Chief Marvin Yellowbird hopes members of his reserve in central Alberta will keep talking with police so more arrests are made in unsolved crimes, just as they have been in the killing of his five-year-old grandson.
RCMP announced Tuesday that they have charged three teenage boys with manslaughter in last summer's fatal shooting of Ethan Yellowbird. The boy was sleeping in his bed when a bullet fired from outside his bedroom wall struck him in the head.
It was the second shooting that day on the Samson Cree reserve, one of four that make up the crime-troubled Hobbema community about an hour's drive south of Edmonton.
The Samson First Nation has struggled with gang violence for years, and the boy's death served as a tipping point of sorts for residents, who were often reluctant to speak out about crimes and their perpetrators.
The chief and the RCMP issued public pleas for people to come forward with information in the case – and they did.
“The Samson Cree Nation is full of law-abiding, strong and proud people,” Mr. Yellowbird said Tuesday. “The days of gangs wreaking havoc on our nation are over. We shall not relent until we know that all our people are safe.”
Chief Yellowbird adopted Ethan as his grandson according to traditional Cree beliefs. It is a spiritual relationship considered as strong as blood.
RCMP said two of the accused have appeared in court and a warrant has been issued for the third. He is believed to be in Edmonton or nearby Red Deer.
Investigators would not provide details about the suspected motive for the shooting, but described the three accused as having ties to gangs.
About a dozen gangs have been fighting over the drug trade on the reserve over the last few years. Police have said more than half of the 14,000 residents are under 18 and especially vulnerable to the lure of gang money and status.
Ethan was shot on Staff Sgt. Charlie Wood's first shift in charge of the Hobbema detachment. He described the death as a tragedy for the entire community, including the officers who know the local children.
“What stands out for me is that, right from the early days of shock and the grief, this community was asking the RCMP: ‘What can we do to help you solve this crime?’ ”
Insp. Garrett Woolsey said some people in the community were still reluctant to speak with investigators. There was “a code of fear or fear of reprisal.” It was a challenging, seven-month investigation that cost about $500,000, involved 14 full-time investigators, 14,000 hours of work and hundreds of interviews.
Some family members, including Ethan's mother, Charmaine Ashley Yellowbird, sat in court Tuesday morning as charges were read against the two accused who are in custody. In addition to manslaughter, they also faces charges of endangering life and intentional discharge of a firearm.
Elder John Crier, who is related to the Yellowbird family, said the mothers of the boys were also in court. He believes their families are also from the Samson reserve.
“These people are not strangers,” he said. “We live here. We know each other.”
Mr. Crier read a statement written by Ethan's mother. “I do feel relieved knowing these individuals have been arrested and that they won't be able to harm anyone else again,” she wrote. “I can begin my healing journey. My son will always be in my heart and my memory.”
Two months after Ethan was killed, his 23-year-old aunt, Chelsea Yellowbird, was shot dead outside a house on the reserve. Her case remains unsolved.
Supt. Curtis Zablocki said investigators are determined to crack it with more help from community members. “It's only a matter of time before we get to the truth.”
Ethan was not the only child to get caught up in violence on the reserve.
In 2008, 23-month-old Asia Saddleback was shot as she sat at a kitchen table eating dinner. She survived, but the bullet is permanently lodged between her liver and spine.
After that shooting, the reserve pledged to curb violence and crime. It 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 riddled with gunfire.
In November, 2010, a 28-year-old man standing in his living room on the reserve was struck by several bullets in another drive-by shooting.
Mr. Crier said many people are still afraid to talk to police, but the tide is turning. “There are more people who are determined to find a way than there are people who have fear.”
He said a new bylaw on the reserve may help people feel more safe. Last week, band members voted to give their leaders the power to evict suspected gang members. Ethan's shooting was cited as one of the reasons the vote was held.
The Canadian Press