Kari Cedeno-Betancourt chose to forgive. She suffered the worst loss any parent can imagine, the shooting death of her 19-year-old daughter. Choosing love over hate was hardly a given. After such shock, such horror, there is nothing automatic about forgiveness.
On Dec. 15, 2016, Payton Beck-Glessner died after being shot by her boyfriend in the Everett apartment they shared. Jonathan Duncan, who goes by Keoni, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter with a firearm. Three years ago this month, at 23, he was sentenced to 12½ years behind bars for what he said was an accident.
He is serving that time at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in southeast Washington. Duncan didn’t want mercy. His case is unusual in that, despite his lawyer’s efforts to garner a shorter sentence, he asked to be sent to prison for as long as possible for messing with a gun and taking a life.
“He wanted to plead guilty,” Cedeno-Betancourt said. “So many people don’t own up to their mistakes.”
Duncan told police that his girlfriend, a Bothell High School graduate, was sitting on the bed and he was next to her when the Sig Sauer handgun he was holding discharged as he pulled back the slide.
“Losing a child is like losing your breath and never catching it again,” the teen’s mother wrote in a letter to Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Appel at the time of sentencing. Three years later, Cedeno-Betancourt has caught her breath. And she believes forgiveness has changed her.
“I swear I was given a new life. I’m a completely different person, 100%,” said Cedeno-Betancourt, who corresponds with Duncan and has twice visited him at Coyote Ridge.
“To honor her. She was so loving and accepting of everybody. And I had to do it for myself,” said the 46-year-old mother, who lives in Kirkland with her husband. “This whole weight was lifted from me.”
“She’s so strong. I just admire her,” Eduardo Cedeno-Betancourt said Friday. He has traveled with his wife to Coyote Ridge to visit the man who killed his stepdaughter. And together, he and his wife have reached out to others who struggle, doing good in the world rather than being buried in grief.
Calling her efforts the Blue Eyes Project — “Payton’s eyes were a very piercing blue,” said Kari Cedeno-Betancourt — they’ve made Christmas dinner for people at the Carnegie Resource Center, a county and human services partnership serving those with issues involving addiction, homelessness and the criminal-justice system.
Cedeno-Betancourt said she’s made sack lunches for women at Esther’s Place, an outreach center at the First Presbyterian Church near the county courthouse. “We’ve made and handed out fleece blankets. They’ve got a Blue Eyes Project patch,” she said, adding that she often tells people about her daughter.
She’s been to Mary’s Place and Angeline’s Day Center for Women, which help people who are homeless in Seattle. “These are my people. I shared their pain. It was all the same to me,” she said.
Cedeno-Betancourt recalled a fog of depression after losing her daughter, who had studied at Toni & Guy Hairdressing Academy, now Evergreen Beauty College. Her daughter, she said, was a talented artist who loved babies, children and snowboarding. “The pain was too much,” she said.
Not everyone in her family understands her relationship with Duncan, which goes back to better times. The young couple were together about a year. Kari Cedeno-Betancourt, who has a younger daughter now in college, said the man she calls Keoni was polite and personable. “Payton and him lived with us for awhile. I liked him,” said Cedeno-Betancourt, who works in the health insurance industry.
Duncan had no felony convictions prior to the shooting, but because of what was found in the apartment she suspects he was selling drugs.
Cedeno-Betancourt was in touch with Duncan’s adoptive mother after the sentencing. “I got his address and wrote to him. He wrote me back,” she said, but at first with only one-line messages.
After he was moved from the county jail to Coyote Ridge, she proposed a visit. He was reluctant. Cedeno-Betancourt said she told him, “You don’t get to decide. I need to do this for Payton.”
She has sent him books and drawing materials, but said he asks for nothing. The prison complex is shut down due to the coronavirus. They exchange emails or phone calls a couple times a month. “There are days I don’t want to talk with him,” she said.
Last week, she shared a message Duncan sent. Aware of this article, he wrote about being in touch with the mother of the young woman whose life he took:
“All I really can say is by her standing by my side and showing me forgiveness it has helped ease my mind a little. I appreciate Kari’s strength and love by her doing so,” he wrote. “Payton’s death has affected me in many ways. Her death has opened my eyes and made me realize I had to change my lifestyle and my mindset.”
Duncan wrote of helping with a Redemption self-help class focused on violence reduction and giving back. “I know that I can never fully repay my debt, but I am doing all I know to give back,” he wrote.
Cedeno-Betancourt and her husband, too, are giving back. They’re involved with creating a food bank in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Eduardo Cedeno-Betancourt has family in Mexico.
Always, the pain of losing her daughter is with her, but so is the blue-eyed teen’s loving spirit.
“I can either hate and make life miserable, or I can help him get better. If I can help someone else for a minute, that’s what sustains me,” Cedeno-Betancourt said. “I just feel like people need love.”
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org