Two teenage boys have been arrested in the death of Nizzel George, the 5-year-old boy killed this week when a spray of bullets pierced the north Minneapolis house where he was staying, police said Friday.

The news brought some relief to Nizzel's relatives and to the tense neighborhood, but grief remains strong and the motive a mystery.

Police said the arrests were made Thursday night in Brooklyn Center. One of the boys was booked on suspicion of murder, the other on suspicion of weapons possession. Charges could come as soon as Monday, police spokesman Sgt. Stephen McCarty said.

Nizzel was shot once in the back Tuesday morning as he slept on a couch in his grandmother's home in the 4500 block of Bryant Avenue N. He died soon after at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale.

The little boy's relatives were glad to hear of the arrests, but more than ever wonder at the motive, said Robert Tolliver, Nizzel's great-uncle.

"My main question is, I wonder why they did that? That's what's killing me now," he said.

Tolliver said a detective visited the house Friday afternoon to tell the family about the arrests. Nizzel's mom, Christina Banks, was not home when he came by, but she soon learned the news.

Banks, who on Friday afternoon viewed Nizzel's body at the funeral home for the first time, said the arrests didn't make much difference to her.

"That's nothing," she said, imagining that the suspects might get a light sentence because they're juveniles. "Why my baby get his life taken and they could be back on the streets just because they're young? My baby was young. That's not fair, not fair," she said.

Early in the investigation, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said that police suspected that someone in Nizzel's household knew who the shooter was and that an ongoing dispute may have been behind the gunfire.

Lewis George, Nizzel's uncle, said Friday that someone told him that a teenager he knows from a nearby neighborhood was the shooter. "I saw [that teenager] the other day," George said. "I waved to him. Then I heard that he was the shooter."

The names of the boys have not been released. The names might never become public, depending on their ages.

Friends become enemies

Police haven't released the full circumstances surrounding the shooting, but speculation among police, community activists and even Nizzel's family has focused on friction between teen cliques, the amorphous groups of neighborhood kids that assign themselves group names and square off against others.

George said that their fights are usually about "nonsense" and that most of them played together when they were younger.

"It's a lot of affiliations going on," he said. "All these guys, they was all friends and stuff once upon a time, and it seem like, when they get guns, they let the guns start thinking for them, you know?"

He said his nephew, the only child of his brother Cornelius George, was a smart kid. Nizzel "had a bright future ahead of him," George said. "He was a different little kid than most kids I've seen. He was very intelligent."

Nizzel had lived in Robbinsdale with his father, but in the past year lived primarily with his mother in Brooklyn Center and attended kindergarten at Zanewood Community School in Brooklyn Park. He was staying at his grandmother's house on Bryant for a week before he was supposed to move back to his father's house for a while, according to Lewis George.

A bittersweet moment

Neighbor Susan Dailey, 53, said she was ecstatic to hear of the arrests.

"I'm thrilled. Really I am. ... I'm telling you I cried when I found out [about the shooting]," said Dailey, as she played in a kiddie pool outside her house with her 1-year-old great-niece on Friday afternoon.

She said she still plans to move by the end of the month because she thinks the area is unsafe. "One arrest in this neighborhood don't mean nothing," Dailey said.

While Jean Bailey, 67, who lives across the street from where the shooting happened, said she was happy to hear about the arrests, she said she wished there could be more progress on other murder cases.

"It's a shame you can't get them all shut down as fast as this one," Bailey said, referring to the still-unsolved killing of 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr., who died after being hit by a stray bullet the day after Christmas in north Minneapolis.

A vigil for Nizzel has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at 4500 Bryant Av. N. His funeral will be held at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, 1201 West Broadway.

V.J. Smith, president of MADDADS, which established a fund for the family, said news of the arrests will add a bittersweet tone to the vigil.

"I think it's going to bring some joy," Smith said. "There's also some sadness. Some of these kids have to go to prison for a long time."

Mayor R.T. Rybak expressed relief at the arrests. "In the wake of a horrible tragedy, Minneapolis residents should be proud of the fact that our community and Minneapolis police have worked around the clock to bring justice in this case," he said in a statement. "I am pleased that there have been arrests made in this tragic case."

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. • 612-673-7329 • 612-673-4495