Steven Piirainen had been spiraling downward for a year. He was drinking, depressed and likely facing another term in prison, said his daughter Karen Catalano. She sensed the end was coming and she couldn’t bear to watch.
“My feelings were to push him as far away as possible so when this happened it wouldn’t hurt so bad – and I was wrong,” said Catalano, 33, trying not to weep.
Piirainen was killed in a shootout with police on Sunday in the Oxford County town of Mexico.
He had stolen a pickup truck and led police on a high-speed chase that ended at a roadblock on Main Street near the Circle K. Wielding a gun that may have been purchased for him by a friend through Uncle Henry’s classifieds, Piirainen shot at the cruiser.
State Trooper Paul Casey and Mexico Reserve Officer Dean Benson returned fire and Piirainen was killed, probably instantly. His truck rolled into the gas station and stayed there until close to 11 p.m., when police used a robot to confirm Piirainen was dead.
Catalano was with one of her sisters at a police barrier a block away, hoping to talk some sense into her father and tell him that they loved him. They learned from a reporter at the scene that he was dead.
Catalano believes that is what her father intended all along. He would have been 53 Tuesday and was probably headed back to prison, having already served roughly 14 years for a variety of offenses. He was arrested last month on another felony charge of burglary.
Last week, he sent Catalano’s sister a text saying he would do whatever necessary to not go back to prison.
“I feel this wasn’t his way of hurting other people, but his way of hurting himself,” she said.
She’s upset and angry but doesn’t blame police.
“If someone’s shooting at me, I would shoot at them,” she said.
Throughout his life, Piirainen’s trouble with the law was a byproduct of his substance abuse – drinking and drugs – and his mental health – he had bipolar disorder, Catalano said.
A 2012 investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that in the previous 13 years, police in Maine shot 57 people. At least 24 of those, or 42 percent, involved people with mental health problems. Seven of the shootings were alcohol-related. Two involved drugs.
Growing up, Piirainen was intelligent, even gifted, and, for the most part, a well-behaved child, Catalano said.
She said that one story gives a glimpse of his complexity. When he was 10, she said, Piirainen went to the local library and took out two books – one on how to drive a stick shift and another on how to hot wire a car. He did steal a car when he was 10, she said, but how many kids would read a book about it?
He attended Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and was involved in sports. He started getting into trouble in junior high and it got worse in high school. He was a leader other students emulated, someone compelled to lead the pack, to be the life of the party, Catalano said.
She remembers him taking her fishing and him trying without much success to teach her sister how to drive.
His time in prison was hard on his children, she said. However, Catalano said, her father was always appreciative that her stepfather was there to care for them when he wasn’t. The two men got along well, she said.
Piirainen was more than his criminal record or his final act would suggest, Catalano said. He was an intelligent man who could be compassionate and supportive in the right environment.
He had trained as a computer programmer and during the times in his life when he was sober, he was very committed to helping other people stay sober. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sponsored others who were trying to stop drinking and would go miles out of his way to give a ride to people who couldn’t get to the meetings, said Catalano, who went to some meetings to support him.
“He wasn’t able to get his life together, but he managed to get a lot of other people’s lives together,” said Catalano, who has heard from several people in AA who said Piirainen helped save their life.
“His positive friends were his AA group,” she said. “Those were the ones who were his real true friends. Those were the ones who always would check on him and make sure he was OK.”
There was another group of people whom Piirainen spent time with, and Catalano called them his “drug friends,” saying they were less concerned with his well-being than the clouded sense of camaraderie that drinking and drugs can provide.
Catalano believes it was someone in that group who bought a gun through an Uncle Henry’s ad to give to her father. As a felon, Piirainen would not have been allowed to purchase or possess a gun.
“He wasn’t a gun person,” she said.
How he purchased the gun is part of the investigation into the shooting.
Catalano believes her father was in a lot of pain in the days before he died.
“I wish I’d reached out,” she said, the tears returning. “You have to never give up on them.”
Funeral services for Piirainen are scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at Chandler’s Funeral Home in South Paris.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: