here are some people who do great things in places far from the limelight. You may see them on the local news at a rally, in a crowd and sometimes even interviewed about the things they have seen and done. Paula Witthaus was just such a person.
Her life and work was her most precious asset. She had very little material wealth. So it came as a shock to everyone who knew her or knew of her when she was found murdered in her 670-square foot home in St. Petersburg, along with the elderly gentleman she cared for.
There is a hierarchy of headlines for articles announcing someone’s demise. If you are famous (or infamous) the headline merely states your name: “Phillip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his home.”
If you are fairly famous, editors often add your profession. “Phillip Seymour Hoffman, actor in more than 50 films, found dead in his home.” A less famous individual would be cut back to “Actor found dead in his home.”
But for many of us, the headline would read, “man found dead at home.”
The headline in the Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 28 said, “Couple found dead in their St. Petersburg home.” The article gave a brief summary of her life, pointing out 12-year-old convictions for things she did when she was desperate.
The Tampa Tribune emphasized the sensational aspect: “St. Pete Police investigating double homicide.” The paper got Paula’s age wrong by 10 years.
This column is to raise Paula to the level she deserved.
I met Paula almost a year ago as we traveled with a few other people to Tallahassee to testify before a Senate committee to plead for Medicaid Expansion. During our trip, I looked around and studied the faces of my fellow travelers.
Paula sat quietly clutching a note pad and an 8” x 10″ framed photo of a man with a twinkling smile and small mustache. She had surgical scars on her neck that looked she’s had skin-cancer removed. Her face looked worn.
But when I introduced myself, every part of her face smiled, from her eyes to her chin. She had glasses hanging from a lanyard that she constantly put on to look at almost anything. She took them off when she spoke.
We talked for a while and I found out that the man in the picture was her companion of 18 years who had passed away a few years ago because he could not get proper healthcare. She was going to the Capitol to tell his story.
When she addressed the senators, she spoke from the heart. Sen. Joe Negron had limited public testimony to three minutes. She spoke for five and he never stopped her. She made her point. As she was leaving, reporters interviewed her. She had grabbed their attention, too.
I saw her many times over the next year. I saw her at rallies for improving transit in St. Pete, at events for political candidates, and at events for Community Action Stops Abuse. She proudly told me of the grant she had written and won for a food bank called Mercy Keepers, and that she had urged the St. Petersburg City Council to adopt a registry for unmarried couples, gay or heterosexual.
Each time we met she told me more about the tribulations of her life. She talked about being homeless at one point, about beating skin cancer and recently becoming legally blind.
The last time I saw her was at the University of South Florida in Tampa, speaking out about several causes at a legislative delegation meeting. I knew she couldn’t drive anymore, so I offered her a ride home. She told me she took three buses there, and she was going to take three buses back.
“I have a bus pass, and I am damn well going to use it. More people should! ” she exclaimed.
She was feisty, down-to-earth, and dedicated to doing good things, without expecting anything in return.
Most likely, she initially considered the person who killed her as someone in need. She deserved more than a crime-story headline.
She will be missed by many.
The murderer of Paula Witthaus and James Rapp is still unknown. If you know of any information that may lead to the identity and arrest of their killer, there is a $1000 reward. Contact Detective Rodney Tower at (727) 893-7780, text a tip to (727) 420-8911 or leave a confidential tip at (727) 892-5000.
Gary Stein, MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a health advocate and activist and blogger for the Huffington Post.