OXFORD, Miss. — A Mississippi man charged with sending ricin-laced letters to the president and other officials was described Thursday as a good father, a quiet neighbor and an entertainer who impersonated Elvis at parties. But accounts also show a man who spiraled into emotional turmoil trying to get attention for his claims of uncovering a conspiracy to sell body parts on the black market.
Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, detailed in numerous Web posts over the past several years the event that he said "changed my life forever": the chance discovery of body parts and organs wrapped in plastic in a small refrigerator at a hospital where he worked as a janitor more than a decade ago.
He tried to talk to officials and get the word out online, but he thought he was being railroaded by the government. Authorities say the efforts culminated in letters sent to President Barack Obama, a U.S. senator and a judge in Mississippi. "Maybe I have your attention now even if that means someone must die," the letters read, according to an FBI affidavit.
"He is bipolar, and the only thing I can say is he wasn't on his medicine," his ex-wife, Laura Curtis, told The Associated Press.
Jim Waide, an attorney for the Curtis family, said Paul Kevin Curtis was prescribed medication three years ago. "When he is on his medication, he is terrific, he's nice, he's functional," Waide said. "When he's off his medication, that's when there's a problem."
Waide represented Curtis in a lawsuit he filed in August 2000 against North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, where he had worked from 1998 until he was fired in 2000. Waide said he withdrew from the case because Curtis didn't trust him. The suit, claiming employment discrimination, was dismissed.
"He thought I was conspiring against him," Waide said. "He thinks everybody is out to get him."
Curtis made a brief court appearance Thursday, wearing shackles and a Johnny Cash T-shirt. Attorney Christi R. McCoy said he "maintains 100 percent" that he is innocent. He did not enter pleas to the two federal charges against him. He is due back in court Friday afternoon.
In several letters to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, and other officials, Curtis said he was writing a novel about black market body parts called "Missing Pieces."
Curtis also had posted language similar to the letters on his Facebook page. The documents indicate Curtis had been distrustful of the government for years. In 2007, Curtis' ex-wife called police in Booneville, Miss., to report that her husband was extremely delusional, anti-government and felt the government was spying on him with drones.
But Laura Curtis said Thursday that she doesn't believe the allegations about her ex-husband. "He just likes to speak out," she said.
"What they say he did is so unlike him, it's unreal," she added. "Until I hear him say he did it, I would not, I would not, I could not believe it."
Early Thursday evening, the FBI said lab tests have confirmed the presence of ricin in the letters mailed to Obama and Wicker. Holland's son, Mississippi state Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, said the letter sent to the judge was being tested.
Raymond Zilinskas, a chemical and biological weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, called the process to make ricin elaborate. She said it would not be difficult to create a low-concentration version using instructions from the Internet, but a finer and more concentrated version would require laboratory equipment and expertise, she said.
Laura Curtis said she doesn't think her ex-husband has the knowledge required to make ricin. She said he collects a monthly disability check, and she did not know where he would get ricin.
She said she cried when she heard about the arrest.
"It's more sinking in today, because you see the longer picture," Curtis said. "It's just me and the kids."