June 18, 2008 -- Want to know what it feels like to be the target of a four-year federal bioterrorism investigation?
Just ask Steven Kurtz, a University of Buffalo professor who was indicted on charges of mail and wire fraud in 2004 by the U.S. Attorney's office in the Western District of New York, which alleged that that he illegally acquired two bacteria cultures and transferred them to a colleague.
Or visit his art exhibit, "Seized," at Buffalo's Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, where Kurtz is displaying the trash, including hundreds of bottles of Gatorade and water, over 30 pizza boxes, Hazmat suits, maps of his home and a hand-written check list titled "Search Warrant" he claims were left behind by dozens of investigators with the Joint Terrorism Task Force when they raided his house for three days in May 2004.
A longtime artist who explores the intersections between art and science, Kurtz came to the attention of the government soon after his wife, Hope, died of congenital heart failure in her sleep in 2004. Officers who responded to his 911 calls the night she died became suspicious when they found biological equipment at his home laboratory. The FBI detained Kurtz for 22 hours, seized material from his home and removed his wife's body from the county coroner's office for analysis.
Two months ago, federal judge Richard J. Acara dismissed the indictment, calling it "insufficient on its face" and the Justice Department recently announced it will not appeal the decision, seek new charges or reinstate the old charges.
"it was a miserable experience," says Kurtz who compares his ordeal of dealing with his wife's death and the subsequent investigation to being shot "with a double-barreled shotgun."
Originally, he designed the exhibit to coincide with the trial, as part of a defense ploy to demonstrate what he alleges FBI investigators did to his home.
"We wanted to show people: here's all the evidence, come on down and have a look."
Kurtz also claims that federal agents have yet to return items, including scientific paraphenalia, computers, books, and manuscripts, that were seized in the raid.
Kurtz's experience will also be the subject of an upcoming docudrama, "Strange Culture," starring Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton.
A spokesman for the FBI said he could not comment on the specifics of the raid on Kurtz's house but emphasized that "it's not our general practice to leave a mess in the house like that."
As for Kurtz's possessions, the spokesman said that they are in the process of being returned.