They were at the playground. Then everything changed: After a fleeing driver veered into a Minneapolis park, the Peltiers have known pain, anger and hope

Body: 

MINNEAPOLIS — About a dozen pairs of tiny shoes are piled up in Nicolle and Kyle Peltier’s North Minneapolis entryway on a July day, and noise comes from around the corner: giggles, barefoot sprints and wrestling. A couple of toy trucks hum. But when a dolphin toy squeals, the young couple cringes.

“No, for the love of God, not that toy!”

Mom shakes a bottle for 8-month-old Millie. Dad holds the head and neck brace of 2-year-old Kayden as he tries to walk. The Peltiers’ priest, the Rev. Paul Jarvis, wrangles the children into the playroom.

Nicolle Peltier said that having seven kids, all younger than 9, is like turning on a blender without a lid.

“Usually I manage to put a plate over half the top,” she said.

But lately, the Peltier’s house has been more than chaotic.

It’s tainted with memories that go unspoken in front of the children. A calendar booked with hospital appointments. A cozy living room that’s been transformed into an in-home physical therapy area.

It’s a familiar story to Minnesotans who track the news.

On June 11, a high-speed chase ended when an SUV veered onto the North Minneapolis playground where Kyle Peltier and his children were swinging and playing basketball, striking three of the children and barely missing others. The crash broke Kayden’s neck and pelvis.

The Peltiers’ summer months have been a mixture of chaos and catastrophe, healing and diagnoses. For family and friends, it’s been a story of injustice, confusion, frustration and —  somehow — hope.

The Chaos

The Peltiers are used to moving fast. They met in a Ford dealership waiting room in California in 2009 and were married six months later. They recently moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis, and drive a Ford Transit passenger van because their seven-kids-with-one-on-the-way family can’t cram into a minivan.

A color-coded clock hangs on the wall next to the kitchen table so the children know when it’s time to play, have snacks, eat meals or go to the park. The kitchen ceiling is draped with plastic jungle vines and fake trees.

The husband and wife work together, delivering the Star Tribune, New York Times and Pioneer Press. And if eight pregnancies in nine years isn’t proof that they love each other, watching them interact is: When Kyle notices his pregnant wife standing up, he grabs her hand and leads her to a kitchen chair. While her husband plays with the kids on the floor, Nicolle walks by and brushes his shoulder with her hand.

“They’re both extremely strong, but in their own ways,” said Jarvis, the family priest.

The Peltiers have a calendar chock-full of grocery runs, work obligations, tests to study for. And mini-crises pop up every few minutes: feet pattering down the stairs when little brother isn’t sharing, or big sister is being too bossy, or so-and-so pushed so-and-so.

One of their children has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, and another is on the autism spectrum. And recently, Nicolle Peltier received frightening news about her pregnancy: the baby’s intestines are growing outside of his body, and he’ll need to go into surgery immediately after he’s born.

In the summer, the parents usually take their children to a different park every other day. On the way there, the children guess which one.

But this year, on the first day of summer break, as the children played at their elementary school playground, the “normal” chaos that comes with being part of the Peltier family turned catastrophic.

The Chase

On June 11, the Peltier children played basketball and pushed each other on swings at Bohanon Park, the playground at Jenny Lind Elementary School, with their dad. A few miles away, at the intersection of Interstate 94 and 46th Avenue North, state troopers attempted to pull over a black Ford Expedition speeding over the 60 mph limit.

The driver, Kabaar Powell, never slowed down, resulting in a six-minute pursuit with speeds reaching more than 80 mph on residential streets. Powell barreled past at least 22 stop signs during the chase, according to the Hennepin County attorney’s office.

When Powell reached the 5000 block of Dupont Avenue, he veered onto the grass at Jenny Lind Elementary School.

Kyle Peltier saw the car coming, and shoved 8-month-old Millie, who was sitting in a stroller, out of danger. When he turned around to push 2-year-old Kayden and 4-year-old Lillie out of the way, it was too late.

The tires ran over Lillie’s legs, spinning her body around and causing her forehead to slam against the concrete. The tires also ran over Kayden’s body, who lay unresponsive on the ground. Konnor, 3, was fastened in a toddler swing when the car ran into the swing set and launched him into the air.

Mom was in math class at St. Paul College, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in medical lab technology. That’s when the calls came in.

She doesn’t remember much about those moments. But she remembers pulling into the school’s parking lot. She remembers seeing Lillie’s former teacher run out of the school with wide eyes and a white face. She remembers screaming and her knees buckling as the teacher held her.

