Close friend maintains under the stress of knowing

Contributed photo
Steven and Stacy Stearns of Detroit Lakes were found dead of a reported murder-suicide on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at their home.

By Robert Williams

Editor

The report of a Detroit Lakes couple found dead on Tuesday, Sept. 27, was shocking to many people and later brought to forefront what the real meaning of friendship is, how difficult carrying the burden of a difficult secret is and the communal empathy that is needed for everyone involved in what was legally ruled a murder-suicide, but in reality, was the last grasp of control by two people dealing with terminal health conditions.  ¶  The deceased were identified as Steven Alton Stearns, 45, and Stacy Lynn (Broberg) Stearns, 49, of Detroit Lakes. Both were natives to the area: Steven a 1995 graduate of Frazee-Vergas high school; Stacy graduated from Detroit Lakes high school in 1991.

The couple met at a party a quarter century ago and recently celebrated their golden anniversary on September 21.

“Their relationship was true love, absolutely, true love,” said friend and confidant Tammy Lawrence.

Tammy knew Steve from high school and had met Stacy through Steve while camping out at Shell Lake.

“We were either always at their campsite or they were with us,” Lawrence said. “During the winter, we were likely together every other weekend. Our campsite is small and it is like one big family. They loved it out there.”

Tammy’s close relationship to Steve and Stacy would prove vital to the couple when they both were diagnosed with cancer earlier this summer.

For Lawrence, the matching diagnoses were beyond unfair, but in a way seemed like divine providence as the Stearns had made it known well before knowing about cancer that they did not want to be permanently separated under any circumstance.

“It’s almost like it was God’s way, because they wanted to go together. They couldn’t live without each other and they’ve said that many times. If Steve went today, she’d go tomorrow and vice versa. I almost want to say it’s like divine providence that they got cancer at the same time.”

Tammy Lawrence, friend and confidant of Steve and Stacy Stearns

For Tammy and the group of friends around the couple, it brought to life more questions than answers.

“Why does it have to happen to the young ones, the good ones? Why does God have to take them so young?,” said Lawrence. “If they would have died in a car accident I think it would have been much more acceptable to everybody.”

There is a deep sadness in that statement, but having empathy for people struggling is lost on some. Whether it was Stacy and Steve and cancer, or Tammy having to live with a secret she did not ask for, there has been negative feedback that only Tammy can hear.

“There are a couple people out there that think I should do prison time because I knew about it and I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “They basically said I was an accomplice to a murder. If they have something negative to say, keep it to themselves. This is a sorrow; it’s a tragedy.

“It is heartbreaking and I’m doing what they wished,” she continued.

Both Steve and Stacy had a plan for their lives and it was centered around being together. There was no questioning that. In a final message before their deaths, they shared, “To our loved ones, we chose to leave this world as we lived in it—In love and together.”

The couple had already purchased their headstone and family burial plot with a marker between their parents’ headstones.

“They were prepared,” Lawrence said. “They had a suicide pact and that’s all there is to it and they’ve had that since they fell in love.”

The couple was somewhat private about the extent of their respective health conditions.

“I only found out a short while ago,” Lawrence said. “But everyone had guessed that there was something wrong because they were selling everything off and both took leave from their jobs.”

The couple gave justifiable reasons for selling their pontoon and two vehicles, but the real reason was to cover living expenses and get rid of stuff.

“They didn’t want to leave a burden on anybody when they left this earth,” said Lawrence.

Not wanting to burden people was a common thread from a couple that needed help. However, according to Lawrence, they had an explanation for everything.

Steve had part of his foot amputated and a lot of pain from that which made frequent trips to the doctor not seem unusual. 

“They told everybody that he was going to have part of his leg amputated and she took time off of work to take care of him and to spend time together at the lake,” Lawrence said. “Looking back at it, she had stomach issues for well over a year. We always thought she was allergic to something or maybe she ate something that gave her an upset stomach. She was sick on and off for the last year.”

Keeping stiff chins and not unloading on friends and family was just how the couple operated in life. Tammy recollected that with a touch of light humor.

“Oh gosh yes, especially when Steve had his foot removed,” said Lawrence. “They never wanted to burden anybody. They hated asking anybody for anything, except for smoking ribs and meat on our grill for them. Steve never had trouble asking about that.”

Tammy’s laughter was a brief reprieve from relating information about her friends that was tough to say and difficult to hear.

“She could have lived maybe a few more months,” she said. “If she would have done radiation maybe six months, up to a year, but what kind of life would that be? First off, she wouldn’t have her husband there to hold her hand or hold her hair when she puked after chemo or radiation. Steve was just sudden. He lost about 60 pounds in a month-and-a-half.”

This interview was one of many Tammy did wanting to get the couple’s truth out to the public and counteract negative spins she knew would come.

“Yesterday, I think I spent five hours talking on the phone and through social media answering questions, giving updates and doing whatever I can,” she said.

Being the focal point

Only two people knew what the Stearns had planned.

“There was a reason that only two people knew what was going on—the whole truth and there is a reason that they told only us two,” said Lawrence. “They trusted us to carry out their wishes.”

That trust came with more than one heavy burden.

“I feel so guilty that I knew and their families didn’t and some of his close friends,” she said. “I still get the look of ‘why didn’t they tell me?’ and the look in their eyes, I almost feel hatred from them because I knew and they didn’t.”

