Wesley Bad Heart Bull

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Just one month before the Wounded Knee siege, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, Oglala Sioux, (June 10, 1952-January 27, 1973) was  the victim of a murder in which Darrell Schmitz stabbed Bad Heart Bull to death outside a bar. This was Schmidt’s second assault on a Native American.

A friend of Bad Heart Bull claimed Schmidt had said earlier in the evening “he was going to kill him an Indian.”

Schmidt was charged with second degree involuntary manslaughter, a common charge given to whites responsible for the deaths of Native Americans–a charge that many members of the Sioux and AIM found outrageous.

Schmidt claimed his hand “slipped” and he had not intended to stab Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Other (Indian) witnesses said he stabbed him several times.

Wesley Charles Bad Heart Bull was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota on 10 June 1952. He was the middle brother of Verlyn Dale ‘Butch’ Bad Heart Bull (b. 14 July 1949) and Vincent Eli Bad Heart Bull, Jr. (b. 9 March 1955), and older brother to Trina Lynn Bad Heart Bull (b. 5 January 1959), Henry Gerald Bad Heart Bull (b. 18 May 1957), Imogene “April” Bad Heart Bull (b. 7 April 1961), Julie Ann Bad Heart Bull (b. 24 May 1964) as well as older half-brother and first cousin to Jamie Merle Bad Heart Bull (b. 30 September 1966).

This was owed to the fact that after Sarah and Vincent Sr. had divorced, Sarah married her brother-in-law, Matthew “Kayo” Bad Heart Bull.

According to Fall River County, South Dakota, sheriff Jack Manke, Bad Heart Bull had a record consisting of 19 arrests, including assault on a police officer, in the past two years and had been jailed previously in Custer, Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Hill City on assault, disturbing the peace and public intoxication charges.

The Murder

On January 27, 1973, John Wesley Bad Heart Bull was stabbed in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota after going to Bill’s Bar in Custer, South Dakota. There are conflicting accounts of what events led up to the stabbing.

According to Custer County authorities, some witnesses claimed that Schmitz was acting in self-defense, as Bad Heart Bull had been harassing patrons at Bill’s Bar.

Witnesses also stated that Bad Heart Bull used his 18-inch log chain to beat a James “Mad Dog” Geary, before Schmitz intervened and inadvertently stabbed him with a knife while trying to push Bad Heart Bull back with his hand.

However, Robert High Eagle, an individual from Hot Springs, who witnessed the murder, stated the stabbing was deliberate and unprovoked.

Five minutes later after the alleged statement, and in front of six witnesses (four White and two Indian), Schmitz stabbed Bad Heart Bull.

 Around 2:00 A.M., Bad Heart Bull lay in the street, bleeding from the wound made by a knife that was still buried in his chest. Bad Heart Bull died from blood loss, while en route to a Hot Springs hospital.

Schmitz was arrested three days after killing Bad Heart Bull and charged with second-degree murder; the Sheriff said there was not enough evidence for a first-degree charge.

Schmitz was held overnight, and then released on a $5,000.00 bond.

The charge of second-degree manslaughter (involuntary manslaughter) was the lowest degree of murder a person could be charged with in South Dakota. At the time, this was a common charge given to White people who caused the deaths of Native Americans.

Schmitz spent the one day in jail while waiting for his bond to be posted for the murder, and eventually received two years probation. 

Custer Courthouse Riot

In response to repeated murders of American Indians by White Americans and lenient punishments issued to the assailants (the most infamous case occurring with Raymond Yellow Thunder), indigenous rights proponents became involved with the Bad Heart Bull case.

In January 1973, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, Wesley’s mother, had contacted the American Indian Movement, known more commonly by the acronym AIM, in Rapid City, SD for help, after local, county and state police refused to investigate the incident further.

Dennis Banks proclaimed that AIM members should gather in Rapid City, South Dakota in order to initiate a paramount campaign for civil rights in order to demonstrate the importance of Native American lives and the disproportionate charges in light of the crime committed.

On February 6, 1973 (one source purports the hearing was to take place on February 26, 1973), Sarah Bad Heart Bull and Robert High Eagle left their homes in Hot Springs, South Dakota and drove to Custer, taking with them Trina Bad Heart Bull, Eddy Clifford and Francis Means, all of whom were present in Buffalo Gap at the bar the night Wesley Bad Heart Bull was murdered, in order to attend the Schmitz preliminary hearing and to give statements to the Custer County State’s Attorney, Hobart H. Gates, and to attend the Schmitz preliminary hearing.

On that same day, AIM planned to stage a protest over the “minimum” involuntary manslaughter charge issued to Darrell Schmitz, in Custer, South Dakota.

However, the authorities had already made preparations, aided by a heavy snowstorm, by the time AIM members arrived in Custer.

 First, an anonymous caller contacted the Rapid City Journal to announce that the demonstration had been canceled, leading journalist Lyn Gladstone to incorrectly report that there was no rally being held, causing a much lower turnout.

Second, the Custer County authorities postponed the Schmitz preliminary hearing in anticipation of a caravan of American Indian Movement members who would be arriving in Custer on the day of the scheduled hearing.

There were also other security measures which were instituted on behalf of the Schmitz hearing. While the state attorney was present in the clerk of courts’ office to meet with any individual who contested his handling of the Schmitz case, no more than 4-5 people were allowed entrance into the courthouse to discuss the matter simultaneously.

