Native Americans talk with Marty Bilek, second from right, chief of staff for Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, in Omaha, Nebraska, on November 28, 2017, about efforts to establish a mayoral advisory committee on Native American issues. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Law | National

Native community demands justice for Lakota man who died in police encounter

Zachary Bearheels, Rosebud Sioux, repeatedly struck by officers in Nebraska


By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk

OMAHA, Nebraska – Native Americans gathered in a county courthouse here to demand justice and transparency in a case involving two police officers accused of assaulting a Lakota man who later died.

Native people also called on Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert to fulfill a promise she made during meetings with local Indian people five months ago to create a Native American advisory committee to advise her.

“All of the principals in this community came together months ago and they assured all of the Native community and myself gathered there, ‘We’re on this,’” said Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist. “They’re not on this. Where is that advisory committee I heard talked of that day?”

About 20 Native Americans gathered Tuesday morning at the Douglas County Courthouse, where they hoped to gain answers about grand jury proceedings in the case against former Omaha police officers Scotty Payne and Ryan McClarty, who both face assault charges related to the death of 29-year-old Zachary Bearheels on June 5.

Bonnie Cosentino-Welsch, a Hispanic woman who helped organize Tuesday’s gathering, said she is concerned the state may attempt to drop charges against the two officers during secretive grand jury hearings.

“Maybe they think if they hide from and confuse people, they will go away,” she said. “I won’t go away.”

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

Those gathered Tuesday weren’t able to find out whether the grand jury is meeting this week to consider the indictments against the two officers.

However, a representative for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office – which is presenting evidence against the officers to the grand jury – met with the Native people in the courthouse and attempted to explain the grand jury process. Bill Black, chief of investigators for Attorney General Doug Peterson, said the process is meant to be secretive to ensure jurors aren’t unduly influenced in their decision-making.

“Generally, no one even knows that they’re occurring until there’s an announcement on the news about it,” he said.

Nebraska law requires that a grand jury be called any time a person dies in police custody, he said. The grand jury likely will take about a week to make its decision, and that decision will be made public once it’s finalized.

The grand jury hearing, however, is separate from charges that Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine has said he will pursue, regardless of the grand jury’s impending decision.

Zachary Bearheels, 1987-2017, is seen on the left in this photo posted on Facebook.

The case against Payne and McClarty could be complicated should the grand jury decide to alter the charges against the former officers or drop the charges altogether. Some legal experts have expressed concern about whose decision related to charges – the grand jury’s or Kleine’s – would take priority.

Payne is accused of shocking Bearheels 12 times with a Taser, and McClarty is accused of punching the Rosebud Sioux man 13 times. Bearheels died about an hour after being shocked and punched by the two officers.

Bearheels was traveling to Oklahoma City when he was kicked off the bus for erratic behavior. His relatives have said he had schizophrenia, was bipolar and wasn’t taking his medication.

After the two officers found him, 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 began punching Bearheels after he got a hand free from his cuffs.

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

Payne was fired in July and then charged with felony second-degree assault, while McClarty also was fired and charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor.

A group of Native Americans talks with Bill Black, far right, of the Nebraska Attorney General's Office on November 28, 2017, about the case against two Omaha police officers accused of assaulting a Lakota man who later died. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

On Tuesday, LaMere called on state prosecutors to charge two other officers involved in the encounter with Bearheels – Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead, who were fired – for failing to protect him.

“I think they should have prosecuted not only the black officers,” he said. “The two white women should have been prosecuted. They were there. They watched it, and they let it happen.”

The Native people who gathered at the courthouse Tuesday later walked to Omaha Mayor Stothert’s office next door after learning they likely wouldn’t learn of the grand jury’s decision that day.

LaMere said it was important to hold the city of Omaha accountable for the conduct of its officers and to ensure city leaders fulfill promises they made to the Native American community shortly after the June 5 death of Bearheels.

After entering Stothert’s office, the group was told they wouldn’t be able to meet with any of the mayor’s staff, who were all in other meetings and unavailable. Anna Doyle of the Mayor’s Hotline asked the group of Natives to submit a request to meet with the mayor and return at a later date.

“They already know you want a meeting, but we can’t do it the day of when you call,” she said.

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere stands outside Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert's office on November 28, 2017, as he awaits a meeting with the mayor's staff about efforts to establish a Native American advisory committee. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

However, Stothert’s chief of staff, Marty Bilek, then met with the group outside the mayor’s office briefly before taking them to a conference room to talk with them privately.

Bilek said the mayor’s office has been trying to establish the Native American advisory committee that Stothert promised to create in June. However, the city has struggled to find people willing to serve on the committee, he said.

“We’ve had a little bit of trouble getting folks interested in serving on the council, but we haven’t given up yet,” he said. “These things take time.”

“We need some results,” said John Pappan, a member of the Omaha Tribe. “Five months is too long.”

After their private meeting with Bilek, Pappan and LaMere offered differing opinions about whether the meeting would prove productive.

Pappan said Bilek agreed to meet again with local Native people within a week to continue work in establishing the Native American advisory committee.

“I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt today,” he said.

LaMere said he was skeptical about whether the mayor’s office would fulfill its promises to the Native American community in Omaha.

“There were promises five months ago; there were promises today,” he said. “I’ll take them for what they are. We will see what happens in the next days and weeks. We’ll see if this advisory committee comes together."

“Now the ball is in the mayor’s court.”

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Two police officers charged with assault for death of Rosebud Sioux citizen (July 27, 2017)
Rosebud Sioux man dies after being tased and struck by police officers (July 17, 2017)