WETASKIWIN, Alta. - A trial begins today for three teenagers charged with a shooting on a central Alberta reserve that killed a five-year old boy as he slept in his bed.
Ethan Yellowbird was killed in a home on the Samson Cree First Nation in Hobbema on July 11, 2011.
A bullet fired from outside his bedroom wall struck him in the head.
The reserve had been plagued by gang violence for years and police often had trouble getting witnesses to talk about crimes.
The child's death shifted attitudes in the community and people came forward with information in the case, eventually helping RCMP arrest teens they said had gang ties.
The accused boys — who were 13, 16 and 17 at the time of the shooting — each face charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and intentional discharge of a firearm.
The trial, before a youth court judge in Wetaskiwin, is set to last 12 days.
"I'm sure there'll be a lot of eyes turned toward the trial to see how it turns out," said RCMP Insp. Charles Wood of the Hobbema detachment.
He 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 in 2011.
The use of weapons is down, Wood said, as is the number of drive-by shootings. "We still do have shots fired where occupied homes are struck but again not with the frequency that we had last year."
Roy Louis, a band member who acts as a liaison with the RCMP, believes the reserve has changed for the better.
"Children are outside playing," he said. "It feels like a safe community after all these years."
Officers are still working to solve the death of Ethan's aunt, Chelsea Yellowbird. The 23-year-old woman was shot outside a house two months after the boy was killed. At the time, police said they believed the shooting was gang related.
Wood said some residents have co-operated with officers working on the case but he couldn't reveal why there has not yet been an arrest: "It's not on hiatus. It is an active investigation."
The Samson reserve is one of four that make up the Hobbema community, about an hour's drive south of Edmonton.
Police previously blamed most of the violence on the reserve to 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.
In 2008, 23-month old Asia Saddleback was shot as she sat at a kitchen table eating dinner. She survived but the bullet remained lodged between her liver and spine.
After that shooting, the reserve 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 hit by gunfire.
In 2010, a 28-year-old man standing in his home was struck with several bullets in another drive-by shooting.
After Ethan and his aunt were killed, reserve residents voted to bring in an eviction bylaw giving leaders the power to ban suspected gang members from living in the community. The band is still working on administrative issues and there's no date on when the bylaw will come into force.