ST. PETERSBURG — A woman who had crusaded for the rights of unmarried couples was found murdered in her home Tuesday along with a male companion.
Paula Witthaus, 54, and a 67-year-old man she was living with were "brutally attacked" in their home and pronounced dead at the scene Tuesday, St. Petersburg police said. Police withheld the man's name until they could notify his family.
St. Petersburg police received a call at 12:52 p.m. from an acquaintance who had gone to the home, 2840 17th Ave. N, to check on the residents.
Authorities did not release a cause of death, but said both victims suffered "trauma to the upper body." Property records show Witthaus owns the house.
Police said they had not determined a motive or identified a suspect.
The news came as a shock to neighbors, who were used to seeing Witthaus walking her dogs.
"It's devastating," said Kip Villareal, 42, who lives two houses down. "When you walk out your door you don't expect to see something like this happen."
Witthaus, whose Facebook page lists her as being from St. Petersburg and a former student of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, had made a name for herself in recent years as an activist. In June 2012, she was among people who urged the St. Petersburg City Council to adopt a domestic registry for unmarried couples, gay or heterosexual. Witthaus told the council that a partner of 18 years was put on a ventilator two weeks before he died, during which his family made decisions she said he would not have wanted.
The council passed a law modeled on a Tampa statute that allows a domestic partner to visit and make health care decisions if his partner is incapacitated.
She trekked to the state Capitol in May in the hopes of meeting lawmakers to advocate for expanded Medicaid coverage, again using the example of her longtime partner.
"In our grief and our anger, we just could not understand how a man that paid into the system all his life through payroll deductions could not drink from the well to which he contributed," Witthaus told WTSP-Ch. 10.
On Facebook, Witthaus listed herself as president of Demand L.I.F.E., a Florida nonprofit corporation. Records show her as a director of the organization. The page also shows her dressed in a Santa Claus suit and posing with feminist writer Gloria Steinem.
Pinellas records show Witthaus had been arrested numerous times between 1990 and 2002 on various charges, including identity theft, writing worthless checks and retail theft.
Neighbors remember her as friendly and outgoing.
"There has never been any trouble at all" at the house, said Teresa Shepard, 24, Villareal's niece, who lives with her aunt.
Villareal said she met Witthaus less than a year ago. At that time, Witthaus said her house had been broken into before she had finished moving in; thieves had taken a guitar signed by Elvis Presley.
"They both deserve better than what happened to them," Villareal said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.