Remembering Kevin Peterson Jr.

On October 29, 2020, Kevin Peterson Jr.—‘Splash’ as he was known to his classmates and friends—was shot to death by police in Vancouver, Washington.

By Ted Katauskas March 13, 2021

[Top photo: Kevin Peterson Jr. on Portland Village School field trip to Opal Creek in 2010. Photo by Ted Katauskas]

On the wall of my home office hangs a framed cover, a memento from my years as Portland Monthly magazine’s editor. Staging a clever (or so we thought) shot for our first Best Schools issue, we hired a photographer, Andy Batt, who commandeered a classic #2-pencil-yellow school bus and packed it with exuberant third graders from Ms. Molter’s class at Portland Village School, a public Waldorf charter where both my kids were enrolled. That’s my son’s class in the bus, so naturally Willam (named for the river that flows through Portland) claimed center frame, hanging out an open window, flanked by his buddies Aspen and Oscar and a cluster of faces whose names I no longer recall save one, all alone at camera left: the little boy with a massive grin.

Kevin Peterson Jr.

Kevin Peterson Jr. at left on this 2007 Portland Monthly cover. The photo was taken by Andy Batt.

Image: Ted Katauskas

I last saw Kevin in 2012, the year I uprooted my family from Portland and moved to Colorado. Since unpacking and hanging that picture, I scarcely gave a glance at those young faces frozen in time as the years passed and they progressed from middle school, through high school—many will soon graduate from college.

But not Kevin.

On October 29, 2020, Kevin died in a volley of gunfire while evading deputies from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. He was 21 years old.

I followed the story from afar, online. The Oregonian's report begins at 5:50 p.m. with Kevin fleeing a pair of Clark County Regional Drug Task Force officers who tried to arrest him outside a Hazel Dell Quality Inn. The story ends six minutes later with his bullet-riddled body sprawled on the pavement of a US Bank parking lot, along with a handgun that may or may not have been fired, packages of prescription Xanax pills, and an iPhone streaming FaceTime video. In his last panicked moments, he’d called Olivia Selto, his girlfriend and the mother of his young daughter, saying, “I love you,” with a gasp just after a volley of gunshots rang out and silenced him forever.

I called Kevin's aunt, Vancouver resident Shelly Washington. She told me her nephew was a bon vivant, mirroring the exuberance of his mother in so many ways.

“What I remember is that smile, of course,” she says. “He was always busy, out playing basketball or touch football, always doing something. He was very respectful, he didn’t get into trouble much but when he did, all you had to do was yell at Kevin and say ‘Enough!’ … He was a good kid.”

At dinnertime when Kevin came home from whatever sport he’d been playing or wherever he’d been, she recalls, he’d burst through the front door and light up the room with that contagious grin, bellowing “What’s up!” then he’d hug every single person in the house before he sat down to eat.

As he moved through life, that enthusiasm earned him a nickname: Splash.

I rang Ms. Molter (now Theresa Beck van Heemstra, an English Language Arts teacher at L’Etoile French Immersion School off SW Barbur). On the night Kevin died, she was on call as a volunteer shuttle driver for Black Lives Matter protesters when an organizer phoned to let her know to expect a busy night because another Black man had been killed, this time by police in Vancouver. When she heard the name, she called a friend who still teaches at PVS, where Kevin’s youngest brother is an eighth grader, and confirmed that it was her Kevin Peterson Jr. Then she read the Oregonian’s first account about what had happened.

“It just struck me that they used the word ‘man,’” she recalled. “He’s a kid. That’s all I could think about. I knew him as a kid, and so I still think of him as a kid because I’ve only seen him a handful of times since he graduated from the eighth grade. But then, 21 is still a kid. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that.”

Kevin graduated from the eighth grade at PVS in 2012, and Ms. Molter followed him on Instagram as he posted photos of himself in football uniforms and stylish wardrobes; after he graduated from Union High School in Vancouver in 2017, he messaged his former PVS teacher with a screenshot of his diploma, saying “I thought you’d want to see this.” Late this past June, she noticed Kevin had posted photos of himself holding a baby girl. “You’ve got to be kidding! Is that your daughter?” He wrote back that it was, and her name was Kailiah. “Happy Father’s Day!” she replied. That was the last time she interacted with him on social media until the morning after he died, posting a photo of Kevin from his middle school days on Facebook (a post shared, last I checked, 965 times), with a moving eulogy, ending with “He left behind a baby girl who will never know her father, since his life was taken at the hands of police in Vancouver last night. He will be forever missed.”

The family Kevin left behind echoes that sentiment.

“He won’t ever get to walk his daughter down the aisle, see her graduate, take her first steps, hear her first words,” says Washington. “He’s gone. They just took him. They set him up, hunted him down and killed him.”

The night after Kevin died, hundreds gathered in the US Bank parking lot in Vancouver for a candlelight vigil that was organized by Shelly Washington. While an armed mob of Proud Boys and Trump supporters watched sullenly from across the street, they chanted his name, a chorus of BLM protesters, but also the voices of teachers—his teacher, Ms. Molter—and parents and current and former students from PVS, including Aspen and Oscar and many of the faces beaming from behind the windows of that yellow school bus on that magazine cover from 2007. Save one, that lone boy, left of center. 

“We won’t ever know what he could’ve grown up to be,” adds Washington, who hopes to reprise the vigils and protests this summer. “I just want to keep his name alive … I just want to keep Kevin’s name ringing, so nobody forgets.”