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Evangeline Downey holds a photo of her late 14-year-old nephew Tequel Willis in Burnaby, B.C., on Jan. 8, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Tequel Willis told his family the evening errand wouldn’t take long. He just had to take a cab from their townhome in Burnaby, B.C., and return some keys to a friend in neighbouring Surrey.

As he got out of the taxi on a residential street two weeks ago, eight bullets hit him – a deadly ambush from someone in a sedan who then drove the vehicle to a quiet road and set it aflame to destroy evidence.

Tequel Willis was 14 years old. Police have described his killing as targeted and have said he was known to police.

“He had not seen a glimpse of what life is like, not even a taste yet of the world we live in,” Tequel’s older cousin Kellesa Downey recently told The Globe and Mail in an exchange of messages on social media. “He wanted to take care of his whole family and he always did.”

Tequel is one of the youngest victims linked to Metro Vancouver’s long-running gang wars, a labyrinth of internecine conflicts that hit a lull during the first months of the pandemic before a spate of fatal shootings in recent weeks. The pandemic is partly to blame for the spike in killings because global drug supply chains have been disrupted, police and drug experts say.

Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Solicitor-General, called his death “appalling” and promised police resources are being deployed to deal with this new wave of violence.

Experts worry Tequel’s death is indicative of more brazen crimes to come and the possibility that innocent bystanders could get caught in the crossfire. It has happened before: In 2007, Chris Mohan, a 22-year-old going to play basketball, and Ed Schellenberg, a fireplace repairman, were among six men – dubbed the Surrey Six – shot dead in an apartment building. Three years ago, 15-year-old Alfred Wong was killed by stray gunfire from a gang shootout as his family returned from dinner along a busy street near Vancouver City Hall.

The taxi driver who watched Tequel being killed was not shot, though his boss said last week he remains off work, still trying to process what he saw.

The regional Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT), the largest murder squad in Canada, says pressure between crime groups has ratcheted up over the past three weeks, with five people linked to the drug trade being gunned down since Dec. 27. IHIT and the Vancouver Police Department, which handles its own murder investigations, have announced a total of 11 targeted homicides since September.

According to the province’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), gang homicides actually fell in 2020 to the lowest level in four years with 23, down from a high of 48 in 2017. But the agency says the reprieve brought by COVID-19 has now ended and conflicts are once again boiling over as criminal networks jockey to profit from selling illicit substances amid a new landscape of importers and producers.

“We’ve seen gangs sort of adapt, as we expected they would obviously with the drug trade being so lucrative,” spokesperson Sergeant Brenda Winpenny said in an interview. “Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean they are going to stop with their violent activity.”

There’s no census of gangs in B.C., no publicly released police roster of criminal organizations. The CFSEU has named some groups such as the Brothers Keepers and formed a special task force to crack down on this newer organization linked to multiple murders. However, Sgt. Winpenny would not say how many such groups might exist, saying her agency has gotten away from releasing such numbers.

“There are so many different individuals and subsets within gangs,” she said in an interview. “The allegiances and the alliances change.”

Violence flares up over bids to take out competition in the drug trade as well as revenge over shifting ties. She noted that, lately, some B.C. gangs have recruited operatives from Ontario and Alberta to do targeted shootings.

Karen Ward, a drug policy adviser for the City of Vancouver, said the pandemic has mangled the global supply chain of illicit drugs, which is leading to shortages that fuel the desperation and violence among those both buying and selling substances in her Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and across the Lower Mainland.

“The whole system is more fragile than any above-ground business, and there are more people in the market [for a job selling drugs] too because there are fewer legit jobs to be had,” said Ms. Ward, who also uses drugs. “I saw a guy stab a guy for five bucks – he had nothing to lose.”

The region’s traffickers lean heavily on legal trade routes, often over land or by air, but with borders tightened, they are scraping together a volatile supply of precursor drugs such as benzodiazepines, or their counterfeit analogues, from suppliers on the Dark Web, she said.

