Sidney Letandre had spent more than half of his young life in a Winnipeg gang.
It was who he was. It was what he did.
His "brothers" on the street had filled a gaping void, and he knew he could always count on them to have his back.
But then came a series of life-altering events: a change in gang leadership and direction; gangs’ increased focus on senseless violence; and, most important of all, the birth of a baby boy.
Letandre, one of the original members of the Indian Posse, decided he needed to turn the page and move on. He was 34 years old. It was time to finally grow up.
He knew it wasn’t going to be easy — certainly not like simply tendering one’s resignation.
Feelings were going to get hurt. Tensions were going to rise. Some blood might have to be spilled.
Letandre knew all about the "code" and was willing to pay the price for his decision and take his lumps.
But he certainly wasn’t prepared for what came next.
He vividly recalls hearing the knock on the door of his Ross Avenue home in 2008. His gut told him this was the moment he’d been dreading.
"I knew something was up. But I didn’t think they’d do it like this. I didn’t think they’d do it in front of my family," Letandre, now 39, told the Free Press this week in an exclusive interview detailing his personal story for the first time.
His common-law wife, 10-month-old son and the woman’s two young girls were in the residence at the time. Standing on the other side of the door was a familiar face, one of Letandre’s longtime associates in the Indian Posse.
But Justin Meeches wasn’t there for a friendly visit.
Meeches raised the .22-calibre rifle and fired the first shot just as Letandre turned to flee. "The first one in the back of my head knocked me right out. I didn’t even feel the second one which hit me in the back and shattered my spine," said Letandre.
The results were catastrophic. Although he somehow managed to survive, Letandre was paralyzed from the chest down. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair as a paraplegic.
Letandre had seen far too many gang members get away with their crimes over the years. Heck, even Letandre admits the majority of illegal things he did were never detected or punished by the justice system.
"We’d almost never get caught because the things we would do were to other gang members, other drug dealers," said Letandre.
But this was different. This was personal. And so, so unnecessary. He had simply wanted to walk away from the gang life and hoped he could do it with his head held high.
"I’d seen quite a few people walk away and nobody cared because they didn’t mean anything. But they didn’t want me to leave and wanted to make an example out of me," said Letandre. "I told them I had spent half my life with them, now I wanted to spend the next half of my life with my family."
There was also the way they did it that infuriated him. His pride and joy, the infant son who had triggered his ultimate decision, had narrowly been missed by a stray bullet while standing in his crib that night.
"They could have taken me somewhere or waited until I was walking down the street. They didn’t have to shoot me in front of my family," he said.
And so he made another decision he knew was going to drastically change his life.
He was going to co-operate with justice officials.
Letandre identified his attacker, then testified against him at a preliminary hearing. It was enough to prompt Meeches to strike a deal, plead guilty and be given a 10-year prison sentence.
"I hope in the future he can forgive me for what I did. I’m sorry his family had to go through that, too," Meeches, now 35, told court during his 2010 sentencing hearing.
Ironically, Meeches claimed he, too, was trying to leave the Indian Posse and shooting Letandre was going to be his "out," based on orders from gang leaders.
Letandre wasn’t buying the story. Or the apology. And he knew there would still be a target on his back for "ratting" out a fellow gangster.
So he packed his bags and said goodbye to Manitoba to begin his new life under the witness protection plan.
It has been five years since he was shot and three years since the court case wrapped up. But not a day goes by that Letandre doesn’t think about both monumental events.
He now spends his days living independently in a small apartment, getting around in his motorized wheelchair. His now six-year-old son will be moving in with him this summer.
Letandre has also found a new purpose in life by bringing his story to others and speaking out about the perils of gang life. He has done a series of seminars for junior and high school kids in his new hometown — the Free Press is not revealing specifics of where he is living — with an organization he hooked up with through witness protection.
Letandre tells them of his childhood, growing up on the Fairford First Nation about 240 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Of being abandoned by his mother, ignored by his alcoholic father and raised by his grandparents.
"They were good, hardworking Christians. But I was acting out a lot, didn’t know how to express my feelings," said Letandre. "I came from a family where you do not sit around and talk about your feelings."
He talks about his first brush with the law at the age of 12 — a break-and-enter — that landed him in the Manitoba Youth Centre and introduced him to others who had an idea about forming a street gang in Winnipeg.
"At first (in the late 1980s), gangs were mostly about skipping school and hanging out. But they became more violent, more out of control. Just look at what they did to me."
Letandre also expresses remorse for his crimes and is thankful he never seriously injured or killed anyone. But he knows much of what he did, especially drug-dealing, helped destroy countless lives.
"I was always drunk, always high. That’s the only way I could function with these guys," said Letandre.
He’s been clean and sober for nearly two years now, a pledge he made to himself and his family.
"The only way I can pay my debt back to society is to do right," said Letandre. "My passion is to help as many kids as I can."
And his advice to anyone looking to escape the gang life? Run, don’t walk, away.
"Get as far away as you can. Move. Out of sight, out of mind. It was hard for me, but I know I did the right thing," said Letandre. "I tell kids you have to think about your actions. You have to be accountable. Life is not easy. And it’s hard to follow your heart and do the right thing. But it does get easier and it does get better."
There have been a handful of other recent cases of Winnipeg gang members who "escaped" the life for various reasons:
‘Indian Posse Informant’: A member of the Indian Posse agreed to leave the gang and become a justice informant, where he helped convict two teens for a deadly 2007 hit on a rival gangster. The man, whose identity is covered by a publication ban, provided key testimony about the slaying. He was granted immunity and placed in witness protection, along with his wife and four children. He said the gangland murder of a relative motivated his decision to walk away from the life.
Ian Grant: The former Hells Angels member turned his back on the outlaw gang while in prison serving a 15-year sentence for his role in a drug operation. Parole board officials say the physically imposing Grant had his Hells Angels tattoo "dated," which signifies the official end of a member’s association. He also turned heads by confronting other Hells members and associates while in prison to let them know he was out of the gang. He was granted early parole last year and applauded for his positive efforts.
Billy Bowden: The former Hells Angels member was banished from the group and stripped of his colours because of concerns over his erratic behaviour. The rare move saw Bowden eventually join up with another criminal organization and get involved in several crimes, including a deadly stabbing inside a Winnipeg bar.
Franco Atanasovic: Longtime Hells Angels associate helped police infiltrate the gang and was paid $500,000 after a series of drug deals were captured on audio and video. Had to be relocated under witness protection and testify under heavy guard.