Men charged with stealing panel from ‘Native Hosts’ artwork at KU’s Spencer Museum to give a public apology

photo by: Ryan Waggoner

The "Native Hosts" series by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds is KU's Common Work of Art, pictured on display outside the Spencer Museum of Art.

The men who were charged with stealing a panel from the “Native Hosts” artwork at Spencer Museum of Art in 2021 are scheduled to give a public apology on Saturday.

The public apology was announced this week on social media by the First Nations Student Association at the University of Kansas. The post said that the student organization along with representatives from the Spencer and KU faculty and staff participated in a restorative justice meeting conducted by Building Peace Inc. on Nov. 7 and came to an agreement with the men about the apology.

The event will be at 2 p.m. Saturday in front of the Spencer, where the artwork stood, and is expected to last 30 minutes.

The men, Samuel C. McKnight and John W. Wichlenski, both 23, were each charged with one felony count of theft for taking a panel of KU’s Common Work of Art, titled “Native Hosts,” by artist Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds on or about Sept. 29, 2021, according to charging documents. Court records indicate that Wichlenski was granted diversion in July and McKnight was granted diversion in August.

A diversion is a process whereby someone accused of a crime is “diverted” from the usual legal procedures and instead completes the terms of an agreement, which may include some sort of rehabilitation program or fine. If the program is successfully completed, the criminal charges could be dropped.

As part of their diversion agreements, the men agreed to write a letter of apology to the museum and the Native American community, according to court records.

In McKnight’s diversion agreement, he said that he and Wichlenski got drunk the night of Sept. 28, 2021, and went to the museum and stole the artwork. McKnight said that he then put the artwork on display on his apartment balcony at the Varsity House, 1043 Indiana St., where a KU Public Safety police officer saw it. The officer went to the apartment and arrested him, and McKnight then confessed to the crime.

The theft of the “Native Hosts” panel came a few weeks after four of the five panels of the work were vandalized. Two men have been charged in connection with the vandalism. Josef Robert Keivan, 20, of Burr Ridge, Illinois, and Owen Patrick McAuliffe, 19, of La Grange Park, Illinois, have each been charged with one felony count of criminal damage for allegedly vandalizing the artwork on Sept. 4, 2021.

Both Keivan and McAuliffe are scheduled to appear in court in January on those charges.

Of the four men involved in the theft and vandalism cases, only one of them, McAuliffe, is currently a KU student, according to Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokesperson with KU. The other three are former KU students.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the men are apologizing as part of the diversion agreements they reached with the state.


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