The fate of the Long Island Spy Museum is as mysterious as the clandestine world it was supposed to portray.
Organizers had announced plans to open the nonprofit museum in 2012 at a former firehouse in Stony Brook. The museum was to have traced the evolution of espionage from the Setauket-based Culper spy ring during the Revolutionary War through the post-9/11 era.
But the museum never opened, key organizers disappeared and some former board members wonder what happened to $2 million in donations that organizers said they had raised.
“The whole story is cloaked in mystery and cloaked in frustration,” Victoria Berger, executive director of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, said in an interview. “These are local Suffolk County residents who donated lots of money, and then to have this disappear.”
Some former members of the museum’s board of directors said they became skeptical about the project.
Former CIA official Michael Sulick said he resigned as chairman of the board after eight months in June 2012. He said he became suspicious when he was not reimbursed for travel expenses and museum-sponsored symposiums at Stony Brook University were canceled without explanation.
“I’m a little galled that after a lifetime of dealing with foreigners who were pulling the wool over my eyes that I have to say the same about my fellow Americans,” Sulick said from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Emails to Michael Gilbert, the museum’s chief operating officer, and Patrick Austin, a British investor who spearheaded the project, bounced back as “undeliverable.”
Spokesmen for the state attorney general’s office and the state Department of State said they have received no complaints about the museum.
The spy museum was to have included exhibits such as a secret passage disguised as a bookcase and a shaving kit that doubled as a radio device.
Organizers said the museum had the backing of current and former intelligence officers. But organizers said they could not identify some of them because their work was classified.
Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Three Village Civic Association, said the museum’s board of directors included actor Jonathan Goldsmith, best known for playing “the most interesting man in the world” in a series of beer commercials.
“I don’t know how serious anyone was about it,” Nuzzo said. “As far as I saw, it was just a sign in the window.”
Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, said her group had agreed to lease space for the museum in the former Stony Brook firehouse, a two-story building at 275 Christian Ave. She said the museum plans failed because organizers could not raise enough money.
“The community didn’t support it, to raise the funds to make it happen,” Rocchio said. “We terminated the lease.”
The space soon will be occupied by The Jazz Loft, a music museum, she said.
Berger said she began receiving inquiries about the museum about two months ago. She said many callers said they had made donations to the museum but did not get their money back.
“We’ve been getting these phone calls here out of desperation,” Berger said. “I think it does beg the question, where are they now?”
Organizers said the Long Island Spy Museum would have included the following:
- Shaving kit that doubles as a radio
- Secret passage disguised as a bookcase
- Surveillance van, where visitors could manipulate cameras and listen to conversations
- Jacket worn by actor Sterling Hayden
- “Spy bus,” which would have carried students to the museum from local schools