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Why we should all care about gang violence

For anyone who has ever wondered what on Earth gang violence has to do with them and why they should care, the trial now going on at the main Toronto courthouse offers a sharp lesson.

The instruction comes in part from the fact that victims in this case, Brenton Charlton and Leonard Bell, had nothing to do with gangs either, until members of an obscure little one allegedly mistook them for rivals and opened fire on them, and in part from the fellow now in the witness stand, one Roland Ellis.

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Mr. Ellis is a 26-year-old former member of the G-Way gang in the Galloway area of Scarborough. The gang had many offshoots including one called the Throwbacks, whose specialty, according to Mr. Ellis, was to drive into the neighbouring enemy turf of Malvern and randomly shoot at "anyone who looked like a gangbanger or was associated with gangbangers."

Given the way so many men dress, the description was apparently sufficiently broad that it captured Mr. Charlton, who was 31 and living at home with his mother when he was killed, and Mr. Bell, who at the time he took nine bullets was a 43-year-old married father and renovation contractor.

The shooting happened at the afternoon rush hour of March 3, 2004, as Mr. Charlton and Mr. Bell sat in their little Neon, waiting for the light to change at the busy intersection of Neilson Road and Finch Avenue East.

That evening, the Throwbacks and other members of the various charming branches of the G-Way gang gathered, as they did many nights, at a friend's house to party.

The place was already standing-room-only by the time Mr. Ellis arrived, so he was hovering by the front door when the local news came on (he recognized the theme music of local station CP24) and he saw his old friend Tyshan Riley sitting, as though riveted, directly in front of the TV set.

"He started telling people to shut the fuck up," Mr. Ellis told an Ontario Superior Court jury yesterday in Toronto where Mr. Riley, Philip Atkins and Jason Wisdom are now on trial for first-degree murder, attempted murder and murder and attempted murder for the benefit of a criminal organization, in this instance the gang.

The news began, and a female reporter was detailing a shooting earlier that day at the intersection of Neilson and Finch, saying that two men in their early 40s had been hit.

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Mr. Riley was clearly shocked, according to Mr. Ellis: "He was basically saying, 'No, no, what the fuck!' " and then he sort of threw up his hands and leaned back in his chair.

Mr. Ellis soon found himself on the balcony, smoking weed with Mr. Wisdom, when Mr. Atkins joined them. Mr. Atkins pulled out a great whacking gun, a .357 automatic, from the so-called "dicky pocket" of his jeans and "started saying he wanted to get rid of it ... he said he thought the police were looking for the firearm. He wanted to switch to a revolver, because they don't leave shell casings" behind.

As chance would have it, Mr. Wisdom had just such a revolver on him, and he wanted to make the switch right there, but Mr. Atkins "said he didn't want that piece of shit" because Mr. Wisdom's gun was kind of beat up.

Less than half an hour later, Mr. Ellis had a little chat with Mr. Wisdom, asking why Mr. Riley had reacted so weirdly to the TV news. At first, "Jason was like, who cares," Mr. Ellis said, but he soon blurted out that "they were riding in the Malvern neighbourhood," spotted a man they believed was "Ross P," the man who the Throwbacks believed had killed a leading G-Way boss, travelling with another fellow in a Neon.

"He said they followed them until the right time to shoot up the vehicle, basically," Mr. Ellis said, and that they did.

He gave his testimony in dribs and drabs between segments of intercepted phone calls, which prosecutor Suhail Akhtar would play for the jurors and then ask Mr. Ellis to identify the voices.

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Only two lengthy calls, both made when Mr. Riley was in jail in the summer of 2004 on a charge that wasn't explained to the jurors, were played in full, and they offered a fascinating glimpse of how Mr. Riley, while in a cell at the Toronto East Detention Centre, managed to exert control over the Throwbacks.

The intercepts show that he at least twice engineered drug drops to the jail and had remarkable access to phone calls.

Now, perhaps Mr. Riley was being given some special length of rope (from the wiretaps, it's obvious the Throwbacks were under police surveillance), but it was while he was at the Toronto East that he also attempted to convince Mr. Ellis "to take a charge for him."

The way Mr. Ellis explained it, Mr. Riley wanted to give Mr. Ellis' name to a lawyer "and have me plead guilty to the charges" he was facing. They had been good friends since grade school, he said, "So I told him 'Yeah sure, I'll do it.' " Mr. Riley also offered him $10,000 for the favour, and "the money sounded good as well."

But after consulting some friends, Mr. Ellis thought further and harder, and changed his mind. He didn't mind so much delivering weed to Mr. Riley at the jail - he threw it over the fence - but after all, he said, Mr. Riley "had a lot of people" he could ask to take charges for him, so he went to the Toronto East, and through the glass partition in the visitors' room, he told him, "I didn't want to do the charge."

Mr. Riley "was really mad. He said, 'You know what's going to happen?' and I said, 'Do what you have to do.' "

Mr. Ellis said he understood the remark to mean "he was going to do something to me or send somebody after me."

He took the threat seriously enough that he purchased a firearm and bulletproof vest.

Mr. Riley tried one more time. Mr. Ellis was in the park where the Throwbacks met every day to chill and smoke and sell drugs when someone handed him a cellphone with Mr. Riley at the other end.

"He brought up me taking the charges," Mr. Ellis said. "He wanted to give me money for a lawyer." Mr. Ellis repeated that he wasn't willing. "He told me I was going to get dumped," dumped being gang slang for dead.

It is unclear whether this was an invention of Mr. Riley's, whether he found someone else to "take" his charges, or if it is a widespread practice. But that people charged with criminal offences are even contemplating paying or bludgeoning others into taking the fall for them is surely of interest to all citizens who care about the health of the justice system.

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