arkansas.
Wicker's office has informed the senator's close associates of the tainted letters, a source close to Wicker told NBC News Tuesday. The office also is telling associates that no one at the Post Office was exposed to the substance.
But the postal worker's union complained that union officials and postal workers learned of the incident from the media.
“The safety of postal workers must be management’s first concern in an incident like this,” APWU President Cliff Guffey said. “Postal workers have a right to be informed immediately and to have the assistance of their union immediately to make sure that everything is being done that can be done to protect their safety.”
Management spoke to employees at the Maryland facilities, a D.C. facility that handles government mail and in Memphis. USPS said its primary concern right now is safety of employees, customers and the U.S. mail.
"This matter is part of an ongoing investigation by the United States Capitol Police and FBI," said a statement issued by Wicker. "I want to thank our law enforcement officials for their hard work and diligence in keeping those of us who work in the Capitol complex safe. Gayle and I appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers."
The letter's appearance "wouldn't raise suspicion," the Senate sergeant at arms said.
Mail to Senate suspended
Mail already screened and processed to be delivered to Senate offices will be delivered, but mail service will be suspended Thursday and Friday.
House leadership said there has been no change in their mail service.
"It was caught at the screening facility,” McCaskill said. “That's why we have the offsite screening facility for mail. And the tests came back positive. And they are shutting down the post offices temporarily to make sure they get everything squared away and we are notifying our state offices what to look for."
Ricin is fatal if inhaled in a quantity as small as a few grains of table salt -- but it's still far less dangerous than the anthrax spores found in letters sent to the offices of two senators in 2001, officials said.
At a House hearing, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said there have been ricin scares since the 2001 anthrax mailings and procedures are in place to protect postal employees and government offices, the Associate Press reported.
“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.”
Stay with NBC Washington and News4 for more on this developing story.