Four people are accused of crimes against Indigenous art on KU’s campus; here’s where their cases stand

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Two defendants plan to give public apologies Saturday for their theft of Indigenous artwork from KU’s campus last year. For two others accused of vandalizing the artwork, their criminal cases have just begun. 

Within the span of a month last fall, all five panels that were part of “Native Hosts,” an outdoor art installation by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne, Arapaho), were damaged or stolen. The panels are metal signs that include the names of the Kaw, Potawatomi, Ioway, Ne Me Ha Ha Ki and Kickapoo tribes.

“On each sign, the colonial name is printed backward while the name of the land’s original occupants is printed forward,” according to an article from the Spencer Museum of Art. “The visual tension that Heap of Birds creates between these names aims to remind viewers of the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their homelands as well as their continued and active presence in the Americas.”

The installation was the University of Kansas’ Common Work of Art for 2021, selected as a piece to complement the Common Book and engage first-year students in a shared reading and experience. 

But on Sept. 4, 2021, four of five panels of the artwork were bent and knocked loose from their posts outside the Spencer Museum. While museum staff had those panels stored safely to be repaired, the fifth panel was stolen. 

Many members of KU’s Indigenous community, including members of KU’s First Nations Student Association, were deeply saddened by the crimes. 

“This exhibit was intended to draw attention to issues of Native sovereignty, colonial dispossession and respect and honor for Indigenous peoples upon whose land KU’s campus occupies,” FNSA students wrote in a statement at the time. “Native exhibits are incredible tools for creating conversations and drawing attention to our history and the value we bring to our areas of study and our interactions with the community at large.”

It’s taken a little more than a year, but four suspects have been formally charged in connection with the crimes. 

Charged as felonies

As the investigation was ongoing, some community members wondered how these cases would be charged — felonies or misdemeanors? 

According to a 2009 article from The News-Gazette in Urbana, Illinois, a man there was charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing two panels in a similar “Native Hosts” installation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Prosecutors in that case valued the work at the cost of the metal and materials to create it, rather than valuing it as fine art. The difference meant the defendant was charged with theft of about $300, but art appraisers valued similar signs by Heap of Birds at $10,000 each, according to the article. Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and a KU distinguished professor, in an interview last year likened that to charging someone with the cost of the paint rather than the value of the Mona Lisa.

In all four of these local cases, the Douglas County district attorney’s office filed initial charges as felonies. 

The vandalism case

KUPD in September 2021 released a surveillance image of two men they suspected were responsible for the vandalism. That October, Deputy Chief James Druen said KUPD had identified the two suspects and forwarded the case to the district attorney’s office to consider charges. 

Court records indicate that the cases were charged as soon as January 2022, and the DA’s office sent out summonses by mail — but they did not reach the defendants, and both missed their original court dates. Judges later signed warrants for their arrest. 

Now, Owen P. McAuliffe, 19, and Josef R. Keivan, 20, each face one count of criminal damage to property to the extent of $25,000 or more — level-7 felonies, which are typically punishable by probation unless the defendant has a significant criminal history. 

McAuliffe is currently a KU student, according to KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson; Keivan has not been enrolled since the fall 2021 semester. 

McAuliffe was booked into the Douglas County jail on Nov. 8, and Keivan was booked Monday. Both were released from jail on $1500 signature bonds, meaning they did not have to pay to be released. They have upcoming court appearances — status conferences set for Jan. 11 and Jan. 18, respectively, in the courtroom of Douglas County District Court Judge Amy Hanley. 

Attorney Hatem Chahine is representing McAuliffe. Reached via email Friday, he declined to comment on the pending case. Attorney Nicholas David, counsel for Keivan, did not respond to an email seeking comment Friday. 

D’Arlyn Bell (Cherokee Nation), a member of KU’s First Nations Student Association, said Thursday that the group didn’t know anything about the vandalism cases. 

All arrestees and defendants in criminal cases should be presumed not guilty unless and until they are convicted. 


The theft case

Just a few weeks after the damage to the first four panels, the fifth panel was stolen. Within a day, someone called in a tip, and KUPD recovered and returned the panel to the museum, Druen said at the time. 

Druen said that in a preliminary interview, the suspects had said they were intoxicated, and if they’d known the meaning of the sign, they never would have taken it. “They just thought it looked cool because it had ‘Kansas’ mirrored on it, and that it would be cool to have,” Druen said.

John Wichlenski and Samuel McKnight, both 23, faced charges of theft of a value of at least $1,500 but less than $25,000 — level-9 felonies. Their charges were filed in October 2021.

Both defendants agreed to diversions, meaning that as long as they complete requirements of a program with the DA’s office, the charges will not stay on their permanent criminal records. 

As part of their diversion agreements, Wichlenski and McKnight participated in a restorative justice circle facilitated by Building Peace and including representatives from the Spencer Museum as well as members of FNSA. As part of the agreement participants reached in that circle, McKnight and Wichlenski will give public apologies at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 in front of the museum. 

Bell said the public apology was the first action the two would take.

“They will be involved in extensive education under Native direction which will include reading, writing essays (with feedback) and developing a presentation to be delivered at the Pow Wow next spring and hopefully to fraternities and other orgs on campus,” Bell said in a message Thursday. She said they’ll also be volunteering for the powwow and using their networks to recruit additional volunteers. 

Chahine represented Wichlenski in his case. Wichlenski said in a statement via his attorney Friday that he’s extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with Building Peace “along with great individuals with the First Nations Student Association (FNSA). I am working hard to repair the damage that was done by my actions.” Wichlenski said the restorative justice process has been a great step in the right direction, and he looks forward to giving his public apology Saturday. 

The event is expected to last about 30 minutes, according to FNSA. 

Attorney Michael Clarke, who represented McKnight, did not respond to an email seeking comment for this article Friday. 

Wichlenski graduated in May, and McKnight has not been enrolled at KU since spring 2022, Barcomb-Peterson said. 

“There are instances in which justice can be achieved through open dialog between the affected parties,” Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said in an emailed statement Friday. “This office is open to helping facilitate that dialog through Independent Assessment Conferences, engagement in Restorative Justice, or other means by which those involved can have their voices heard.”

All five panels were reinstalled outside the Spencer on Oct. 13, 2021, and celebrated with a ceremony the following day. 

In the time since, KU has opened the Edgar Heap of Birds Family Gallery on the third floor of Chalmers Hall. The artist spoke at a reception for the gallery’s first exhibit. 

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office declined to release all four booking photos on the grounds that the photos are not required to be released under the Kansas Open Records Act. 

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Four people are accused of crimes against Indigenous art on KU’s campus; here’s where their cases stand

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