Three teens plead guilty in death of five-year-old boy in Alberta
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, November 7, 2012 3:57PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 8:54PM EST
WETASKIWIN, Alta. -- Three teens have pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the shooting of a five-year-old boy on an Alberta reserve.
Ethan Yellowbird was sleeping in his bed when he was struck in the head with a bullet fired at a house on the Samson Cree First Nation in Hobbema in July 2011.
The teens, who were 13, 16 and 17 at the time, entered guilty pleas at the beginning of a two-week trial in Wetaskiwin.
They are to appear in court again Nov. 21 to set a date for sentencing.
The Crown says other charges of aggravated assault and intentional discharge of a firearm will probably be withdrawn at that time.
Court heard that the three youths came up with a plan to fire some shots at a house on the reserve, but it is not yet clear why. Those details are expected at the sentencing hearing.
Together the youths walked up to the house with a loaded rifle at about 3 a.m. One of the youths fired shots in the air and then handed the weapon to one of the others, who fired two shots into the house. He then handed the rifle to the other youth who fired two more bullets into the home.
It was one of those shots fired at the house that hit Ethan in the head.
The Crown is expected to ask for the maximum youth sentence for manslaughter, two years in custody and one year of probation.
Outside court, the boy's aunt said the family is unhappy with the maximum possible sentence. She also said members of the boy's family want to sit down with the families of the three offenders to hold a healing circle.
The reserve had been plagued by gang violence for years before the shooting and police often had trouble getting witnesses to talk about crimes.
The child's death shifted attitudes in the community and people came forward with information in the case, eventually helping RCMP arrest teens they said had gang ties.
RCMP Insp. Charles Wood of the Hobbema detachment said that since then people on the reserve have been working well with the RCMP and, although gang activity remains prevalent, the resulting violence is not as bad as it was in 2011.
The use of weapons is down, Wood said, as is the number of drive-by shootings.
"We still do have shots fired where occupied homes are struck, but again not with the frequency that we had last year."
Roy Louis, a band member who acts as a liaison with the RCMP, believes the reserve has changed for the better.
"Children are outside playing," he said. "It feels like a safe community after all these years."
Officers are still working to solve the death of Ethan's aunt, Chelsea Yellowbird. The 23-year-old woman was shot outside a house two months after the boy was killed. At the time, police said they believed the shooting was gang related.
Wood said some residents have co-operated with officers working on the case but he couldn't reveal why there has not been an arrest: "It's not on hiatus. It is an active investigation."
The Samson reserve is one of four that make up the Hobbema community, about an hour's drive south of Edmonton.
Police previously blamed most of the violence on the reserve on about a dozen gangs fighting over its drug trade. More than half the reserve's 14,000 residents are under 18 and especially vulnerable to the lure of gang money and status.
In 2008, 23-month old Asia Saddleback was shot as she sat at a kitchen table eating dinner. She survived, but the bullet remained lodged between her liver and spine.
After that shooting, the reserve imposed a nightly curfew for teens and started a gun amnesty project.
But within three months, a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed. Relatives confirmed he was a gang member. A 20-year-old woman was also shot in the head when her home was hit by gunfire.
In 2010, a 28-year-old man standing in his home was struck with several bullets in another drive-by shooting.
After Ethan and his aunt were killed, reserve residents voted to bring in an eviction bylaw giving leaders the power to ban suspected gang members from living in the community. The band is still working on administrative issues and there's no date on when the bylaw might come into force.