Two Omaha Police Officers Charged With Assault in Death of Zachary Bearheels

Two former Omaha police officers will face charges in connection with the June 5 death of a mentally ill Oklahoma man.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced Wednesday that he is charging Scotty Payne with second-degree assault, a felony, and Ryan McClarty with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor.

Zachary Bearheels, 29, died after the former police officers punched and shocked him more than a dozen times while trying to force him into the back of a police cruiser near 60th and Center Streets. Payne, an Omaha police officer for five years, shocked Bearheels 12 times with a Taser. McClarty, a two-year officer, reportedly punched him 15 times after Bearheels ripped one of his hands free from a handcuff.

In explaining the charges, Kleine said “there’s no evidence whatsoever that these officers intentionally killed Zachary Bearheels.”

“Police officers are placed in very difficult positions,” Kleine said Wednesday. “It’s a daunting task in today’s society.”

But, he said, officers “are capable of making serious mistakes in their encounters with citizens.”

“Law enforcement should protect those who are most vulnerable,” Kleine said, particularly those with a mental illness.

The Omaha police union said Wednesday afternoon that it is “disappointed” in the charges, which it blamed on “politics and pressure.”

In a statement, the union said that Kleine should have allowed a grand jury process to happen rather than making the decision himself to charge the two.

“This investigation has been rushed from the beginning,” the statement said, “and it has raced into the remarkable and unprecedented conclusion of criminal charges.”

The officers’ actions should not be judged after the fact, the union said, “but based upon the reasonable perspective of an officer on the scene.”

During the announcement of charges, Kleine showed video of the officers’ confrontation with Bearheels, including Payne’s Taser shocks to Bearheels and the punches by McClarty.

Some in the audience began crying as the video was shown.

“I think the video, to some extent, speaks for itself. This is an encounter with an individual who had committed no crimes,” Kleine said.

Payne will turn himself in Friday morning, with a bail hearing Friday afternoon, Kleine said.

McClarty will be cited on suspicion of third-degree assault.

After Bearheels’ death, Kleine initially mentioned the possibility of manslaughter charges.

But in early July, a coroner’s physician ruled that Bearheels’ death was not caused by blunt-force trauma. Dr. Michelle Elieff said she also couldn’t conclude that Bearheels’ death was the direct result of the repeated shocks of the Taser.

Elieff instead said Bearheels suffered a “sudden death associated with excited delirium … physical struggle, physical restraint and use of a (Taser).”

Under state law, second-degree assault — using a weapon to cause bodily injury — carries the same penalty as manslaughter: up to 20 years in prison. In second-degree assault cases, prosecutors need to prove only that a person used a weapon to cause injury.

If convicted of the misdemeanor, McClarty would face up to a year in jail.