LIHUE — The image the mother wants to hold on to is her son’s smile.
Big, wide, infectious.
It’s what comes to mind when she thinks of him, that grin. Not the harrowing thought of how he died alone in an Oregon jail cell.
“What I remember about him was his smile,” Valerie Kaneshiro said about her late son, Eben Kaneshiro, who died last Sunday from a reported suicide. “He’s got my smile — this beautiful smile.”
She also remembers Eben Kaneshiro, 35, as a jovial boy who was raised by farmers and became fiercely independent as a young man, a trait that would help him land a career as a professional fighter and jiu jitsu instructor.
But she can’t get her head around how it all ended.
Eben Kaneshiro hanged himself in a Deschutes County, Oregon, jail a week ago today after he was charged April 21 with three counts of first-degree sodomy and three counts of first-degree sexual abuse involving a boy under the age of 12.
“I think we’re just coping,” Valerie Kaneshiro said about how the family is dealing with the situation.
News of the arrest left them “numb,” she said, a feeling that intensified after learning of his death.
“A great, great sadness,” she said. “A deep kind of sadness.”
Eben Kaneshiro was found dead around 3 a.m. April 26.
He wasn’t considered a suicide risk, said Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel. In fact, he was mostly cooperative during the investigation and was placed in a cell by himself because he was a professional fighter — a measure meant to protect a possible roommate should tempers have flared.
Investigators said Eben Kaneshiro — owner of New Breed Jiu-Jitsu in Portland — committed the alleged crimes after attending a concert with friends in Sisters, Oregon, outside of Bend.
“He left some letters to family members, which I would call traditional suicide notes, why he did what he did, but one letter he left was specifically to the detectives,” Hummel said. “He thanked them for their good work on the case … and let them know where they could find additional victims.”
None of the letters, Hummel said, confessed to any crimes. The prosecutor’s office turned over the information to the Portland Police Bureau. Spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said investigators recovered Eben Kaneshiro’s computer but haven’t identified any potential victims.
Valerie Kaneshiro said on Friday that she still hadn’t seen any notes left by her son. “We want to see it in his own handwriting,” she said of the letter left for detectives. “I’d like to see it.”
Investigators won’t share that note, as it’s part of the investigation, but said they are handing the other letters over to the family.
The details she had heard are too hard to believe.
“He was a good boy,” she said. “That’s what’s hard for me to understand and accept. Why him? Because he was a good boy.”
Eben Kaneshiro graduated from Kauai High School in 1997. He earned an auto body certificate at Kauai Community College before moving to Los Angeles in September 2001. It was in L.A. that he became a professional fighter, a decision he made while commuting to work an hour each way in the dense Southern California traffic.
“That cut into his training time, so he went professional,” Valerie Kaneshiro said. “His career just skyrocketed.”
The mixed martial artist website, SherDog, listed Eben Kaneshiro’s professional record as 19-12. He fought on Kauai and traveled extensively throughout his career. His Facebook photo shows the 5-foot, 10-inch bearded fighter, parading outside a ring wearing a Kauai surf company hat.
When he visited Kauai, he always got together with his training friends from the New Breed Jiu-Jitsu in Kapaa.
Several of his friends declined to be interviewed by The Garden Island.
Luis Soltren, a boxer, trained with Kaneshiro, and taught him boxing techniques in Kapaa.
He said Kaneshiro was witty, a calm influence around his friends and fellow fighters, and that every visit he made to Kauai was a big occasion.
Soltren, too, can’t believe what he’s read about a man he liked and admired for a decade. “When Eben came it was a special time,” Soltren said. “It was a time we all got together and went out. It was like continuous laughter. He was always saying something funny.”
Eating junk food outside of 7-11 (“He was always hungry,” Soltren said), training inside the gym or cruising around the island, he said Kaneshiro was the first one to defuse a volatile situation. He remembers one time Kaneshiro intervened when he saw a man accosting a young woman.
“Why are you treating this young girl like that?” Kaneshiro asked the guy. “And then the guy backed off,” Soltren said. “I remember those times. I find it hard to believe the accusations, you know?
“I can only tell you good things about him because that’s all I know,” he added. “I just find it hard to believe they’re speaking about the same man I know.”
It was around seven years ago that Eben Kaneshiro moved from Los Angeles to Portland to run the gym.
Valerie Kaneshiro said she remembers a change in her son’s personality around that time. He became quieter, more distant to family members and seemed sad, in a way. It was something that never got better over the years, either.
“I could tell he wasn’t happy. He had definitely taken a turn,” she said. “He didn’t look happy and there was nothing I could do to help him because he didn’t reach out, he didn’t share, he wouldn’t share with us.”
The father of Eben Kaneshiro’s alleged victim, who went by the pseudonym Mike during an interview on the Lars Larson radio show in Oregon, said that Eben Kaneshiro was related to the husband of Mike’s ex-wife, with whom he had child custody disputes. He said that Eben Kaneshiro came home after a night of partying and sexually assaulted his son while the everyone else in the house slept.
News reports out of Oregon detailed the anxiety felt by parents of children who attended Kaneshiro’s gym.
It’s all too difficult to grasp, Valerie Kaneshiro said.
Friends and family have reached out to the Kaneshiro family during the last week, offering prayers, condolences, love and support and sharing stories of what her son meant to them.
“He was a dear friend and an inspiration on Kauai and on the Mainland,” Valerie Kaneshiro said. “That’s what I’m hearing.”
She said her arm has gone numb from the tension she’s under as she continues to work on the Koloa farm. That’s her way of staying busy, a way of coping with a situation she can’t quite fathom involving a son she remembers as a smiling, jovial boy, who left Kauai days after 9/11 when so many people were scared to go the airport, let alone fly off to start a new life.
“I have been strong. I’m both physically and mentally a strong person,” she said. “But I don’t know, I guess, the last two days have been too much even for the strongest person.”