Jennifer Ann Paulson was a cheerful young woman who cared deeply for her students and brightened the lives of her relatives and colleagues. Her brutal murder has created a sense of deep mourning in people across Pierce County.
A man who had been stalking Paulson, a special education teacher at Birney Elementary School, fatally shot her while she was walking into the school on Feb. 26.
The shooting occurred about 7:30 a.m., before students arrived at school. The shooter, Jed Ryan Waits, fled the scene. Witnesses gave a description of him and his vehicle to police.
About 20 minutes later, he died of a gunshot wound to the head outside a daycare center in Frederickson. Deputy Eric Honeycutt of Pierce County Sheriff’s Department followed him into the parking lot. Waits pulled a gun and both men fired shots. An investigation is underway to determine if Waits shot himself or was hit by Honeycutt.
Paulson graduated from Life Christian Academy in 1998. Her father, Ken Paulson, ran for Pierce County Council in 2008 and applied for a vacant position on Tacoma City Council last December.
Paulson and Waits were both 30. They met while attending Seattle Pacific University, when both worked in the cafeteria. The two never dated, although they occasionally hung out with co-workers. Both graduated in 2003.
Waits returned to his hometown of Ellensburg. Paulson was hired by Tacoma Public Schools in 2004, working at Stanley Elementary School and Hunt Middle School before being assigned to Birney in 2007.
Waits’ unwanted advances escalated to the point Paulson filed for a restraining order in September 2008. In her petition, she wrote that after graduation, about once a year he would call her between 10 and 15 times a day.
By spring 2008 the infatuation had turned to stalking. Waits called frequently. He learned where Paulson worked and would drive from Ellensburg to try to visit her at Birney. He sent flowers and gifts to her there.
On Feb. 19, Paulson spotted Waits following her as she drove away from Birney. She called police, who arrested him for violating the order. On Feb. 22 he was charged, made bail and was released from jail.
The tragedy has rocked the close-knit Birney community. A memorial on the sidewalk across the street outside United Lutheran Church contained flowers, stuffed animals and signs, many made by children mourning the popular teacher.
Family members joined Birney staff and students for a moment of blessing on March 1. Organized by Associated Ministries, the ceremony is meant to spiritually cleanse homicide scenes.
“She was so sweet and innocent,” her cousin Chris Paulson said. “She was pure love.”
Ron Vignec, a retired pastor who now volunteers with Northwest Leadership Foundation, has participated in many of these ceremonies. Noting the many young children in attendance, Vignec said he hoped it helps them through this difficult time.
“It is important they are included and valued for what they are feeling,” he said.
“Things like this do not happen in isolation. They affect our whole community,” Tacoma City Councilmember Victoria Woodards said. “If they do not understand the words that were spoken, I think they understand the energy, the pure feeling of love,” she said, regarding the students.
Later, parents, children and educators gathered at United Lutheran.
“This congregation and school work for the benefit of our community,” said Pastor Jim Riede, who was at the church for 10 years before retiring two years ago. “We are all one, especially tonight.”
One by one they took the microphone to share their memories of Paulson.
Nina and Annika Thach, sisters who attend Baker Middle School, mourned their former teacher.
“She put so much effort into every student,” Nina said. “This school was home and she made me feel safe.”
“She was everyone’s friend,” Annika said. “You could tell her your secrets and she would keep them. I did not know her for long, but I knew I had a friend.”
“Jen Paulson was one of life’s sweethearts. I adored her immediately,” Birney Principal Christine Hinds said. “There was not an ounce of cynicism or meanness in her. She was a shining, bright, positive light every day.”
Tony Franco was a teacher at Birney before leaving last year. He used to play basketball with students during recess.
When Paulson found out he was being transferred, she had students sign their names on a basketball, which he held in his hands. Franco noted Paulson’s warm smile and bright environment in her classroom. When he was feeling down, he would pop into her room to say hello.
“She was such a great teacher, such a caring teacher,” Franco said. “She was very special. We lost an amazing person.”