Guards had been stationed at all exterior doors of the courthouse to screen all persons who wished to enter the courthouse, and various law enforcement officers, such as the State Highway Motor Patrol, were put on stand by in the event of trouble.

In spite of these obstacles, approximately 200 American Indians turned out to protest the murder of the Wesley and the lenient charge issued against the man who killed him.

Four members of the American Indian Movement, Russell MeansDennis Banks, Leonard Crow Dog and Harry David Hill, who had been chosen by the group as delegates to confer with the state’s attorney, were initially denied entry before eventually being allowed to enter the courthouse.

However, Hobart refused to raise the charge to murder, and when Russell Means attempted to bring Sarah Bad Heart Bull, mother of the murdered victim into the meeting, both were denied entrance into the courthouse by state troopers.

While the four AIM representatives were inside conferring with the state’s attorney the crowd moved up the steps of the courthouse. Many of the demonstrators were carrying concealed weapons such as clubs, sticks, iron pipes, wrenches, and at least one revolver.

The officers at the front door resisted but were soon beaten back. About twenty demonstrators, including High Eagle, gained entrance to the front hallway. At the time, High Eagle was armed with a club which he was swinging at the officers. After a brief violent struggle, the officers were able to clear the demonstrators out of the courthouse.

As the officers were attempting to clear the demonstrators off the front steps they were confronted with Mrs. Bad Heart Bull who was in the front ranks of the crowd yelling obscenities at them. 

The sheriff blew his whistle, a signal to 90 officers, equipped with batons, and advanced upon the crowd. The officers grabbed Sarah Bad Heart Bull, struck her in the face with a baton and started choking Sarah, using a nightstick to force her to the ground.

Several people in the crowd rushed to her defense, and a riot subsequently ensued.

During this same period one of the police officers was dragged down the courthouse steps and beaten. When Lt. Schmoll went to his rescue he was met with a great deal of violent opposition.

Rocks, cans and bottles were thrown at him. As he tried to return with the injured officer he was struck in the face with a flagstaff. He also received a knife wound on his left hand and was struck with a chain saw blade. The final blow he received was delivered by High Eagle who struck him across the head with an iron pipe.

This caused the Lieutenant to “fall like a sack of wheat.” Thirteen stitches were required to sew up the wound on his head. During the affray several other officers were severely beaten, or injured, and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.

Shortly after High Eagle struck Lt. Schmoll he was arrested and taken into custody. At the time the rioting and violence was in full force but no fires had yet been started.

The Indian people were confronted with a combined force of local, county, and state police tactical units, all of which were being monitored by observers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Indian people who were present at the courthouse were outnumbered four-to-one by police. 

As the protests at the courthouse erupted into riot, police cars and buildings were set on fire. The ensuing struggle resulted in the Custer County Courthouse and the local chamber of commerce building being set ablaze.

Police cars were damaged, automobiles were burned, and rocks, wrenches, slabs of concrete and bottles were hurled at the police officers, the courthouse, and other buildings.

Pop bottles filled with gasoline were thrown into the courthouse. A flare ignited the gasoline causing the courthouse to catch on fire and be severely damaged.

The Custer Chamber of Commerce building located near the courthouse was set on fire and burned to the ground, which, according to Russell Means, was the result of a teargas canister thrown by the police.

The demonstrators also broke the front windows of a nearby Texaco gasoline station and set fire to the building. The Standard Oil bulk station was also set on fire and caused over $9,000.00 in damages.

Thirty people of Indian descent were arrested, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Sarah Bad Heart Bull, who were charged with inciting a riot and arson.

The record in this case is voluminous, consisting of over thirty volumes together with a large number of exhibits. It is replete with pre-trial, trial, and post-trial motions, hearings, and orders.

Many of defendants’ motions were granted by the trial court relating to discovery, continuances, severances, the admission of evidence, and a change of venue from Custer County in the western section of the state to Minnehaha County in the eastern part of the state. 

Sarah Bad Heart Bull was convicted of inciting a riot and was sentenced to one to five years in prison. The Parole Board later set this at one year, and she served five months of her sentence before being released on bail to await a decision on her appeal, when, ironically, her son’s killer spent no time in prison for his crime.

Harry Hill was identified by Thelma Rios, another AIM activist whom he lived with, as having provoked the Custer Courthouse Incident.

According to Rios-Conroy, “He started it all. He provoked the riot. He was right there. He told me so, proudly, several times. He instigated that courtroom riot, too. I was there. I saw him start it, punching a cop. At the time everybody thought it was great. He was a warrior. He was a hero and everybody trusted him, including me.”

The murder of Wesley Bad Heart Bull and the subsequent second-degree involuntary manslaughter charge issued to the suspect is cited as the catalyst which led the American Indian Movement to occupy Wounded Knee during the Wounded Knee Incident.

Vincent Eli Bad Heart Bull, Jr., who has been incarcerated since the age of 17, is the only surviving brother of Wesley Bad Heart Bull, and is the subject of an autobiography by Reno author Jacklynn Lord, entitled Custer Court House Incident.

Sarah Jennie Bad Heart Bull, mother of Wesley Bad Heart Bull, died on February 18, 2013, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the age of 83.