Slaying of girl shook her family, state 20 years ago

The Times

PORTAGE — On a warm August morning 20 years ago, 8-year-old Sarah Paulsen took off on her bike to find frogs.

The next day she was going to start second grade at Aylesworth Elementary School in Portage.

“She was so excited. She had gotten the teacher she wanted,” her mother said, recalling they had just cut the blonde, blue-eyed girl’s hair so she could put it into a pony tail by herself.

“She was so independent. She was a tomboy. She held her own with those boys,” Patty Paulsen told The (Munster) Times of Sarah’s two older brothers, Jason and Dan.

Sarah didn’t come home from the bike ride that morning. A neighbor walking her dog not far from the Paulsen’s Central Avenue home found the little girl -- face down in the woods.

Sarah Paulsen’s Aug. 22, 1995 killing set off a wave of fear throughout the community. For days, playgrounds were empty, parents kept their children close by and the city was stunned.

Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds said the murder even affected the “bad guys.”

“It put the city in shock,” said Reynolds, then a detective on the Portage Police Department and the lead detective on the Paulsen case.

“Portage was a pretty vibrant big city even then. We had a lot of calls, but for two weeks after, there weren’t so many. It put the city to its knees, it just stopped,” he recalled, adding detectives worked to rule out suspects, including known sex offenders.

“They would meet us at their door and say they were expecting us,” he said, adding most were eager to cooperate with police to help solve the crime.

The Portage Police Department’s investigation led to the arrest of Eugene Britt in November. Britt eventually pleaded guilty to Sarah’s murder and through that investigation, it was found he had killed at least six other women. He pleaded guilty to the murders and rape of three others and is serving life in prison.

“There is not a day that goes by that my husband and I don’t think of her or talk about her,” said Paulsen. “We think of her in a positive way. She is still with us.”

Paulsen said she and her husband, Dan, have always and will always remain open to conversations and questions about Sarah.

“We are firm believers you talk, you don’t hold it in,” she said, adding as long as people remember their daughter — and talk about her — her spirit continues to live.

“It feels good that they don’t forget,” she said, adding when she visits Sarah’s grave at McCool Cemetery, she’ll often find tokens of affection left or flowers planted by strangers.

There are still reminders of Sarah in the Paulsen’s home. An oil portrait of her has a place of prominence in the family’s living room. A rock the family brought back from Norway — and told Sarah it was a troll’s shoe they found on a hike — forever sits on their kitchen counter.

A juke box contains songs that remind the family of the girl who dreamed of being a pitcher on the local Junior Miss softball team.

“One is ‘In Pictures’ by Alabama,” she said. “You can never have enough pictures. That’s all we have left of her.”

Paulsen said she and her family never moved from their home because the memory of Sarah is still there.

“We are getting close to retirement and we’ve contemplated moving, but I don’t want to leave her. We still have her here. Her spirit is still here,” she said.

“She’d probably be married with a few kids by now,” Paulsen said.

The hardest thing over the years, she said, has been watching Sarah’s contemporaries grow up, get married and have children. It is hard going to their weddings and knowing Sarah never had one.

Paulsen said, at one time, she wanted to confront Britt and tell him how he had ruined their lives, but her oldest son, Jason, put things in perspective.

“Jason said, ‘He didn’t ruin our lives, he changed our lives, but we still have each other,’” Paulsen said.

She said both her sons had issues in dealing with their sister’s death. Jason, now an ironworker and father, went through counseling. Daniel, married, with a 1-year-old daughter named Sarah after his sister, was quieter and worked through his grief by writing about his sister in school papers.

“As he got older, he became more inquisitive about it,” Paulsen said about Dan, who was 10 at the time, adding she kept every newspaper clipping about Sarah, her death and the investigation.

“I think what happened molded them into the men they are today, and they are very fine young men,” she said.

Paulsen said she and her husband of 37 years often talk about how Sarah’s death changed them and what would have happened had she not been killed that August morning 20 years ago.

“It has made my family stronger. We are a typical family, but it drew us closer,” she said. “Without a doubt, we appreciate life more. Things that used to be important, aren’t important any more. Life is too short.”

Paulsen said they also believe Sarah had a purpose in her short life, whether it was because her death led to the capture of a serial killer who may have taken even more lives or to remind people of how a life can be snatched away at any moment.

“Everybody has a purpose in this life and if that was Sarah’s purpose, she lived it well,” Paulsen said.

More on