Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, far right, speaks to the family of Zachary Bear Heels outside the bus station in Omaha, Nebraska, where the Native man first arrived on June 5, 2017. He later died after being beaten by police officers. A prayer walk took place in his honor on December 8, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Former police officer won't face charges for death of Native man

Zachary Bear Heels, 29, died after being beaten by police officers in Nebraska
By Kevin Abourezk

• PHOTOS: Zachary Bear Heels Prayer Walk

Native leaders in Nebraska expressed outrage Friday following a prosecutor’s decision to drop assault charges against a former Omaha police officer who allegedly punched a mentally ill Native man who later died in June 2017.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine’s decision to not move forward with the case against Ryan McClarty means none of the four officers who were involved in the altercation with Zachary Bear Heels will be convicted of any crimes.

“The most vulnerable man in all of Nebraska on a June 2017 night at 60th and Center was Tasered and beaten to death by the Omaha Police Department but no one could find any wrongdoing,” said Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist. “Zachary Bear Heels was murdered under the ‘color of law.’”

LaMere called on the Nebraska U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Bear Heels’ death and the prosecution of McClarty and Scotty Payne, a second former Omaha officer who was acquitted by a jury in December of second-degree assault after shocking Bear Heels 12 times with a Taser.

“It is foretold that we will gain justice only when we stand up and continue the fight that the City of Omaha and their police department started,” LaMere said. “I am ready to fight. What choice do we have? They are killing our sons and daughters.”

"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’ mother, Renita Chalepah, declined to comment when reached Friday by Indianz.Com, though she expressed disappointment in Kleine’s decision to drop the charges against McClarty.

Kleine told The Omaha World-Herald that he made his decision after reviewing the testimony of two national law enforcement experts who agreed that McClarty’s punching of Bear Heels was justified because the mentally ill man had freed his hand from a handcuff, thus turning the handcuff into a weapon.

Kleine said he was also influenced by the jury’s acquittal of Payne. The county attorney said he doubted he could obtain a conviction against McClarty.

"It bothers me the way everything happened here because it shouldn't have happened," Kleine told the World-Herald. "But as we got into it deeper — at least from the standpoint of McClarty — we became aware that it was too fine a line from the standpoint of was it justified or was it not justified?"

McClarty’s trial was originally scheduled to begin in January, but Douglas County District Court Judge J. Russell Derr decided to postpone it until April 29.

Renita Chalepah, far right, takes part in a prayer walk on December 8, 2018, to honor the life of her son, Zachary Bear Heels, who died June 5, 2017, after being shocked and beaten by police officers in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The incident involving Bear Heels began after he was kicked off a bus in Omaha for erratic behavior. He had been on his way from South Dakota to Oklahoma. His relatives have said he had schizophrenia, was bipolar and wasn’t taking his medication.

After Payne and two female officers – Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead – found him outside a convenience store on the night of June 5, 2017, 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.

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

Following the encounter, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired all four officers, though only Payne and McClarty were ever charged with crimes related to the encounter. Native activists have called on Strudl and Mead to be held accountable in connection with Bear Heels’ death.

On Friday, Native community members in Omaha criticized Kleine’s decision to drop the charges against McClarty.

Levelle Wells, an Omaha Tribe citizen, said he has been the target of inappropriate police treatment.

“To be real, I’m not surprised,” he said of the decision to drop charges against McClarty. “I’ve been living in Omaha all my life so I know how these cops can roll. They’re a gang themselves.”

Rudi Mitchell, former chairman of the Omaha Tribe, said Kleine should have proceeded with the trial, even if he didn’t believe he would win because it was the right thing to do.

Last August, Chalepah filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Omaha alleging police used excessive force against her son and failed to properly treat his mental illness.

“I feel disappointed for the mother,” he said. “I hope her lawsuit goes through and she will get a lot of money. The life is not worth the money, but at least something should happen with the city and the police department.”


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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