State rests case against former Be Great for Nate director, awaiting verdict

Prosecution, defense paint different pictures of text exchange during Steven Peterson's trial on charge of indecent solicitation of a minor

By Jim McGaw
Posted 6/5/24

“Stop asking me about my dick.”

That’s what a 15-year-old boy attending Portsmouth High School said to his mentor and 26-year-old neighbor, Steven Peterson, during a late-night …

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State rests case against former Be Great for Nate director, awaiting verdict

Prosecution, defense paint different pictures of text exchange during Steven Peterson's trial on charge of indecent solicitation of a minor


“Stop asking me about my dick.”

That’s what a 15-year-old boy attending Portsmouth High School said to his mentor and 26-year-old neighbor, Steven Peterson, during a late-night text exchange in January 2022.

The six-word phrase was also how prosecutor Eric Batista from the R.I. Attorney General’s Office kicked off his opening statement Monday afternoon during the first day of Peterson’s trial in Newport Superior Court on a charge of indecent solicitation of a child.

Peterson, a former licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the suicide prevention group known as Be Great for Nate (BG4N), was arrested on March 15, 2022, after the texts became known by the alleged victim’s mother, Samantha Younger, who promptly reported the matter to Portsmouth Police.

Rick Bruno founded BG4N in 2018, shortly after the death by suicide of his 15-year-old son, Nathan, in February of that year. BG4N and its student-run group, Every Student Initiative, focused on suicide prevention and gave presentations to parents and students, advocated for more mental health resources in schools, and wrote and testified on behalf of legislation — The Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act — that became law in 2021. The law requires all school personnel to be trained in suicide prevention and awareness.

After Peterson’s arrest, however, BG4N dissolved, and Peterson voluntarily surrendered his clinical social worker license. He has since moved out of state.

Police and the prosecution allege that Peterson asked the minor — then a freshman in high school and member of BG4N to send a photo of his genitalia to another minor during the 2022 text chain that was read in its entirety in court Tuesday.

Peterson, who took the stand on Tuesday, offered a completely different interpretation of his intent during that text exchange, however. Questioned by his attorney, John MacDonald, Peterson pointed out he never directly asked the victim to send him a photo of his penis.

He also said his questioning of the 15-year-old was merely a “ruse” to find out whether the boy had sent a nude photo of himself to anyone, after hearing rumors that he had. The teen victim, who also took the stand, adamantly denied ever texting a photo of his genitalia to anyone, and neither Peterson nor anyone else testified to seeing such an image.

Both the prosecution and defense rested their cases Tuesday afternoon. Closing arguments were scheduled to begin Wednesday morning — after The Portsmouth Times’ print deadline — and then the jury of seven women and seven men from Newport County were to deliberate before reaching a verdict. (Go to for updates.)

Texts are key to case

The charge against Peterson that was first brought by Portsmouth Police and then the AG’s office centers around a crucial text conversation between Peterson and the victim that started around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.

At the time, Peterson was 26 and "Oliver" (a pseudonym) was 15. They both lived in Island Park, two houses away from each other. The teen was not only a member of BG4N, he was a board member for his grade — a perk awarded to those students who were the most passionate about suicide prevention.

In his testimony, Peterson said one of his many tasks as executive director was to conduct suicide risk assessments of all BG4N members; if there was any eminent risk of harm, their parents would be notified. The students themselves were not aware they were undergoing a risk assessment, however, for if they did they would “shut down,” Peterson said.

Under direct examination by MacDonald, Peterson testified that during one of his conversations with the teen, the victim said he had once sent a nude photo of himself to a middle school girl who did not live locally.

Fast-forward to the Jan. 8, 2022 text exchange, which "Oliver," now 17, recalled to prosecutor Batista. Peterson initiated the discussion.

“The nature of the text was questions about genitalia, and that he had seen or received a photo that could have been mine,” said the victim in court. He was asked to read some of the conversation, copies of which were given to jury members.

“Do you finally admit it’s not big? I don’t believe it. Prove it. Send it to [another teen],” Peterson’s text read. The other teen was another 15-year-old and a friend of the victim’s.

