WETASKIWIN, Alta. - Three teens have pleaded guilty to taking turns firing a gun at a home on an Alberta reserve, accidentally killing a five-year-old boy asleep in his bed.
Ethan Yellowbird was struck in the head by a bullet fired at the house on the Samson Cree First Nation in Hobbema in 2011. The reserve south of Edmonton has been plagued for years by gangs and violence.
The teens — 13, 16 and 17 at the time — each pleaded guilty to manslaughter Wednesday during what was to have been the first day of their youth court trial in Wetaskiwin. More details of the shooting, including the motive, are to be revealed in court on Nov. 21, when a sentencing date is to be set.
Police have said the teens have ties to gangs.
"I just feel pity for them because they're lost and so lost to the point they had to be involved in this type of lifestyle," Ethan's aunt, Melanie Buffalo, told reporters outside the courthouse.
She said the family is devastated and does not expect to get any justice out of the court system.
The Crown said he intends to seek the maximum youth sentence for manslaughter, two years in custody followed by one year of supervision. But Buffalo said it's not enough.
"Two years for a wonderful, amazing little boy that we all loved is nowhere near equal."
She said it doesn't appear the teens are remorseful, although she added that perhaps when they grow up, they'll realize the enormity of what they have done. "They'll be adults, they'll have their own children and maybe one day they'll know the love that they have as a parent."
Court heard the three youths came up with a plan to shoot up the house on the reserve and, at 3 a.m. on July 11, 2011, they walked up to the home with a loaded rifle.
The oldest teen fired one shot above and over the home, then passed the gun over. The other two each fired two shots at the house. It was one of those shots that killed Ethan.
"It's a horrendous crime," said Crown prosecutor Trent Wilson. "We've got incredible violence in Hobbema — kids killing kids. It's just unacceptable."
He said he understands Ethan's family is frustrated that the teens will be sentenced as youth. But because the youngest teen was 13, he can't be sentenced as an adult. And Wilson said it would be difficult to convince a judge to sentence the two others differently for the same crime.
The oldest teen, who is to turn 19 next month, is out on bail while the other two remain in custody. They face additional charges of aggravated assault and intentional discharge of a firearm, but Wilson said those charges will probably be withdrawn.
The Samson reserve is one of four that make up the Hobbema community, about an hour's drive from 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.
Two months after Ethan's death, his 23-year-old aunt, Chelsea Yellowbird, was shot outside the home next door. At the time, police said they believed the shooting was gang related. That case remains unsolved.
RCMP have said there was a "code of fear" on the reserve that often kept witnesses from talking about crimes. But Ethan's death shifted attitudes and people have been coming forward with information.
Insp. Charles Wood of the Hobbema detachment said people on the reserve are still working well with the RCMP and, although gang activity remains prevalent, the resulting violence is not as bad as it was last year.
The use of weapons is down, Wood said, as is the number of drive-by shootings.
Band councillor, Kirk Buffalo, said Samson is once again a good place to live.
"Our community is awakening."
He added that some of Ethan's family have agreed to sit down with the accused or their relatives in a healing circle so everyone can try to move on. The three teens and their families are also from the Samson reserve and they all know each other.
"Ethan will always be in our hearts," Buffalo said. "We can't bring him back. No sentence in the world could bring him back."
Melanie Buffalo said it makes sense for all of the families to try to talk to one another in some sort of meeting. "I think there's a greater accountability in that act as opposed to just the act of pleading guilty."