WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just two days after the Boston bombings, reports of letters possibly laced with poison and suspicious packages in government buildings set the nation’s capital on edge Wednesday and resurrected memories of the jittery weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Law enforcement officials confirmed they were investigating two suspicious letters, one addressed to President Barack Obama and the other to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. Both tested positive in preliminary tests for ricin, a granular powder that can be deadly when ingested or inhaled in small amounts.
The letters were intercepted at two mail processing centers Tuesday and sent away for more testing. Officials warned that early tests can be inaccurate.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the FBI said there was “no indication of a connection” between the letters and the bombings Monday that killed three spectators at the Boston Marathon and injured more than 170 people.
A law enforcement source said investigators believed both letters may have been sent by the same person. The letter to Wicker was postmarked in Memphis, Tenn. Although it had no return address, senators were told in a briefing Tuesday that the sender was familiar to authorities as someone who often writes to lawmakers.
Late in the day, the FBI arrested a Mississippi man on suspicion of sending both letters, and a third one to a state official, authorities said.
Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth was taken into custody at 5:15 p.m. for sending three letters “which contained a granular substance that preliminarily tested positive for ricin,” the FBI and the U.S. Marshal’s Service said.
Corinth is about 100 miles from Memphis, where the letter to Wicker was postmarked.
The third letter went to a Mississippi justice official, the FBI said.
Earlier in the day, Capitol police also scrambled to respond to reports of a suspicious envelope found in the Russell Senate Office Building and, minutes later, a report of a suspicious package in the nearby Hart building. Lawmakers and staff in both buildings were told to stay in offices while officials investigated reports that a man was running and dropping off multiple letters from a backpack. The man was questioned and cooperated with police, said a Capitol Police spokeswoman.
In Phoenix, local and federal authorities were called to the office of Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on a report of a suspicious letter. Flake’s office said no dangerous materials were found. In Saginaw, Mich., law enforcement officials were testing a letter delivered to Democratic Sen. Carl Levin’s office.
A staffer who handled the letter was hospitalized overnight as a precaution but had no symptoms, the senator’s office said.
The worries about white powdered substances and deadly envelopes evoked memories of the anthrax scare in the weeks after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The shock of that attack shifted to widespread, sustained anxiety as letters containing anthrax showed up at media offices and lawmakers’ offices. Five people died of contamination.
Law enforcement and White House officials noted that the mail-screening system set up after the 2001 incidents appeared to have worked. The Wicker letter was stopped at a center in Maryland. Officials would not disclose the location of the facility that screened the White House letter.
When a suspicious powder is found, it is tested on site before being sent to a laboratory for analysis. Those further tests can take up to 48 hours and sometimes contradict the preliminary test, the FBI said.
Ricin incidents have been on the rise, along with “white powder hoaxes,” since the 2001 anthrax scare, said Brian Michael Jenkins, an authority on terrorism and senior adviser to the president of the Rand Corp.
But Jenkins said there was little reason at the moment to think the letters discovered Tuesday might be connected to the Boston bombings. Although some terrorism experts have raised the possibility of “multimodal” assaults, in which a major attack is followed by a computer virus or bioterrorism, such warnings have not borne out.
Although it’s too early to be certain, “if these events involve unrelated perpetrators and one preceded the other, these are simply coincidences,” he said.