Nearly a year after her police chief husband was murdered in the small town of Rainier, Oregon, Amy Painter is preparing for Christmas.
She wasn’t going to decorate this year. It was one of her favorite times with her husband, Ralph.
But her 8 year old, Riley insisted.
Now there is a decked out Christmas tree and a small toy town where the boy loves to play.
Ralph Painter died January 5, 2011 after being shot in the head during a struggle with a 21 year old at a stereo shop in town. Daniel Butts is charged in the killing.
The chief’s wife, Amy, felt it right away. “I was at work and ---sirens going by--and the first sirens going by I knew in my heart what happened. It was really strange feeling or knowing---people at work thought I was crazy,” she said.
As officers rushed to the scene that day, Amy raced to the police station, then to their home just blocks away. Ralph was not there. She went back to work. As she walked into the office, she saw a man in uniform. “It was a fireman standing there. But as soon as I saw him, made it, real," she said.
He took her to get in the life flight helicopter with her stricken husband. But she knew he was already gone. “Like a piece of my heart just---died right there too ---so.." Amy Painter said.
She barely remembers the two weeks that followed. But she will never forget the 46 mile procession that brought her husband's body home to Rainier from Portland. So many people stopped to show their respect and love. “Just in awe of the people along the whole way,” she said. “Just unbelievable. Every town we went through they were lined up, hands on their hearts, saluting,” she said.
There was a funeral and bagpipes and then life went on.
But it wasn't easy. “And even for the first few months it still was like, he's just gone and gonna come home again. But, you know, doesn't happen," Painter said.
Nearly a year later---its still hard. “For me its just, right now even, day to day--just take it one day at a time,” she said.
Last spring, in the depth of her pain, Amy Painter discovered a surprising truth. Her agony could ease the burden of others. She heard about Eugene police officer Chris Kilcullen, who was killed in the line of duty on April 23rd.
Amy reached out to the officer's widow. “I think she finally emailed me in June. And we just started a huge long email talking---she basically wanted to know when the stabbing pain ends and wanted me to tell her if I was there but that didn't happen. So---we've walked each other through a lot of this," Painter said.
Now Amy, and Kristie Kilcullen are close friends. “I just think even being three months ahead of what Kristie was going through, I could help her. She was just entering that surreal world that we all went through,” said Painter.
In September, the women traveled to Missouri to join a national program, bonding with other wives of murdered law enforcement officers.
Amy Painter agreed it's the sort of group you never want to know about and never want to join. But its a life saver if you need it. “Didn't know about ‘em ‘til January 5th and they've become a big part of my life," Painter said.
Now the friends connect with women all over the country who share their unique pain. Its never far away. “Every time you got a ceremony and the bagpipes start playing you're brought back down to the day it happened. Really. um, services and when the bag pipes start playing that's a real feeling of hopelessness really. It just brings it all back," she said.
Inside her home, reminders of Ralph Painter are everywhere. From the flag that covered his casket to awards presented after his death, even a star hanging above the counter. The memories are strong. On the fridge, a favorite picture shows father and son on a camping trip near Cape Lookout. Riley painter is eight years old.
“He misses him --we talk about him---he talks about him wishing he was here to do things--all the time. Wishing he was here at Christmas ---but he knows. He says daddy's, daddy's here,” she said pointing to her heart. “That's what he tells me. So, he's got a great understanding of that."
Christmas will be hard. It's the family's favorite holiday---and the first without Ralph Painter. But instead of dwelling on her sadness--Amy Painter will try to keep telling others about her husband. How he was kind, loved children and tried to make his small town a better place.
“He made people's day,” she said. “Not even knowing he was doing it, just took the time to say hi to people and great em on the street or have a cup of coffee with somebody. And i just want more people to be like that," said Amy Painter.