Pirus in court

Steve Pirus, left, appearing in court Thursday with state Assistant Public Defender Mario White, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide for the death of his wife, Lee Anne Pirus.

Steven Pirus first told police that he had left his wife, Lee Anne, alive and sleeping at home the morning of Sept. 13, the day that their Southwest Side home exploded, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday.

Then, after police told him that an autopsy found she had died from a gunshot wound to the head, he said he had found her at their home at 7806 Stratton Way four to five weeks earlier, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Still later, Pirus told police that he shot Lee Anne Pirus himself, but only after she “kept begging and begging and pleading” for him to do it, the criminal complaint states.

The complaint charges Pirus, 59, with first-degree intentional homicide, arson and first-degree reckless endangerment. It also charges Pirus with four counts of animal mistreatment causing death to the couple’s two dogs and two cats that perished in the explosion, and one count of animal mistreatment, for a dog that survived the blast but was injured.

Pirus appeared in Dane County Circuit Court on Thursday, where state Assistant Public Defender Mario White agreed without argument to continue Pirus’ $1 million bail.

Pirus will be back in court for a preliminary hearing on Oct. 9.

The complaint lays out several intriguing threads but draws few conclusions about what happened at the Pirus home, including a long-distance relationship with a Russian woman who was having difficulty getting back to the U.S., large cash withdrawals from Pirus’ bank account in August and September, and payments to a matchmaking website and to two foreign websites.

What is certain, according to the complaint, is that a gas hose to the clothes dryer in the basement had been disconnected from the gas supply. Pirus admitted that he had “loosened” the gas line to the dryer to the point that he could hear gas leaking from it, but at that point claimed he did it to prevent anyone from finding out that Lee Anne Pirus had committed suicide, the complaint states.

Fire investigators said that even though Pirus said he had extinguished a pilot on the gas water heater, any number of other ignition sources existed in the home, from the stove in the kitchen to candles.

According to the complaint:

After the explosion, Pirus told police that Lee Anne Pirus, 50, was sleeping in the finished basement when he left for work that morning, and said he had checked on her. He said she had a mental health disability but was taking medications, although he mentioned that she had talked about suicide in the past.

Her psychiatrist, however, told police that Lee Anne Pirus’ last appointment was on Feb. 28, and that she had denied having suicidal thoughts. The psychiatrist said that Steven Pirus was not involved in his wife’s treatment but had canceled an appointment for his wife that had been set for March 24.

When Detective Matt Nordquist asked to see Pirus’ cellphone on Sept. 13, the wallpaper photo was of an attractive young woman.

Pirus said she was Russian, had been in Madison a couple of years ago and was trying to come back. She was in London, he said, headed back to Russia after having some visa problems.

Records from Pirus’ credit union showed a payment to Match.com in May and several payments to two foreign websites, one of them a dating site, and that Pirus had made large cash withdrawals in August and September totaling $8,500.

A trailer belonging to Pirus that was parked west of Pirus’ home — an unusual spot for it, a neighbor told police — contained mail and other documents, including receipts for cash withdrawals and a receipt for a money order to a woman named Olga.

Friends and neighbors said they hadn’t seen or heard from Lee Anne Pirus in months. One neighbor, who lived near the Piruses for about eight years, said she would normally see Lee Anne Pirus two to three times per month but hadn’t seen her at all in the past six months, or possibly since last fall.

Another neighbor said he had seen her only once in the past 18 months, in April or May.

A friend told police that he had seen Lee Anne Pirus on March 18 in Avoca. She was also friends with her on Facebook, and said Lee Anne Pirus hadn’t posted anything since April 4, even though she normally posted things regularly, sometimes multiple times per day.

Another friend from Muscoda, Lee Anne Pirus’ hometown, said he was in a relationship with her after Lee Anne and Steven Pirus became estranged, but the relationship ended in February. He mentioned that there was an aborted suicide attempt in 2014.

Dr. Vincent Tranchida, Dane County chief medical examiner, said that Lee Anne Pirus’ body was in an “advanced” state of decomposition. The gunshot wound to her head, he said, was “less consistent” with suicide.

After the autopsy on Sept. 16, police spoke again with Pirus, who again said he had left his wife at home and didn’t wake her as he left for work. Told by Nordquist that he had killed his pets, which Pirus called his “babies,” to cover up what had happened to his wife, Pirus sat silently and stared.

Pirus then took a breath and said he had found his wife dead in a chair, a gun nearby, four to five weeks earlier. He said he moved her to the laundry room three to four days later, wrapped in a blanket.

Pirus said he loosened the gas connection to the dryer and extinguished the pilot light on the water heater, figuring that an explosion would eventually occur, wanting to cover up his wife’s suicide.

“I didn’t want people to think that she did what she did,” Pirus said.

Then, after taking a break, Pirus told Nordquist that he came home one night to find his wife crying, saying that she didn’t want to live anymore, and asking for help committing suicide.

Pirus said that she begged and pleaded for half an hour, and he finally gave in and shot her in the head.

“She finally wore me down and she just kept begging and begging and pleading with me to do that,” he said, “And then she gave me the gun and I shot her.”

He said he left her there for a few days before moving her.

The complaint does not state when she was shot, although a probable cause affidavit filed on Tuesday states that Pirus told police that he shot her sometime between July 30 and Aug. 12.

The charges in the complaint filed Thursday put Lee Anne Pirus’ death any time between April and September.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.