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The FBI's Art Attack
Offbeat Materials at Professor's Home Set Off Bioterror Alarm

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An FBI hazardous materials team enters Steve Kurtz's Buffalo house, where they found unusual art materials. (Don Heupel -- AP)


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By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK -- "A forensic investigation of FBI trash." On the telephone, Beatriz da Costa says it wryly. Her humor sounds bitter. She's talking about the detritus of a terror probe at the Buffalo home of her good friends, the Kurtzes.

She's talking about the pizza boxes, Gatorade jugs, the gloves, the gas mask filters, the biohazard suits: the stuff left by police, FBI, hazmat and health investigators after they descended on the Kurtz home and quarantined the place.

The garbage tells a story of personal tragedy, a death in the Kurtz household, that sparked suspicions (later proved unfounded) of a biohazard in the neighborhood. And it tells a story of the times in which we live, with almost daily warnings about terror, and with law enforcement primed to pounce.

Steve Kurtz, a Buffalo art professor, discovered on the morning of May 11 that his wife of 20 years, Hope Kurtz, had stopped breathing. He called 911. Police and emergency personnel responded, and what they saw in the Kurtz home has triggered a full-blown probe -- into the vials and bacterial cultures and strange contraptions and laboratory equipment.

The FBI is investigating. A federal grand jury has been impaneled. Witnesses have been subpoenaed, including da Costa.

Kurtz and his late wife were founders of the Critical Art Ensemble, an internationally renowned collective of "tactical media" protest and performance artists. Steve Kurtz, 48, has focused on the problems of the emergence of biotechnology, such as genetically modified food. He and the art ensemble, which also includes da Costa, have authored several books including "Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media" and "Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas," both published by Autonomedia/Semiotext(e).

The day of his wife's death, Kurtz told the authorities who he is and what he does.

"He explained to them that he uses [the equipment] in connection with his art, and the next thing you know they call the FBI and a full hazmat team is deposited there from Quantico -- that's what they told me," says Paul Cambria, the lawyer who is representing Kurtz. "And they all showed up in their suits and they're hosing each other down and closing the street off, and all the news cameras were there and the head of the [Buffalo] FBI is granting interviews. It was a complete circus."

Cambria, the bicoastal Buffalo and Los Angeles lawyer best known for representing pornographer Larry Flynt, calls the Kurtz episode a "colossal overreaction."

FBI agents put Kurtz in a hotel, where they continued to question him. Cambria says Kurtz felt like a detainee over the two days he was at the hotel. Paul Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo office of the FBI, says the bureau put Kurtz in a hotel because his home had been declared off limits. The probe, Moskal says, was a by-the-books affair from the very beginning.

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