Washington — WASHINGTON — Fire crews arrive at the unmarked postal building in Maryland by the Capital Beltway almost every day, donning protective rubber suits and carrying away suspicious letters addressed to members of Congress. At a similarly secret building in the District of Columbia, agents pull aside letters once or twice a week to the president containing powder or other cause for concern. For years — ever since the anthrax attacks of 2001 — nearly every one has proved harmless.
But alarms sounded in both buildings at once this week, and the threats appeared real: A grainy substance tested positive for the lethal toxin ricin in letters addressed to President Barack Obama and a quiet senator from Mississippi.
By Wednesday night, authorities had arrested Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss., as a suspect in the ricin mailings, a law enforcement official said. Curtis is well known to law enforcement as a frequent letter-writer to lawmakers, two sources said.
The ricin scare had spilled into public view in dramatic fashion earlier Wednesday, less than two days after the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon and bringing with it an eerie echo of the waves of fear that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Suspicious envelopes were hand-delivered to the Capitol Hill offices of senators from Alabama and West Virginia, prompting evacuations of their staffs, and lockdowns of many more. Two other senators — from Arizona and Michigan — reported that authorities were investigating suspicious letters delivered to district offices in their home states.
In all, five senators, including some in the thick of contentious negotiations over gun-control and immigration bills, were sent into emergency mode. Another wave of anxiety swept through Capitol just before lunchtime when a bag left in the entranceway of a Senate building brought a bomb squad racing toward Capitol Hill. Police ordered thousands of staffers and aides not to leave their offices.