Man Killed in Gresham Shootout was Turning Life Around, Friends Say

A barbecue fundraiser was held Wednesday afternoon in a North Portland park for a man who was shot and killed in Gresham over the weekend. Friends and relatives who organized the event said that Kevin Dwayne Varnado, 27, had led a life in “the streets,” but that he was putting himself back together when a fatal dispute took his life.

Kevin, 27, was shot dead at the Halsey Station Apartments in Gresham, at Northeast 162 Avenue on Saturday evening.  Two others were also wounded during a gun battle that reportedly rained gunfire on the area.

Brianna Williams knew Kevin, and attended the barbecue event.  Brianna is one of the local residents featured in the upcoming documentary Priced Out.  The film is following her life 13 years after she was last seen in the 2002 film "NorthEast Passage."

Brianna said she was the first person to tell Kevin’s best friend, Savanna Robinson, that Kevin had been shot.

“Kevin and Savanna had been best friends forever,” said Brianna on Wednesday afternoon, during the fundraiser at Peninsula Park. “Even though they weren’t together [romantically], Kevin was her heart.“

Kevin, Savanna and Brianna all grew up in close-in Northeast Portland. Many said Kevin was turning his life around after a long time of running with a rough crowd. 

“He’d gotten free,” said Kevin’s father, Dennis Varnado.  He said his son was turning over a new leaf. Kevin was the father of four and had a new child on the way. “He started pulling himself together. He had a daughter and knew he had to get himself straight.”

Dennis understands first hand. In 1991 he was sent to federal prison for the illegal possession of a firearm.  

While Kevin may have been on the wrong side of the law in the past, he had never been arrested, according to Multnomah County records.

Kevin was coming around, but all too late. 

A personal dispute involving Collett Renee Harris, 29, and the alleged shooter, Wallace Theodor Simpson, 29, led to the incident, according to friends. Harris and Kevin's brother, Malcom Xavier Jesse,21, were also shot. Both sustained non-life-threatening injuries.

“Debbie, his cousin, had just told him she didn’t want to get that call that he had been shot, and that he had to keep doing what he had been doing [staying off the streets],” said Brianna.  “Then 12 hours later…he’s gone.  It happens like that.”

The event was organized to help raise money for Kevin’s funeral expenses.  Fried chicken, fried fish and ribs were served in plates ranging in price from $10 to $12.

The mood at the gathering was mostly festive with friend and relatives laughing and sharing stories and jibes. But a disturbing resignation to the events that claimed Kevin’s life hung in the air.

“This is something that happens in our community a lot,” Brianna said. 

On Tuesday, Simpson, turned himself into Gresham police and was booked on murder charges.

“Everyone’s lost someone,” Brianna said, noting that in a small black community like Portland’s, events like these drive permanent divisions between people. “No one wins. That family has lost a son and this family has lost a son, one to jail and one to the grave. Both families have lost fathers and the dysfunction continues.”

Dennis Varnado said he didn’t see things getting better in the community.

“You got kids having kids out here and there are no role models,” Dennis said. “They are closing down schools [in the neighborhood] and people don’t care about what’s being left behind.  Rather than build more schools, they build apartment buildings.”

Another fundraiser barbecue will be held Thursday between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Peninsula Park.

A fund has been set up in Kevin Varnado's name at Wells Fargo bank.

Brianna's life in North/Northeast Portland will be featured in the upcoming documentary "Priced Out: Gentrification Beyond Black and White."

Support the project: HERE