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

'They murdered my son': Native mother in pain as officers linked to son's death get jobs back

PHOTOS: Zachary Bear Heels Prayer Walk

Three Omaha police officers who were fired because of their involvement in a June 2017 incident that ended with the death of a 29-year-old Rosebud Lakota man will get their jobs back, a three-person arbitration panel has decided.

The panel ruled Wednesday that Officers Ryan McClarty, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead will be reinstated, but the panel also upheld the firing of Officer Scotty Payne, who was acquitted by a jury in December 2018 for shocking Zachary Bear Heels 12 times during the June 5, 2017, encounter.

Bear Heels’ mother, Renita Chalepah, expressed outrage over the decision to reinstate the three officers.

“I just feel that they were all there, seeing him getting beaten and tased,” she told Indianz.Com. “They all deserve the same treatment. They all do.”

“They murdered my son, and that hurts," she said, fighting back tears.

"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.

In March 2019, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine dropped assault charges against McClarty, who had been accused of punching Bear Heels 13 times in the head during the June 2017 incident.

No criminal charges were ever filed against Officers Strudl and Mead, and the arbitration panel ruled the two officers had committed only minor policy violations and would be reinstated with full pay.

The panel, however, decided McClarty should face a 20-day suspension with a one-year “last chance agreement.” Any finding of a violation of the Omaha Police Department’s use of force policy within that year will result in McClarty’s termination.

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

Chalepah has sued the City of Omaha in federal court alleging that the four officers illegally detained her son, failed to get him proper medical treatment for his mental illness, used excessive force to detain him and denied him his civil rights.

Her attorney, Garvin Isaacs of Oklahoma City, said Thursday he agreed with the panel’s decision to uphold Payne’s termination.

“This tells me that people there in Omaha are not satisfied with the way that police department treats people,” he said. “They tased Zachary Bear Heels 12 times and killed him. It makes me so mad I can’t believe it.”

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

But Isaacs also expressed frustration that the other three officers were reinstated.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, who fired the four officers after the June 2017 incident, said in a press release Thursday that he would abide by the arbitration panel’s decision.

“It’s time to move forward,” he said. “Omaha police officers have a very difficult job and my focus is on keeping my officers safe in the coronavirus environment while simultaneously protecting the city.”

The Omaha Police Officers’ Association, which had paid for the four officers’ legal costs, said it also would abide by the panel’s decision.

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

Reached at her home in Oklahoma City, Chalepah said she was going through her son’s belongings this week for the first time since his death. She said Bear Heels, who was of Lakota and Kiowa descent, was a rapper and an artist and enjoyed basketball and listening to music.

She said her son loved borrowing her CDs and family photos before his visits to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, where his father’s family lives.

Bear Heels was traveling from the Rosebud Reservation back 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.

“How can anybody do that?” Chalepah said on Thursday. “He didn’t deserve that at all.”


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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