“It’s going to be OK,” the teacher kept repeating. But at that point, Nicolle Peltier didn’t know what “OK” meant.

Turns out, “OK” was three children in emergency at North Memorial Health Hospital — two of them with severe injuries.

Lillie was bleeding between her brain and the tissue covering the brain. Konnor suffered from shock.

Kayden suffered neck and hip fractures and had internal bleeding. He underwent emergency surgery to have his spleen removed.

Lillie and Konnor recovered fairly quickly. Lillie even popped up from the stretcher as the paramedics wheeled her into the emergency room.

“Why are you cutting my jeans?” she said. “I like those jeans.”

But Kayden stayed in the hospital, connected to tubes, neck in a brace, family unsure of whether he’d live — let alone be able to walk again.

The Chances

Kayden was transferred to Children’s Hospital-Minneapolis and had four hours of surgery to stabilize his neck and protect his spinal cord. The chances he would survive, based on the extent of his neck injury, were not high.

Dr. Kyle Halvorson, a neurosurgeon who operated on Kayden’s neck, said most children who suffer his kind of injury don’t make it to the hospital. His neck was broken between the base of his skull and his first vertebra, as well as between his first and second vertebrae.

“The higher up along the cervical spinal cord, the more basic function that we lose,” Halvorson said.

Halvorson gives credit to the people who transferred him to North Memorial, and then again to Children’s: the EMS team and neurosurgeon Dr. Meysam Kebriaei. One wrong move, Halvorson said, could have meant Kayden’s last breath.

Kayden underwent what’s called “internal decapitation.” Operations like Kayden’s are usually performed on adults, so there was no fusion material fit for Kayden’s tiny body.

So the doctors improvised: They took out his two bottom ribs and fastened them to the base of his skull, to serve as a sort of built-in neck brace. The ribs will permanently protect his spinal cord from impact and movement.

And then they attached what’s called a “halo: — a circular brace that wraps around his head and is held in place by screws — to stabilize his upper body.

Nicolle and Kyle Peltier call the surgery a miracle: a direct result, they said, of the hundreds of prayers sent their way after the crash.

“This is going to sound cheesy,” Nicolle Peltier said when asked how her son survived, “but God is good.”

Kayden moved into Gillette Children’s Specialty Health Care on Aug. 1 for inpatient care. On Aug. 2, he had surgery to have his halo removed, and Nicolle Peltier said he’s been slowly walking on his own.

“Everybody deserves a lot of credit for (Kayden’s) success,” Halvorson said. “He’s walking and talking, and it’s really remarkable.”

The Case

Powell pleaded guilty to two counts of fleeing a peace officer resulting in bodily harm, and was sentenced Friday in Hennepin County district court to 33 months in prison.

According to the state Department of Public Safety, Powell hasn’t had a valid driver’s license since 2014.

The Peltiers are confused why the chase had to weave through a residential neighborhood and end at a playground that’s “usually even more full of kids.” Confused why the driver didn’t step on his brakes as he neared the children. And confused why they have to wake up to their children crying, plagued by nightmares about the incident.

James Schwebel, an attorney for the Peltiers, has filed a notice of claim, which is a warning to the government that a wrongful injury or death has occurred and that a lawsuit is in order. Schwebel said after he receives more evidence from the state patrol, he will file a lawsuit against the state. He said the chase went against the state patrol’s training in putting the public in danger.

According to the State Patrol’s policy, pursuits “will be immediately discontinued if there is a clear and unreasonable danger to the trooper, fleeing motorist, or other persons.”

The policy also states that troopers should strongly consider discontinuing a pursuit if “the offense is a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony” and the troopers would be able to identify the motorist at a safer time.

In this case, Schwebel said, both reasons to discontinue the pursuit were met.

“They could have gotten a cup of coffee and knocked on (Powell’s) door the next day,” Schwebel said.

Schwebel said it’s too early to determine how much money the family will seek in the lawsuit, but it will be more than $50,000.

Nicolle and Kyle Peltier said that after Powell is sentenced, they will hire a lawyer to explore additional legal action.

While the rest of the world moves on, the couple said, their family will continue to suffer from what happened on that sunny June day. Kayden survived, but he will never be able to play contact sports. He’ll never be able to jump on a trampoline or turn his neck to switch lanes or go swimming. He’ll likely struggle with memory loss and speech impediments.

“(Powell) used our children as a decoy,” Nicolle Peltier said. “He will be held responsible.”

The family hasn’t gone to a playground since June 11.

“Our job as parents is to protect our children,” Nicolle Peltier said. “And I feel like we couldn’t protect them.”