The victim, who said he was “shocked and confused” by the request, testified he interpreted the text as Peterson asking him to prove the size of his penis, and to send him a nude photo. Further on in the conversation, Peterson asked for more details about the victim’s penis.

“Stop asking me about my dick,” he texted Peterson. The victim did not notify anyone about the text exchange immediately and kept working with the group, with Peterson as mentor and director, as normal.

It wasn’t until two months later, in mid-March 2022, when the victim’s mother, Samantha Younger, was contacted by another parent about the texts. The next day, March 15, she went to Portsmouth Police with her son’s phone, and her son dropped out of BG4N. Based on interviews with Younger and her son, and a reading of the text exchange, police arrested Peterson at his home later that day.

In his cross-examination, MacDonald pressed Younger on whether she was concerned that her son may have sent nude images. “No, that was not an issue,” she said, adding it “didn’t happen.”

According to the transcript of the police interview, however, Younger indicated “that was the first thing you addressed him last night,” MacDonald told her.

Younger said that was correct, but only as part of a general parental discussion on the dangers of minors sexting. To both her and police, her son denied ever sending graphic images, she added.

Peterson’s testimony

Answering questions posed by his attorney, Peterson testified the intent of his line of questioning while texting the teen had been completely mischaracterized.

“I learned through another member of the program that … he was sending nude photos to someone else,” he said in response to MacDonald’s question on him why he had contacted the teen that evening.

That, on top of his claim that the teen boy had previously admitted to sending a nude photo to a middle school girl, prompted him to find out the truth while using some tools of deception against him, Peterson said.

“My intention was to make him aware of the fact that I had seen a photo, even though I hadn’t, to make him understand this was a serious topic,” Peterson said.

Asked about his directive to send the photo to a friend, Peterson replied, “My thought process was, ‘If I had seen it, he might as well send it to everyone.’ ”

The teen replied to that directive with, “No. WTF?” Peterson responded, “You sent it before,” to which the teen replied, “Not to anyone we know.”

The victim, who testified he was concerned about someone circulating false rumors about him, then pressed Peterson for the names of any responsible parties, which Peterson said he could not reveal. Then a bit later in the conversation, Peterson finally admitted he had not seen any inappropriate photos after all; he was just trying to find out whether the teen had sent any.

“So you were trying to trick me?” the victim asked.

Peterson was asked by MacDonald why he pressed the teen for details about his penis. “Again, one of my last-ditch attempts to see if there was a photo out there,” said Peterson, adding he was finally satisfied that the teen had not sent any nude photos, and told the teen he was proud of him.

“Never worth it,” he texted about the risks of minors sexting.

When MacDonald, during his cross of the victim, told the teen it seemed the conversation ended “with a learning lesson,” the victim pushed back.

“I don’t think of this conversation as a learning lesson,” he told the lawyer, adding Peterson should not have asked questions about his penis, regardless of his motives.

Other witnesses

Sgt. Clinton Spurlock of the Portsmouth Police Department, who was a juvenile detective when Peterson was charged in 2022, also took the stand. Asked by Batista why Portsmouth Police moved so quickly to arrest Peterson after meeting with the teen and his mother, Spurlock said because of the severity of the crime and the close proximity of the victim and suspect.

MacDonald pressed Spurlock on this point. “Within two hours, (you had) interviewed [the teen] and Samantha, you had prepared an arrest warrant for Steven Peterson based on the interview and review of the text messages … without ever asking Stephen Peterson a single question?”

“Yes,” said Spurlock.

That seemed unreasonable to MacDonald, who inferred police took the conversation out of context to make their case.

In his testimony, Rick Bruno provided background of the evolution of BG4N, and indicated he has not contacted Steven since his arrest in 2022. “I was advised by the detective to have no contact with Steven. It wasn’t a suggestion; it sounded like an order to me,” Bruno said.

Bruno said the organization is “non-existent” today. After Peterson was terminated, he did his best to keep it going, but local organizations that had previously supported BG4N financially said they would no longer provide grant funding to the nonprofit. The group’s major annual fund-raising gala was then canceled.

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