Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

Friends mourn St. Petersburg activist slain in double murder

ST. PETERSBURG — The woman at the microphone introduced herself to the crowd, but she didn't need to. Most of them, it was clear, knew her already. She described herself as a proud new homeowner in District 8. Her gray T-shirt had "University of South Florida St. Petersburg" in bold, black letters across its front. She chomped gum and with every word moved her hands, pointing either the pen in her right or the reading glasses in her left.

At that budget meeting, Paula Witthaus asked City Council members to better support local nonprofits. People clapped. She pleaded for a food bank that offered fresh produce. People cheered. She noted that "not one corporate weasel that has gotten a tax break" was in attendance. People snickered.

"I love my city and this is my 50th anniversary here," she said, "which is pretty remarkable for a 40-year-old woman."

People laughed and, loudly, applauded. That was Witthaus in May, eight months before she and a man she took care of were murdered, according to police, in a "particularly brutal" way. Investigators have offered little else, saying Witthaus, 54, and James Edward Rapp, 67, were discovered Tuesday by an acquaintance. On Wednesday's wet, chilly afternoon, a pair of white forensic vans were still parked outside her 607-square-foot home.

And the people who adored Witthaus, many of whom were at that meeting, still didn't understand why she was dead.

"There are no good reasons to be found," said Chuck Terzian, a longtime friend. "There aren't."

Witthaus lived two remarkably disparate lives. The first included 27 arrests on charges related to drugs, theft and fraud; a year in prison during the 1980s; two bouts with skin cancer; stints of homelessness and panhandling.

The second, it seems, began about eight years ago, after the final time she went to jail. Friends don't know what changed her. Maybe, they think, a sudden passion for education.

She enrolled at USF St. Petersburg and studied English, a degree her friends say she was just three credits short of earning. When her partner of 18 years died in 2011, Witthaus crusaded for better health care laws, even taking her fight to Tallahassee.

She later took in Rapp, who was nearly bed-ridden, and cared for him every day. She founded her own nonprofit and joined civic groups, including People's Budget Review and Awake Pinellas. She campaigned for the politicians she believed in, most recently volunteering for Darden Rice and Amy Foster.

And, just 12 months ago, she bought that home in District 8.

Terzian met her in a leadership class at the university. "Honestly," he said, "I didn't even know what to do with her at first."

She was witty, articulate and blunt, he said, "riding that line between good taste and bad."

Witthaus, who was legally blind, dreamed of becoming a grant writer for local organizations in need. Just last week, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she organized an event for Mercy Keepers on Ninth Avenue S. Supported by a grant she had won, volunteers handed out food and hygienic items to nearly 300 people. At day's end, she gave the volunteers a tour of the aging food bank, which opens just two days a week. Her goal, she told them, was to raise enough money so the place could operate every day.

They didn't doubt her.

"She was in a really good place, maybe the best in her life, the moment she died," said her friend Tim Martin. "She had found her voice."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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