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Local authorities had failed to charge the white killer of a local Oglala Indian named Wesley Bad Heart Bull with murder. Angered by this lack of action, several militant Indians set fire to the Chamber of Commerce building and the courthouse in Custer, South Dakota.
Wesley Bad Heart Bull
Wesley Bad Heart Bull was the name of a Native American man. He was the victim of a murder in which a White Air Force veteran by the name Darld Schmitz stabbed Bad Heart Bull to death. The murder and subsequent handling of his murder is cited as the catalyst for leading to the events later known as the Wounded Knee incident.
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. 09 March 1955), and older brother to Trina Lynn Bad Heart Bull (b. 05 January 1959), Henry Gerald Bad Heart Bull (b. 18 May 1957), Imogene "April" Bad Heart Bull (b. 07 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.
On 27 January 1973, 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 event.
Custer County authorities reported that witnesses claimed that Schmitz was acting in self-defense, as Bad Heart Bull had been harassing patrons at Bill's Bar. It was recounted by some witnesses that Bad Heart Bull was using an 18-inch logchain that he carried around 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 before fleeing the scene. However, a friend of Bad Heart Bull claimed to have heard Schmitz state earlier that evening that "he was going to kill him an Indian." Robert High Eagle, an individual from Hot Springs, who witnessed the murder, stated the stabbing was deliberate and unprovoked. Five minutes later and in front of six witnesses (four White and two Indian), Schmitz stabbed John Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Around 2:00 A.M., Bad Heart Bull was lying in the street, bleeding from the wound made by a knife that was still buried in his chest. Although he was en route to receive medical treatment for his wounds, Bad Heart Bull would die on the trip to a Hot Springs hospital.
Schmitz would be arrested three days after killing Bad Heart Bull and charged with second-degree manslaughter because the sheriff said there was not enough evidence for a first-degree murder charge. It should be noted that this was the second assault Schmitz committed against a Native American. Although Schmitz was jailed, he would later be released on a $5,000.00 bond. One source, The Observer-Reporter, wrote that the bond Schmitz was released on was out of jail on a $2,500.00 bond. Schmitz was charged with second-degree murder, the lowest degree of murder a person can be charged with in the state of South Dakota, which, at the time, was all too common a charge given to White people who caused the deaths of Native Americans. Schmitz would plead guilty to second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and spend one day in jail for the murder.
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 of 1973, Dennis Banks proclaimed that AIM members should gather in Rapid City, South Dakota in order to initiate a paramount campaign for civil rights. Sarah Bad Heart Bull, Wesley's mother, contacted the American Indian Movement, known more commonly by the acronym AIM, in order to demonstrate the importance of Native American lives and the disproportionate charges in light of the crime committed.
On 06 February 1973 (one source purports the hearing was to take place on the 26 February 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 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, to attend the Schmitz preliminary hearing. On that same day, AIM staged 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 natural occurrences, by the time AIM members arrived in Custer. There was a heavy snowstorm around Custer prior to the protest, to attend the Schmitz preliminary hearing. 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 that 06 February 1973. 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 Means, Dennis Banks, Leonard Crow Dog and David Hill, were 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 meaning, both were denied entrance into the courthouse by state troopers. 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. 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 chaos enveloped the area, a state trooper threw the mother of the murder victim to the ground. As the protests at the courthouse erupted into riots, 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 teargas used 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 $9,000.00 in damages.
30 people of Indian descent were arrested, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Sarah Bad Heart Bull, as well as being charged with riot and arson.
Sarah Bad Heart Bull was convicted of inciting a riot and was sentenced to one to five years in prison. She served five months (one source indicated six months) of her sentence before being released on bail to await on a decision on her appeal, when, ironically, her son's killer spent no time in prison for his crime (he was given two months probation).
Schmitz would go on to be acquitted of the second-degree manslaughter charge later that year by an all-White jury.
The murder of Wesley Bad Heart Bull and the subsequent second-degree involuntary 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 18 February 2013, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the age of 83.