To slow the violence, Ottawa is providing B.C. with $30.5-million in funding over five fiscal years starting in 2018, with the money directed to law enforcement, government and community support and disruption of organized crime. In addition, the province has topped up the funding with $20-million. There are also various programs in B.C. to encourage youth to leave gangs.

During a Thursday news conference, Premier John Horgan described the surge in gang violence as “very troubling,” and said one of the best options for countering the gangs is for the public to anonymously report any relevant information or tips they have to police.

“The way we curb this is by having the community rise up and say, ‘This is not acceptable. We have had enough of this,’ ” the Premier said.

After Tequel’s death, his friends mourned him on social media as a loyal and generous presence in their lives. On multiple Instagram accounts over the past several years, the goofy and energetic preteen posted clips of his scooter tricks at the local skate park and photos of him dirt biking. Then, he began chronicling his pursuit of designer clothes and money.

Two weeks before he was killed, he entered a local studio with a good friend to record his first-ever rap track. In the song released online shortly after his death, he raps about the highs and lows of the drug trade and, along with his friend, asks “Should I turn into a big boss?” in the chorus.

Police say teens and preteens are recruited as foot soldiers in the province’s gang conflicts and are often armed with drugs and smartphones to deliver the drugs for higher-level operatives.

Tequel’s family disputes that he was ever involved with gangs.

His mother, Tiffany Willis, said Tequel, who had a court-imposed curfew of 9 p.m., was set up to be ambushed by a man he thought was his friend.

“Why would you send someone to drop off keys and then that person ends up killed?” Ms. Willis said, noting her family is now scared for its safety.

Ms. Willis says she raised her happy-go-lucky son, who had her name tattooed on his chest, to carry himself with the confidence of a boy who was several years older. Tequel, whose father is white and mother is Black, was failed by racist education and criminal justice systems, according to Ms. Willis and his aunt Evangeline S. Downey, who spoke to The Globe and Mail last week on the steps of the family home.

“We’d like to know how a 14-year-old boy slips through the cracks,” said Ms. Downey, a community activist who flew in from the family’s hometown of North Preston, N.S., shortly after Tequel was killed. She did not elaborate.

School documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show Tequel left Burnaby’s Maywood Community Elementary School in 2014 and that his mother told the school district’s manager of youth services that she intended to enroll him in a private school that fall. Instead, the next school year, Tequel attended Vancouver’s Nelson Elementary for Grade 4, according to a report card obtained by The Globe.

As recently as April, 2019, Tequel was living in the central Interior of the province with his father. That’s when a news story in the Williams Lake Tribune shows him smiling beside former Team Canada hockey star Delaney Collins during a floor hockey game for troubled students and their parents. After the game, Ms. Collins talked about the adversity she has faced in her own life.

“My name is Tequel Willis and I like how she did the speech,” the 12-year-old boy says in a video shot by the newspaper reporter.

Tequel’s father, who lives in the Okanagan, refused a request for comment from The Globe.

IHIT has stated repeatedly that Tequel’s shooting “certainly was not a random killing,” and that the teen had a criminal past that is relevant to its efforts to find his killers. Sergeant Frank Jang, the agency’s spokesperson, said in an interview that Tequel was “known to police.”

Sgt. Jang says investigators had been gaining “momentum” with interviews and helpful forensic evidence secured from the burned-out vehicle used in the hit. But, he said, the family is not co-operating.

On Monday, a Globe reporter observed a handful of officers and forensic experts standing on the front patio of the Willis family townhome. Moments before the Globe reporter arrived, Ms. Willis had her cellphone taken by police and a male member of the family was arrested briefly for allegedly spitting on an officer, according to livestreamed video posted by Ms. Downey.

Sgt. Jang declined to comment on what police were looking for, but he noted that resorting to a warrant to enter the home of a victim’s family is “highly, highly, highly unusual.”

“They are actively resisting the investigators as we are trying to do our job,” he said. “We need them to work with us, not fight us.”

With research from Stephanie Chambers

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