It was a crime that shocked a city and it left no doubt that Winnipeg had a serious inner-city gang problem.
But the senseless murder of Joseph ‘Beeper’ Spence was also a crime that has left Nancy Flett to grieve for her teenage son, and spend decades wondering what life would have been like if her beloved Beeper had not been taken from her at such a young age.
“It’s still all so very hard, It’s been 26 years now, and it’s hard to think about the fact he’s been gone longer than he was actually alive,” Nancy Flett of Winnipeg said.
“I miss my little Beeper every day.”
Flett’s son Joseph Spence, a boy known to his friends and family as ‘Beeper’ was just 13 years old when he was shot point-blank in the back with a sawed-off shotgun in Winnipeg’s North End on July 23, 1995.
Adding to the tragedy of the murder was the fact that Beeper had his young life taken from him for no other reason than because he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the summer of 1995, Beeper Spence was doing what many other teenagers in Winnipeg were doing, and enjoying his summer vacation.
In the early morning hours of July 23 that summer he and a group of friends were playing video games at a friend’s home at what had been planned as a sleepover.
But the night took a sudden turn, according to Flett, when the grandmother of the boy who was hosting the sleepover told the boys they needed to leave, and around 2:15 a.m. that morning they were sent out onto the streets with nowhere to go.
As the boys walked the dark streets of Winnipeg’s North End, an area that has been for years notorious for crime and gang activity, they ended up at the intersection of Robinson Street and Flora Avenue, and this was when the morning took a violent and deadly turn.
A van suddenly pulled up on the boys, and someone inside told the boys to come closer. As the boys approached the van, one of the people in it pulled out a sawed off shotgun and fired without warning, hitting Beeper Spence point-blank in the back.
Beeper did not survive, and Flett soon learned the news that the only reason her son was shot was because the three people who were in the van that morning were looking for blood, and looking to take their anger out on anyone who crossed their paths.
Flett said she learned during the murder trial that on the same morning teenage boys Conrad Johnson and Fabian Torres, and teenage girl Kami Pozniak, who were all associates of Winnipeg’s Deuces Street gang, were said to be enraged because someone from the Deuces gang had been beaten by a member of the rival Indian Posse gang.
Flett said that when the three could not find the person they were targeting that morning, they decided to shoot at whoever crossed their paths first, and the person turned out to be 13-year-old Beeper.
It was Johnson who actually pulled the trigger that morning, and all three of the teens were eventually arrested and charged in the murder of Beeper Spence, and all three have spent various amounts of time incarcerated for the murder.
But as the news of Beeper’s death spread through the city there was shock that such a young boy could be killed so violently, and it brought more attention to the issue of crime and gang violence in Winnipeg’s inner city and North End.
For years after Beeper’s death Flett said she became very protective of her two daughters, as she could not bear the thought of something else happening to one of her children while out on the streets of the North End.
“I smothered them, I really did and it was hard on them, but I just didn’t want anything happening to them,” Flett said.
“I kept them from a lot of thing, but I was just trying to keep them safe.”
Now, 26 years later, Flett still lives in the North End, and she said the issues with crime, drugs, and gangs in her neighbourhood have not gotten any better since Beeper was shot, and lately she thinks they are getting worse.
She said she sees young and often Indigenous kids getting involved with drugs and with gangs at a very early age, because she said often there are few other options for things to do.
“They’ve taken so much away from this area, and there is nothing for kids to do around here, so of course they start taking drugs and drinking and getting into trouble,” Flett said.
“There are no hockey rinks around here, no skateboard parks, no good playgrounds for the kids to play in.
“There’s nothing for these kids.”
Winnipeg-based educator and youth mentor Mitch Bourbonniere has devoted much of his career and time to mentoring, counselling and supporting at-risk youth in Winnipeg. He works closely with Winnipeg‘s most vulnerable people affected by issues like homelessness, mental health issues, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and gang involvement.
Bourbonniere said he understands why gang life can be attractive to young and often Indigenous youth in Winnipeg, because often it gives them the acceptance and companionship they may not be getting elsewhere.
“You have issues like poverty, not feeling valued, parents who struggle or are absent, barriers to finishing school, and a longing for a sense of belonging and community,” Bourbonniere said.
“As bad as things can be in the gang for a lot of youth, it’s still better than not having anything at all.”
And once a young person commits themselves to a gang, Bourbonniere said one of the most difficult things they can do is try to walk away from it later on.
“The relationship between a young person and the gang can become very toxic very quickly,” he said. “By that time the young person is feeling trapped and unable to get out.
“And it is difficult to leave. The gang does not want you to leave for several reasons including not wanting to set a precedent with other members, the fact that they need workers, and the fact that you have a lot of information about them.”
Bourbonniere also agreed with Flett that the gang issues in Winnipeg’s inner-city and North End have, for the most part, remained the same in the years since Beeper was killed.
“Overall things have remained quite consistent over the last three decades,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is how the different groups are organized and how they do business, but there’s as much activity today as there has been in the last 30 years,” Bourbonniere said.
Now, 26 years after Flett rushed to the hospital after getting news that her son had been shot, she said she still deals with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I actually still get flashbacks of Beeper on the gurney in the hospital that morning, and it’s so vivid,” Flett said.
“I can still see the blood on the floor, and I can still smell the blood and it’s so strong that it still makes me sick. It’s not something that ever leaves you.”
She said to keep her son’s memory alive her, her husband and her two surviving daughters often visit his grave site to talk with and spend time with Beeper.
“We visit him a lot, the girls take a blanket and they sit and talk to him,” Flett said.
“And I often sit with him, and I tell him I miss him and love him, and I tell him I miss his beautiful smile.”
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun