WETASKIWIN — Five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird was sleeping in his tiny fire-truck bed when three teens standing outside took turns shooting a rifle at his father’s home.
One bullet ripped through the wall above the child’s mattress, struck him in the head, then zinged through the house until it lodged in a tile on a bathroom wall.
No one will probably ever know which of the three youths fired the fatal shot on July 11, 2011, on the Samson Cree reserve in central Alberta.
Details of the shooting were provided for the first time in court on Wednesday, but there wasn’t an explanation as to the motive for the attack, including whether the teens may have been targeting someone. RCMP have previously said the three had ties to gangs.
The teens — 13, 16 and 17 at the time — pleaded guilty earlier this month to manslaughter. They are to appear again in Wetaskiwin youth court for a sentencing hearing on Jan. 30.
Crown prosecutor Trent Wilson has indicated he plans to ask for the maximum youth sentence for the offence— two years in custody followed by one year of supervision.
Ethan’s mother, Ashley Charmaine Yellowbird read a victim impact statement to the judge.
“I have an ache in my heart for my son that will never go away.”
Wiping away tears, she added that she tries to be strong for her other four children, but feels part of her died with Ethan. “He’s never coming home. He’ll never grow up.”
Ethan had been sleeping at the home of his dad, Lee Buffalo. An agreed statement of facts said Buffalo, his girlfriend, Alicia Simon, and their one-year-old child were all sleeping in a bed next to Ethan.
Court heard the three teens had been hanging out that night at one of their homes and came up with a plan to shoot up the house. They all handled the gun and one of them loaded it. At 3 a.m., they walked over to the house.
The oldest teen fired one shot above the house, then passed the gun to the other boys and walked away. The other two each fired two shots. Two bullets hit near the front door, one went into the basement and one struck Ethan.
“It’s unclear which of the three accused fired the shot that killed Ethan Yellowbird,” said the court document.
It also said Simon first heard the shots and woke up Ethan’s father.
“She believed she had been hit by a bullet. She ran out of the house and was yelling for an ambulance.”
Buffalo then realized his son had been killed.
Before the teens ran off, they picked up the shell casings and put them into a hat. They broke the rifle into two pieces and hid them outside near some tree stumps.
“It was later disposed of by someone else” and has yet to be recovered, said the document.
The Samson reserve, one of four near Hobbema about an hour’s drive south of Edmonton, has been plagued for years by gangs and violence. Two months after Ethan’s death, his aunt was shot and killed outside the home next door.
Police have in the past blamed most of the violence on gangs fighting over the reserve’s drug trade.
Earlier this week in Wetaskiwin court, a judge heard about another shooting on the reserve three months before Ethan died. No one was injured, but the suspects included Ethan’s uncle, Justin Whitebear, and the 16-year-old charged in Ethan’s death.
RCMP initially charged only Whitebear, said his defence lawyer, Tom Engel. But a witness who was 10 years old at the time testified that Whitebear wasn’t the culprit — several others had been lying in wait and planned to kill Whitebear that day.
A judge agreed and ruled that Whitebear shot back in self defence, said Engel.
The lawyer plans to file a complaint against the RCMP for failing to properly investigate the case. If they had, he said, perhaps they would have arrested the one teen who later took part in Ethan’s shooting.
Whitebear’s mother and Ethan’s grandmother, Debbie Buffalo, said if that teen had been behind bars, things may have turned out differently.
“My grandson might not have died. He might have still been here,” she said outside court.
She said she still can’t explain why the three teens chose to fire at the house the night Ethan died.
The one thing she knows for sure is that it wasn’t a simple fight between two people. The victim was “an innocent little boy — who had nothing to do with anything.”
A lawyer representing the oldest offender in Ethan’s shooting, who turns 19 next month, said her client is willing to participate in a community conference with his relatives and Ethan’s family to come up with sentencing recommendations.
But Debbie Buffalo said she and the rest of Ethan’s family are still too hurt to talk face-to-face with any of the shooters.
“It’s only been a year and a half. It’s still pretty tough,” she said.
“Acceptance isn’t even there yet … forgiveness comes after that.”