(UPI) — Two Nebraska police officers involved in the death of a mentally ill man have been charged with assault.
Omaha officer Scotty Payne was charged with felony second-degree assault, prosecutors said for shocking 29-year-old Zachary Bearheels 12 times with a stun gun during the deadly confrontation in June. He’s only the third Omaha officer in 30 years to be charged with a felony.
Officer Ryan McClarty is charged with repeatedly punching Bearheels, third-degree misdemeanor assault.
McClarty will receive a citation, while Payne must appear in court. Both were fired from the Omaha Police Department. If convicted, Payne faces up to 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors said the assaults occurred after the man had been picked up by officers and was in the process of being released.
“Zachary Bearheels had committed no crime,” said Douglas County attorney, Donald W. Kleine, in a news conference Wednesday. “He was simply a human being suffering from severe mental illness that was quite obvious to anyone who was in contact with him.”
When asked why the officers were charged with assault instead of manslaughter or murder, Kleine answered, “There is no evidence whatsoever that these officers intentionally killed Mr. Bearheels.”
Kleine also said an autopsy didn’t directly link Bearheels’ death to the physical punches or stun gun shocks. A Douglas County coroner said Bearheels’ was a “sudden death associated with excited delirium … physical struggle, physical restraint and use of a (stun gun).”
Bearheels — who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to mother Renita Chalepah — was picked up by officers outside an Omaha convenience store after exhibiting strange behavior.
At first, Bearheels was handcuffed and put in the back of a police cruiser without incident. Later, police decided there was insufficient reason to take him into custody. During transport for his release, officials said Bearheels got out of the car and tried to walk away in handcuffs. Three officers took hold of him, and the deadly struggle ensued.
By the time paramedics arrived, Bearheels was no longer breathing. He was declared dead moments later.
“When I found out this morning what happened to him, it broke my heart, because I kept in touch with these people,” Chalepah said. “What happened to my son? Why did they tase him like that?”
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