By Erin Place
PARIS—Steve Piirainen’s family wants the public to see his human side, saying he’s not the monster the media has made him to be.
The 52-year-old South Paris resident was killed by police in a shootout near the Circle K convenience store on Main Street in Mexico on Aug. 17. His ex-wife and mother of his three children, Deborah Byrant of West Palm Beach, Fla., told the Advertiser Democrat that she was on the phone with the negotiator during the standoff, and that the real story is about not only Piirainen’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, but also the wider epidemic plaguing Oxford County.
Bryant—who grew up in Oxford Hills—said she and Piirainen met when she was 16 and he was 19. She said he was a great ball player, excelling in baseball and football while at Oxfords Hills High School, adding he was a high achiever academically. But it was in high school when things started going down hill.
“He got As even when he was doing things he wasn’t supposed to be doing,” Bryant said. “He was intelligent. Too bad he didn’t have tons of common sense.”
Piirainen went on to college in Manchester, N.H., and got a degree in computers, and even landed a job at Wang Laboratories in Lowell, Mass., which Bryant said was huge.
“But because of his alcohol problem, he was unable to sustain that,” she said.
According to Bryant, when she was with Piirainen—they were married for seven years and together for longer—his main issue was alcohol. He later turned to drugs and spent time in and out of county jail. She said he struggled with drugs and alcohol, along with bipolar disorder, for years, but also was an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
“Each time he committed any crimes, he was drunk. Every single time,” Bryant said. “When the kids were little, it became a point [where it was] take care of him or take care of the kids.”
She said they would break up, Piirainen would go back to AA and get clean. She would then change her mind and get back together with him, but there finally came a point where she had to get herself and the children away from his drinking problems.
“There was nothing I could do. But being the mother of his children, I desperately wanted to for the kids,” she said, adding she’s a registered nurse and has seen addiction in a personal and clinical setting. “It’s hard to protect your children against drugs and alcohol even if they’re not the ones doing it. I am grateful it hasn’t started a chain reaction in my children, at least yet.”
Bryant said it was tough for her and the rest of the family to read about Piirainen’s criminal history in the news, including attempted murder and domestic violence charges, which were dropped. She pointed out that she was married to him for the better part of a decade, had three of his children and stayed in contact with him over the years.
“Never once did I experience any domestic violence,” she said.
Bryant said her former mother-in-law has now buried her third child. Piirainen lost two sisters and a nephew before he was killed.
“During those times, he managed to stay sober,” Bryant said. “He wasn’t this cold, mean, self-centered person. He could be, I guess, but he wasn’t all the time.”
And when Piirainen was sober, he was an AA sponsor to a number of people in the community, she said. Even when he was in jail, he would run AA from inside. And when he was on the outside, he would return to the county jail and help people out who were on the other side of the bars as him, Bryant said.
“He touched a lot of lives,” she added, noting people who knew Piirainen from when he was a child all the way through AA came out to support his family. “I knew he had, but I didn’t know how many until I went to his funeral.”
Bryant said she noticed a change in her ex-husband after his close friend died last year, who she said slowly killed himself with drugs and alcohol. Piirainen was arrested at least two times in 2013 and most recently at the end of July for felony burglary and theft.
“He talked to his middle daughter a couple of days before this happened and made it clear he would do whatever he had do to not go back to jail. We really didn’t think he would do anything about it. You have to take it seriously,” Bryant said. “He had this plan, which was suicide by cop.”
According to Bryant, their two oldest daughters were on the scene of the shootout, trying to convince Piirainen not go through with his plan.
“The family does not blame the police whatsoever. We feel awful for the police officer who had to shoot him in the neck,” she said. “We were very grateful no one else was hurt.”
But Bryant wonders if Piirainen had been offered rehab instead of jail if things could have been different.
“They don’t do that, I wish they would,” she said about getting alcoholics and drug addicts rehab services instead of giving them jail time. “They keep throwing these younger people in jail instead of rehab and they become institutionalized. When they get out, they don’t how to take care of a light bill. I’ve seen it so many times.”
Bryant wants people to look to Piirainen’s three daughters and four grandchildren when they think of his legacy. Their oldest daughter, Karen Catalano, is the events manager at Bear Mountain Inn and has three children all involved in a number of sports. Middle daughter Lindsay Piirainen is a doctor and plays roller derby in Maine. And youngest daughter, Stephanie Piirainen, lives in Florida and has gone back to college to further her education.
“They work, they’re intelligent, they’ve been to college,” she said about their three daughters. “You don’t have kids like this and be a monster.”