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The grandmother of Zachary Bear Heels takes part in a memorial walk held on June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by police in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
‘Zachary was a very loving son, grandson, brother, uncle’
Community marches in honor of Native man who died after police encounter
Monday, June 7, 2021
Indianz.Com

OMAHA, Nebraska — For a third year, they walked.

They gathered outside a Greyhound bus station in this Nebraska city, shared words about a 29-year-old Rosebud Lakota and Kiowa man who died at the hands of police in June 2017, and then marched along the route the man took that day four years ago.

And even though it’s been four years since Zachary Bear Heels died after being shocked 12 times by a Taser and punched 13 times in the head by Omaha police, they shared tears.

“I brought his stuff today, because I want everybody to see what the Omaha police department did to my son,” said Renita Chalepah, Bear Heels’ mother. “His clothes, his shoes, his hat. How would they like that if I did that to them?”

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Members of the Zachary Bear Heels family take part in a memorial walk held on June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by police officers in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2017.

Nearly 40 people walked nearly five miles Saturday across Omaha on a day that reached 91 degrees. They said prayers, listened to drummers and paid homage to Bear Heels underneath a billboard first erected last year to honor him near the place where he died.

And they danced.

“Zachary was a very loving son, grandson, brother, uncle,” Chalepah said. “He touched a lot of hearts in our family, especially our elders like my mother.”

On June 5, 2017, Bear Heels was traveling from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota back to his home in Oklahoma City when he was kicked off the bus in Omaha for acting erratically. His relatives have said he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and didn’t take his medication that day.

“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.

Officers Scotty Payne, Ryan McClarty, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead were called to the Bucky’s Convenience Store at 60th and Center streets. When they arrived, the officers attempted to put Bear Heels in a police cruiser, but he resisted and a struggled ensued.

The officers managed to get Bear Heels’ hands cuffed behind his back and put him on the ground, sitting with his back against the rear passenger tire of the cruiser. But then Payne began shocking the handcuffed Bear Heels, who was demonstrating no threat to the officers, with his Taser gun.

At that point, Bear Heels managed to pull a wrist out of one of the cuffs by breaking his hand, and McClarty began punching him in the head and face and pulling on his hair. Eventually, other officers arrived on the scene, and the officers managed to zip-tie Bear Heels’ hands behind his back and place him face-down on the pavement.

Two officers took turns putting their full weight on Bear Heels’ back, and when the officers turned him over to put him on a gurney, Bear Heels was dead.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired all four officers. 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.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine filed assault charges against Payne and McClarty, but an Omaha jury acquitted Payne in December 2018. A few months later, Kleine dropped the assault charge against McClarty as well.

Then in April 2020, an arbitration panel formed to decide whether the four officers should get their jobs back ruled that McClarty, Strudl and Mead should be rehired while Payne should not.

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Marchers take part in a memorial walk on June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Last August, the Omaha City Council voted to approve a $550,000 settlement with Bear Heels’ family.

“The settlement that the city gave you was a price,” said Trisha Cax-Sep-Gu-Wiga Etringer, a Winnebago tribal citizen and a staff member of the Great Plains Action Society, one of the organizers of Saturday’s memorial walk. “They gave you a price on your womb, and that was an insult.”

Kateria Hinman Petto, an Omaha woman and the emcee for Saturday’s event, criticized the Omaha police for failing to protect one of its most vulnerable citizens. She said police treated Bear Heels like a criminal despite him having never committed a crime.

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Fawn Tsatoke, left, of the Kiowa Chapter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People speaks during a memorial walk on June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

And she decried Officer McClarty’s efforts to control Bear Heels by pulling on his hair.

“This is a detail of his story that crushes my spirit every time I remember what happened to him,” she said. “As Native people, our hair is sacred, and officers used his hair to inflict violence on him.”

Grace Johnson, an Oglala Lakota mental health therapist who works with Native people, said she’s worked with many people who suffering from mental illness and

“I work with these people up close, one on one with people with these diagnoses, and I’ve never felt afraid of them, ever,” she said. “There’s a huge misconception out there about what they’re like. What happened to Zachary never should have happened.”

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Renita Chalepah, mother of Zachary Bear Heels, speaks during a memorial walk held on June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Fawn Tsatoke, a Kiowa woman who advocates for the family of missing and murdered indigenous people from her community in Oklahoma, thanked everyone who walked Saturday and shared their stories.

She said the Kiowa Nation has had 17 people disappear or get murdered since February 1, 2020.

“That may not sound like a lot to you, but it’s too many,” she said. “One is too many.”

Bear Alexander of the Revolutionary Action Party, a black social justice organization in Omaha, said Omaha police have been trained to treat every situation as potentially deadly. And as too many of them harbor racist feelings toward black and brown people, their encounters with minority men and women too often result in death or injury, he said.

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Kateri Hinman Petto, an Omaha woman, speaks during a memorial walk held on June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.Photo by Kevin Abourezk

And he criticized the Omaha Police Officer’s Association, the union that represents Omaha police, for protecting bad police officers like Payne and McClarty.

“They ensure that whenever a situation arises that a black and brown indigenous person is the victim of pig brutality, they ensure that no justice is set out,” Alexander said.

Renita Chalepah said her son was loved by many, a young man who had dreams of becoming a doctor, who loved music and spending time with his families in both Oklahoma and South Dakota. He loved sports and chess and joking with his loved ones.

“I can’t believe this happened, but we’ve got memories and that’s all we got now is to say his name and keep on living for him and being his voice and let the world know what happened to Zachary Bear Heels.”

Justice for Zachary Bear Heels — Omaha, Nebraska — June 5, 2021
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Marchers approach a billboard first erected last year in Omaha in honor of Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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A man holds a sign while taking part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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A member of the Zachary Bear Heels family takes part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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Members of the Zachary Bear Heels family take part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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Marchers take part in a memorial walk Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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Two women take part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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A woman holds a sign while taking part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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The grandmother of Zachary Bear Heels takes part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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Renita Chalepah, mother of Zachary Bear Heels, speaks during a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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Kateri Hinman Petto, an Omaha woman, speaks during a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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Fawn Tsatoke (left) of the Kiowa Chapter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People speaks during a memorial walk Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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A young jingle dress dancer takes part in a memorial walk Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017.

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A mother and daughter dance while taking part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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A young jingle dress dancer takes part in a memorial walk Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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Members of the Kiowa Chapter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People take part in a memorial walk Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Zachary Bear Heels, a Kiowa and Lakota man who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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Members of the Zachary Bear Heels family take part in a memorial walk held Saturday, June 5, 2021, for Bear Heels, who died after being beaten and Tased by Omaha police in June 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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