Yeaman finished her appraisal in early 2008 and sent Kevin two thick books filled with pictures and historical background. By then, Kevin decided he needed to take further action. "I could not get any responses from the science center," he says. "Doug King would not involve me in the investigation. I finally filed a lawsuit."

Kevin Airis sued the science center in May of 2008. He demanded $5 million: "Interest on the objects, the actual value of the objects, the loss of the objects."

In the early days of the lawsuit, during the discovery process, the Airises requested and received a CD of documents from the science center. It contained the insurance appraisals from 1979 and 1989, the NAGPRA inventory from 2001 and, most interestingly, a series of internal communications between museum employees. Although the museum had been legally required to turn over the documents, the Airises were still stunned to realize that King and his staff had given them information that could be damaging to their own case.

The catlinite peace pipe Thomas Airis smoked when he became a chief.
Jennifer Silverberg
The catlinite peace pipe Thomas Airis smoked when he became a chief.

"They tried to bog us down in paperwork," Theresa says. "They were so arrogant, they didn't realize they were giving us evidence."

Among the items on the CD was an e-mail Frillman wrote in January 2007, shortly after the Airises had first contacted her about the missing items.

In the e-mail, Frillman explained the situation to Tom Jaskiewicz, the science center's CFO. "The only problem I can foresee is that when we do notify Mr. Airis that we were only able to locate a small portion of the objects, he might be upset and it could cause some PR problems," she wrote. "[B]ut after speaking with him I think he will be grateful to get anything back."

The Airises were outraged. They considered this evidence that the science center had never intended to take them seriously. "We just wanted our things back," Kevin says simply.

They examined the inventory lists and discovered they were indeed as shoddy as Frillman had claimed. They also learned that the science center had done its own appraisal of the missing objects the previous year, after Frillman had conducted her search and been unable to find anything.

Like Yeaman, the two appraisers, Ben Thompson and Jim Duncan, had based their estimates on photographs. But they came to a very different conclusion.

"[We] determined the items were not of historical significance since they were purchased mostly from roadside museums," Thompson and Duncan wrote in a signed one-page statement. "The items were collected in the '40s, '50s and '60s, and these objects were in marginal condition based on age and the fact they were used repeatedly in Boy Scout shows."

Thomas Airis' beaded vest, they concluded, was worth $800. Yeaman had calculated its value at $8,000. Kevin and Theresa were offended.

"Gwen is one of the top six Native American appraisers in the country," Theresa protests.

But the linchpin of the Airises' case, they felt, was a letter Houser had written to King early in 2001, which they also found during discovery:

I have been told by some of the collection workers that on returning from the Christmas holidays they saw in the lounge area a large trash receptacle filled and overflowing with files and loose papers, Houser wrote. They said they did not examine the files, so I can only guess at what those files were. I suspect, however, that they may have been collection files.

If this is true I find it very disturbing that someone took it upon themselves to determine that these files were useless and so consigned them to the trash bin. Anyone with only remedial training in collections management should know that files and papers relating to collections are as important as the objects in the collections.

Houser confirmed in a phone interview that he believes the Airis files were among those that had been thrown away, including a copy of the invoice that he says he gave Jewel Airis when she came to retrieve Thomas' things back in 1974.

"They can't prove us wrong if they have no files," Kevin says triumphantly. "We were bullied."

Unfortunately for the Airises, the science center had other weapons at its disposal.

As one of the science center's lawyers, Christopher Blanton, explained in a letter to their attorney, the law in Missouri holds that a museum cannot be sued for loss of property more than two years from the date the museum notified the lender of the loss.

Since Houser claimed he had returned the Airises' property in 1974, as far as the museum was concerned, there had been no loss and no need to notify the family.

But even if there were a loss, the museum had time on its side. Since the Airises' items don't appear on the 1979 insurance appraisal, Blanton concluded, "the loss, if there was one, occurred prior to 1980. Thus, it is the position of [the science center] that the applicable statute of limitations has run."

Why did Jewel Airis wait so long to ask the museum to return her father-in-law's things? "Mom was busy taking care of Dad," Kevin explains. "She volunteered at the hospital. She thought my brother and I would fight over it. She said there was no limit to how long we could keep something in a museum." Her husband finally died in 1991, and her older son passed away in 2006.

« Previous Page
Next Page »