Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Frank LaMere and Renita Chalepah, Mother of Zachary Bear Heels, Speak

Mayor offers apology after jury clears officer in Lakota man's death

Police Chief: 'Somebody perjured themself'
Zachary Bear Heels, 29, died after being beaten by police officers
By Kevin Abourezk

• PHOTOS: Zachary Bear Heels Prayer Walk

OMAHA, Nebraska – Mayor Jean Stothert apologized Tuesday to a relative of a mentally ill Rosebud Lakota man who died last year after being shocked 12 times and struck 13 times by two police officers here.

At a meeting of a mayoral Native advisory committee in city hall, Stothert said she was disappointed in how Omaha police treated Zachary Bear Heels on the morning of June 5, 2017, and about an Omaha jury’s decision on December 10 to acquit one of the officers accused of assaulting the mentally ill man.

“I would say I’m sorry this happened,” Stothert said.

She was directing her comment to Alfie Goombi, who is a cousin to Bear Heels’ mother Renita Chalepah. Goombi, a Christian minister and citizen of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, had expressed frustration at the jury’s verdict and implored Stothert as a mother herself to consider the anguish felt by Chalepah.

Zachary Bear Heels, 1987-2017, is seen on the left in a photo posted on social media.

Stother responded, saying she wishes she could change how officers dealt with Bear Heels but she said she also thinks it’s important to find ways to ensure officers properly treat every mentally ill person they encounter. And she criticized the jury’s decision to acquit Payne of felony second-degree assault and use of deadly weapon to commit a felony.

“That doesn’t mean we feel things were handled correctly because we don’t,” she said.

Stothert and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer met with members of her Native advisory committee, as well as nearly 10 Native community members and others. Stothert formed the advisory committee following Bear Heels’ death last year.

Payne wasn’t the only officer charged following Bear Heels’ death. Ryan McClarty, who is accused of punching the Lakota man 13 times in the head, is facing misdemeanor third-degree assault. His jury trial is set to begin January 14 in Douglas County District Court.

Following the encounter last year, Schmaderer fired Payne and McClarty, as well as two female officers involved in the incident, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead.

Only Payne and McClarty were charged. Native activists have called on Strudl and Mead to be held accountable in connection with Bear Heels’ death.

"Loving Son, Brother, Grandson, Nephew, Uncle" -- Zachary Bear Heels was laid to rest in Apache, Oklahoma, following his death in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2017. His headstone is seen in this courtesy photo.

Bear Heels was traveling from South Dakota to his home in Oklahoma City when he was kicked off the bus in Omaha for erratic behavior. His relatives have said he had schizophrenia, was bipolar and wasn’t taking his medication.

After Payne, Strudl and Mead found him outside the Bucky’s convenience store, they attempted to put him in a police cruiser. Payne began shocking him after he refused to get into the cruiser and even after he was sitting on the ground, handcuffed, near the back passenger tire of a police cruiser. McClarty, who arrived shortly after the altercation began, started punching Bear Heels after he got a hand free from his cuffs.

A coroner’s physician who conducted an autopsy on Bear Heels later concluded his death was attributable to “excited delirium” and not necessarily related to his injuries or shocks.

Following his acquittal, Payne told the media that he plans to seek to get his job back through an arbitrator. If the arbitrator agrees with him, Schmaderer would be forced to rehire Payne.

Schmaderer said he doesn’t plan to rehire Payne unless he’s forced to do so.

“I’m still maintaining my position that they shouldn’t be Omaha police officers,” he said.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Native Community Demands Justice for Zachary Bear Heels

He said he's confident that he will be able to convince an arbitrator to support his decision to fire the four officers involved in the altercation with Bear Heels.

He said he’s hopeful a jury will find McClarty guilty of misdemeanor third-degree assault.

“I think there’s a strong case there. I really do,” he said.

He said he implemented a two-hour training session on how to deal with Native Americans, required of all officers, following the incident last year.

He said he disagrees with the jury’s decision to acquit Payne.

“What occurred there is wrong,” Schmaderer said. “I don’t have trust in those four officers.”

#NativeLivesMatter: Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, a member of the mayor’s Native advisory committee, called on Schmaderer to look into troubling testimony provided by Strudl during Payne’s trial.

She told jurors that when she first contacted her supervisor, Sgt. Erik Forehead, after detaining Bear Heels and placing him in the back of her cruiser, that Forehead called the mentally ill man a “fucking retard.” During his own testimony, Forehead denied making the statement.

LaMere said he’s concerned Forehead’s statement, if he indeed said it, suggests racism and indifference on the part of Omaha police. He said he was also concerned to learn that Forehead asked Payne to ride in the ambulance to the hospital with Bear Heels following the incident, a violation of OPD policy.

“We heard some things in there, very troubling, very troubling,” he said. “The jury was fooled.”

But he thanked Schmaderer for firing the four officers involved in the altercation with Bear Heels and for saying publicly that he wouldn’t rehire them.

“I hope that you stand strong in that regard,” LaMere said.

He said the city of Omaha needs to begin reevaluating how it treats those with mental illness and addiction and its homeless population. He said if Native people are being mistreated today, it’s likely other vulnerable people will be mistreated tomorrow.

“Native people are the like the miner’s canary,” he said.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Calling for Justice in Nebraska

Schmaderer said he plans to investigate Strudl’s claim that Forehead called Bear Heels an epithet. He said Strudl never mentioned during her interview with OPD’s internal affairs unit after the incident that Forehead had made the statement.

“Somebody perjured themself in court,” he said. “If I find out, there’ll be hell to pay for that.”

John Pappan, a citizen of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, said he was “speechless” when he learned of the jury’s acquittal of Payne.

He called on Schmaderer to investigate the March 8 shooting in Omaha of a 21-year-old Santee Sioux man, Micah Taylor, by the same officer who served as a lead witness for Payne’s defense, Officer Dave Staskiewicz.

But Schmaderer said he had already reviewed footage from Staskiewicz’s body camera and from a helicopter that flew above the scene that day and was satisfied with his department’s handling of the incident.

“I saw that incident,” he said. “There’s not a dispute as to what took place there.”

Rudi Mitchell, a retired university instructor and citizen of the Omaha Tribe, said the officers who encountered Bear Heels on June 5 last year should have placed him in emergency protective custody.

“I agree with you on that,” Schmaderer said.

Stothert said the four officers involved in the Bear Heels incident clearly violated OPD policies.

LaMere said he hopes the city of Omaha and OPD administration will continue to oppose the Omaha police union’s efforts to protect officers who violate department policy and criminal laws.

Stothert said she’s been at odds with the police union for some time, especially regarding police officers’ salaries and benefits.

“I always have a battle with the unions,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t respect them as individuals.”


Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

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