During his seven-and-a-half-hour deposition, Kevin said his mother had always planned to get the things back eventually.

"For the last 30 years, I would always give my mother crap about it, and she would always say we will get it back one day, we will get it back one day.... She did tell me that the items would be returned back to the family on her deathbed."

Kevin believes his mother never actually wanted to see the things again. "She told me they were safe in the museum," he says. "The memories they brought back were too painful. Looking at the stuff was like looking at Grandpa."

Thomas Airis (far right) and members of his dancing troupe.
courtesy Kevin Airis
Thomas Airis (far right) and members of his dancing troupe.
Jewel Airis wears one of her father-in-law's porcupine-quill hair roaches.
courtesy Kevin Airis
Jewel Airis wears one of her father-in-law's porcupine-quill hair roaches.

The trial Kevin Airis had anticipated for nearly two years never materialized. Instead, on April 10, Circuit Judge Edward Sweeney issued summary judgment in favor of the science center.

"Repeated inventories taken over a period from 1979 to 2001 failed to include the artifacts in question. Nothing in the record indicates that at any time after 1979, the [science center] knew where the artifacts were or how they could have been recovered."

The science center, Sweeney reasoned, couldn't return anything it didn't have. And if the items had been stolen, the science center could not be held responsible. Finally, Sweeney concluded, the science center's lawyers were correct: The statue of limitations had expired.

The Airises plans to appeal the ruling. The science center, says Jay Levitch, one of its attorneys, "is going to fight the appeal vigorously. Long before there was any dispute," he continues, "the science center was going about its normal tasks, doing what a museum does. None of the items showed up in any inventory. For Mr. Airis to suggest that we have them and are hiding them — the facts don't support it."

Doug King, Melinda Frillman and other staff members of the science center declined to speak to Riverfront Times for legal reasons. Kevin Kasper, the Airises' lawyer, did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Once the court battles are over, Kevin Airis plans to file a complaint with the American Association of Museums. The association has issued a series of guidelines for museums to follow when organizing their collections, including careful documentation of every item and the establishment of security measures to make sure nothing is damaged or lost. The science center's inventory lists might not qualify as "careful documentation."

If the association finds the science center has violated any of the guidelines, it could lose its accreditation.

"Our accreditation status isn't public like a hospital," admits Julie Hart, the American Association of Museums' senior director. "But it means something to the field. Loss of accreditation could affect the ease and facility of getting loans from peer institutions. And people understand the institution did something wrong. It happens very rarely."

The fight for the missing artifacts has taken its toll on Kevin and Theresa. The appraisal and legal costs have run to nearly $50,000 so far. Theresa's uncle, Ray Ackermann, is helping to pay the bills.

"My wife passed away five years ago," Ackermann says. "Theresa has been like a daughter to us. We're very close, that's why I'm helping. It's a loan. They're going to pay me back. But money doesn't mean that much to me anyway. It's friendship."

Shortly after his mother's death, Kevin suffered a heart attack and had to shut down his business. Now, like his grandfather, he tours nearby schools and shows the kids the Kachina dolls and his eagle talon and lets them try on the feathered headdresses and porcupine hair roaches. He keeps the thank-you notes they send him in the leather briefcase that holds the rest of his legal paperwork.

"I'll never sell any of the Indian stuff I got," he says.

"We really looked forward to taking Jewelie back to the reservation with her stuff," Theresa adds.

The Airises plan to keep fighting till the bitter end.

"Most people wouldn't be able to fight this," Kevin says. "But because of what Mom said on her deathbed...she didn't criticize me. But those eyes...it was something she wanted done. I don't have any choice but to finish this."

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