WETASKIWIN — Three teens involved in the shooting death of a five-year-old boy on an Alberta reserve have received the maximum youth sentence for manslaughter in a crime the judge called “domestic terrorism.”
The youths, all members of a gang known as the East Side Playas, took turns firing a rifle at a home on the Samson Cree reserve south of Edmonton around 3 a.m. on July, 11, 2011.
One of the bullets hit young Ethan Yellowbird in the head as he slept in his bed.
“The shooting at the home was calculated to intimidate the occupants, and in addition would have terrorized the entire community,” provincial court Judge Geoff Ho said Friday. “This constitutes domestic terrorism.”
The teens “were virtually playing Russian roulette with the lives of the occupants of the home,” Ho said.
The crime happened in a community that has been plagued for years by rival youth gangs fighting over drugs and turf.
Court heard two of the youths fired two bullets each into the home and one fired a shot over the house.
The three, who were 13, 16 and 17 at the time of the shooting, pleaded guilty last fall to manslaughter.
The maximum manslaughter sentence under the Youth Criminal Justice Act when the crime was committed was three years of supervision with varying degrees of restriction.
The oldest boy, who shot over the house, was given six months of secure custody, six months of open custody and two years of supervision in the community.
The middle teen was sentenced to six months of secure custody, one year of open custody and 18 months of conditional supervision. The youngest received one year of open custody and two years of supervision.
As Ho read his judgment, the two teens who fired bullets into the house looked down impassively at the floor, their bodies shaking.
Across the court Lee Buffalo, Ethan’s father, wiped away tears as relatives gently stroked his arm and back to comfort him.
The teens all came from homes filled with violence, drinking and drugs and were in and out of foster care. “All three young persons were gang members,” said Ho. “If they continue in that lifestyle, they will continue to be a danger to any community they live in.”
Court heard the three were hanging out and came up with a plan to walk to a nearby house and shoot at it in the middle of the night.
One of the teens told a Youth Restorative Action Project official that the idea for the shooting came from another gang member, who thought the house was a hangout of a rival gang.
The oldest fired one shot above the home, then passed the rifle to the two other boys and walked away. They each fired two bullets at the house. One passed through the wall above Ethan’s mattress and struck him in the head.
Ethan’s father, his girlfriend and their one-year-old child had all been sleeping in a bed next to Ethan. They woke up to screams and blood.
Ho described Ethan as a “happy, loving, caring and giving child who could light up any room. He loved God.”
“His death has been devastating to his family. They have suffered physically, emotionally and spiritually. Nothing this court does in sentencing will end their pain, suffering and tremendous sense of loss.”
After firing the shots, the teens picked up the shell casings outside, dropped them into a hat and ran off.
They broke the rifle into two pieces and hid them outside near some tree stumps. They were arrested six months later.
Outside court, Ethan’s mother, Ashley Charmaine Yellowbird, didn’t take much solace from the sentences.
She said she was more relieved that she will no longer have to come to court and see the youths who killed her son. “I’m happy they got the maximum sentence, I was glad for that,” she said. “There is no amount of time is going to ever ease the pain of our family or our loss.”
The Samson reserve and three others in the Hobbema area have been beset for years by shootings and stabbings as rival gangs fight over drugs.
More than half of the 14,000 people who live in the area are under 18 years old. Two months after Ethan’s death, his aunt was shot and killed outside the home next door.
Melanie Buffalo, another of the boy’s aunts, was angry and worried that the sentence won’t be much of a deterrent for young people in the community.
Buffalo said people were shocked at the boy’s death and seemed to be fed up with the shootings. But she said it will take much more to stop this type of violence.
“I am scared because people are still shooting at houses. We don’t need to lose another child or another innocent person like this,” Buffalo said.
“His loss was hard on our family. And I would hate for another family to feel that loss.”
Outside court, Crown prosecutor Trent Wilson pointed out that the youths were sentenced under provisions of youth justice laws before they were toughened last fall by the federal government.
Those amendments that went into effect last October broaden sentencing principles to reflect the seriousness of offences. They also allow judges to consider deterrence and denunciation when sentencing young offenders.
“I think that the Youth Criminal Justice Act, as it existed at the time, puts all of the emphasis on rehabilitation,” Wilson said.
“These sentences reflect that. They are rehabilitative in nature.”
RCMP Const. Perry Cardinal acknowledged gangs continue to be a problem on the reserves in the Hobbema area.
He said there appears to be more interest in the community in stopping the gangs, but he said there is no quick or easy solution to the problem.
Cardinal said good parenting and keeping children occupied with positive activities are key.
“I hope it is a fad that is going to go away,” he said.
“It has lessened a little bit in the amount of people who are involved in gang activity, but it is still there.”