WASHINGTON — Caught in the middle of a small-town Mississippi feud, authorities dropped charges Tuesday against the man they had charged with sending ricin-laced letters to the White House, a US senator, and a county judge as the FBI appeared to turn its attention toward his longtime antagonist.
A federal magistrate judge directed that charges against Paul Kevin Curtis be dismissed because ‘‘the ongoing investigation has revealed new information,’’ according to his written order. The charges were dropped without prejudice, meaning they could be lodged again in the future.
But James Everette Dutschke of Tupelo said the FBI was searching his home in connection with the ricin letter case Tuesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press. Dutschke said he was innocent and knows nothing about the ingredients for ricin.
The FBI in Mississippi and Washington, and the US attorney’s office in Oxford, Miss., refused repeated requests to explain their about-face on Curtis and whether they were now focusing on Dutschke as the man who might have sent three letters containing the deadly poison made from castor beans.
But it was clear that investigators now are dealing with two men with histories of erratic behavior whose conflict nearly came to blows, according to the account Curtis gave in a colorful, rambling news conference outside the federal courthouse in Oxford.
Curtis, 45, was released on bond, according to Jeff Woodfin, chief deputy of the US Marshals Service for the Northern District of Mississippi.
Curtis’s release came a day after an FBI agent told a court that a search of Curtis’s home turned up no ricin, nor did investigators find any evidence that he was making it. No other physical evidence tying Curtis to the ricin mailings was presented in two days of federal court hearings, and a third day of hearings was canceled Tuesday morning without explanation, the AP reported.
Curtis appeared at a news conference early Tuesday evening outside the federal courthouse in Oxford with his attorney, Christi McCoy, who has strongly asserted Curtis’s innocence. McCoy said ‘‘it took a lot of planning, determination, and patience’’ to carry out the ricin attacks.
‘‘That is so not Kevin, to spend hours focused on making ricin,’’ she said.
Calls to Curtis’s father, brother, and ex-wife were not returned Tuesday afternoon.
Curtis was arrested last Wednesday at his home in Corinth, Miss., and charged with sending letters containing ricin to President Obama, Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, and a county judge in Mississippi. The first letter, to Wicker, was discovered April 15.
According to an FBI affidavit supporting the charges, Curtis allegedly mailed three identical letters on yellow paper laced with a poison believed to be ricin. The letters alluded to a long-held conspiracy theory about the trafficking in human body parts that Curtis had sought to expose.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, when asked about the Curtis case, referred questions to the FBI.
Ricin is made from castor beans, and authorities have long worried about its use by terrorists and others. But FBI agents testified this week that they found no castor beans at Curtis’s house nor any information on his computer that he was researching the poison.
The Lee County Courier reported in January that Dutschke, a martial arts instructor, had been charged with two counts of child molestation. He was later released on bond. The Washington Post could not reach Dutschke for comment at his home or martial arts studio.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, told reporters that there was another ‘‘alleged ricin incident’’ at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington but could provide no additional details. Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau was investigating a suspicious letter at the Air Force base but had no further information.
But the Defense Intelligence Agency released a statement late Tuesday saying that no suspicious packages or letters had been found.
‘‘Today, DIA’s mail screening equipment alerted officials to the possible presence of a potentially harmful substance,’’ Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Veale, a DIA spokesman, said in the statement. ‘‘After thorough on-scene investigation, no suspicious packages or letters were located. The FBI took samples and will conduct further testing off-site.’’