Steven had unwillingly told Tammy. He had to.

“It was extremely hard for him to ask and he made me promise and I mean promise, to not even tell my husband and he wouldn’t even tell me what it was about until I promised,” she said.

Steve’s news was not easy to hear.

“I lost it when he told me,” said Lawrence “I couldn’t believe it, but in the back of my mind, it’s the same thing that Stacy’s brother said, ‘We knew it; we knew that they were sick, just not to this extent.’”

Tammy has survived deaths in her family and has a strong countenance that Steve felt compelled enough to choose her to tell. Something that went against his being, having to ask for help from someone simply willing to listen and not judge.

“I cannot look into your eyes and lie to you anymore,” Steve told her.

“That was heart wrenching,” she said.

Holding onto that information through the end has been even more so.

“In public, I try to get it very well together,” said Lawrence. “It’s hard. I’ve been through a lot of deaths. My family has gone through our share of losing people. I was 29 when I lost my dad and 39 when I lost my mom and all our grandparents. I’ve been through a lot with friends and family and it’s my own coping mechanism to be strong for everybody else. Sometimes, I don’t know how I do it and there are times when I completely lose it with somebody else. When they’re crying and we’re talking about emotional stuff. You can’t hold it all in because it will bottle up and fester.”

You could have stopped it

Dealing with social media detractors has been no easy task either for Tammy.

“That, right there, is exactly why they didn’t want anybody to know, because they would be flooded with, ‘have you done that or done this?’” she said. “Do you think they took this decision lightly, no! When you’re gone you’re not going to be held accountable to the law. They called hers a homicide because legally that’s what they have to call it. His is suicide. Had he lived, he would have been charged with murder and I just can’t imagine. That’s all that keeps running through my head. Him sitting on the floor with the dogs and their heads in his lap and her holding onto them and saying goodbye to them. Now he says goodbye to her and she to him and he has to crawl in bed next to her and do to himself? That’s just all that runs through my head all the time now.”

Tammy has been asked multiple times from people why she is giving interviews and willing to talk to anyone who wants to discuss the Stearns’ family.

“Because I wanted people to know that they didn’t just commit suicide for the fun of it,” she said. “It’s not a decision to take lightly and they have known for four months. I’ve only known for a short time.

“We talked about different ways to do it—to take their lives together. Between the two of them, they had enough medication to take down a dozen horses. We talked about going that way and his reaction was, ‘what if somebody gets there before we’re fully gone and we get revived?’”

The Stearns’ thoughts were premeditated. There was no stopping them without someone being in their presence 24 hours a day.

“They didn’t want to be revived,” said Lawrence.

The couple also did not go the way they had planned.

“On Sunday and Monday, when their dog could not even get up anymore—the dog was 150 pounds,” said Lawrence. “It was not like Steve could carry him out to go to the bathroom. He just laid there and that dog was in so much pain. Steve had declined rapidly. Within days, he was going to be done. To do it in their apartment the way they did was not their first choice. That’s something that I want everybody to know. The way they did it was not their first choice and I have told everybody I have talked to—he is not a murderer.”

Stacy had been hiding her pain for months, avoiding the campground, but urging Steve to make regular visits to avoid suspicion.

“It got to the point where she couldn’t come out and face everybody and put on this facade,” Tammy said. “She couldn’t put it on anymore. I feel so bad for her because all I want to do is hug her and hold her.”

No other alternative

Physician-assisted suicide is legal in nine states: California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Maine, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Washington, along with Washington D.C. Here in Minnesota, the Stearns family had no other option to end their lives.

“That’s the way they wanted to go – holding each other and holding their babies,” said Lawrence. “It would have been so perfect if the four of them could have cuddled up on the couch and had an injection and they all could have gone peacefully together.”

Lawrence noted the lack of communication the couple went through in their final moments and how having a legal option would have allowed for important interactions to have occurred.

“They would have had time to say goodbye to their loved ones,” she said. “They didn’t. They had to make that decision quickly. That is not the way they wanted to go but the decision had to be made and made fast.”

Lawrence called for more empathy in cases where people are terminal.

“I wish to God that assisted suicide was legal,” she said. ““I wish the people that felt it was wrong could be in anybody who is terminal’s shoes. The suffering they had to go through and the suffering they already went through. When you’re diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and you’re only given so many months to live; they were on so much pain medication, legal and not legal, and drinking. It was to kill the pain.”

Lawrence also stresses understanding is needed in this situation.

“I want the truth to be known,” she said. “They are wonderful people, not just some people that recklessly took their lives.”

Stacy and Steve Stearns ended their lives on their own terms but were conscious of the strife it would cause.

“Our only regret is the sorrow to our loved ones,” they said in their final statement. “Remember the laughter and happiness. We love you. Goodbye.”

The couple called 911 Tuesday at 9:09 a.m., requesting the need for law enforcement at their home, according to the Becker County Sheriff’s Office. The phone call was made shortly after their final Facebook post. Their absence marks a very solemn end to the season and a continual silence for their close friends at their favorite campsite.

“Well, it’s the end of the season so a lot of people have closed up their campers and gone home,” Lawrence said. “It’s quiet out there.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up for end of life expenses. Donations can be sent by searching Steve and Stacy Stearns on the GoFundMe site or by visiting directly at https://gofund.me/9db1b0ba