Morgan Hill’s first homicide of 2013 was the result of a violent fight between a man and a woman who were involved in an “off and on” relationship and had recently moved in together at a local mobile home park, according to police and the couple’s neighbors.
Bertha Paulson, 46, was found dead along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks by two Morgan Hill residents walking their dog Saturday morning, according to Morgan Hill police. Her body was discovered behind Morgan Hill Apartments at 17880 Monterey Road, with evidence suggesting foul play – including the fact she was partially clothed, wearing only pants pulled down around her knees and a jacket placed over her upper body like a blanket.
After an around-the-clock investigation, police arrested on Sunday morning Paulson’s live-in boyfriend, Michael Sheppard, 61, on suspicion of killing Paulson during an argument that escalated to violence, according to Morgan Hill Police Capt. Shane Palsgrove.
Sheppard was scheduled for arraignment at South County Courthouse in Morgan Hill Wednesday afternoon – after this newspaper’s print deadline – according to Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Brian Welch. The DA’s office charged Sheppard with one count of homicide. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Sheppard allegedly told police that Paulson became unconscious after he assaulted her during a physical fight early Saturday morning in the couple’s home at Morgan Hill Apartments (a residential complex with apartments and mobile home units), Palsgrove said. Sheppard tried to revive her but was unable to do so. He then transported her body to the other side of a fence separating the mobile home park from the railroad property, and laid her down about 15 feet away from the tracks. Police declined to say how Sheppard carried Paulson’s body to the other side of the fence, but they think he went around the front of Morgan Hill Apartments via Monterey Road early Saturday morning to the rear of another property where he accessed the railroad tracks through an opening in the fence.
“Morgan Hill Police detectives worked alongside crime lab criminalists for hours on end to identify and apprehend the suspect and bring justice to the victim and her family,” Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing said. “I extend my deepest sympathies to the family and my strongest praise to the men and women who worked this case and brought it to a just conclusion.”
Paulson’s body was found about 9 a.m. Saturday, police said. She likely died early Saturday morning, when it was still dark outside and just before Sheppard disposed of her body near the railroad tracks.
Police did not know Paulson’s exact cause of death, as they were awaiting an autopsy report from Santa Clara County officials Wednesday, but Palsgrove said she appeared to have been “physically beaten (with) injuries on her face and body, caused from some kind of trauma.”
Officers served a search warrant on the couple’s apartment after they determined where Paulson and Sheppard lived, and Palsgrove said they found “lots of evidence” suggesting a violent struggle.
Before the investigation, police were unaware of any history of domestic violence at Sheppard’s home or anywhere else, Palsgrove said. However, neighbors told police after Paulson’s body was found they had witnessed previous incidents of unreported violence between the two.
Nobody reported hearing or seeing anything suggesting a fight or violence late Friday night or early Saturday morning, Palsgrove said.
Residents of Morgan Hill Apartments Monday afternoon said they weren’t particularly familiar with Paulson, but thought she moved in just weeks before her death. Palsgrove added that Paulson had lived with Sheppard “off and on” for about three months.
Sheppard had lived at Morgan Hill Apartments about five years, according to Greg Huskins, whose family owns the mobile home park which has been at that location since 1983.
The suspect seemed to be mellow and well-behaved until recently, Huskins said.
“He drank a lot the last six months. He was very angry,” said Huskins, who described a recent verbal argument Sheppard started with him at the park.
Another resident, who declined to provide his name, described Paulson as “a nice person.” That resident said he had hung out with the couple before, drinking alcohol and listening to music.
Palsgrove said alcohol was a “highly likely” factor in the homicide, but police had not found any definitive evidence of that as of Wednesday morning.
Paulson’s closest relatives, who live in Alaska, were contacted by the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office, Palsgrove said. Paulson’s nephew also contacted local police from Alaska, where one of the residents of Morgan Hill Apartments said she was from. The resident described Paulson as “Native American.”
Paulson lived in Morgan Hill “at least three years” before her death, Palsgrove said.
A Facebook page for a user by the name of Bertha Paulson lists a hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. The user’s last post was from Jan. 1, 2012, in which she blamed fairy tales and popular children’s stories for inciting misbehavior in today’s youth.
The page also includes two photos appearing to depict an empty wintertime Santa Cruz Boardwalk in December 2011.
Residents at the mobile home park said they did not see or hear anything in the hours before Paulson was found dead, and have never called police on Sheppard or Paulson. The community is mostly quiet, according to those who live there.
“People drink, and that’s about it,” Huskins said. “Morgan Hill is a good place.”
Nationwide, between 1,500 and 2,000 women are murdered each year by their partners or ex-partners, according to Morgan Hill Police. The American Medical Association states that one in three women will be a victim of domestic violence by a husband or boyfriend at some point in her life.
In 2012, there were nine domestic violence related deaths in Santa Clara County, according to police.
One reason women in abusive relationships fail to leave their aggressors is they fear for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, according to Director Perla Flores of Community Solutions’ “Solutions to Violence” programs. However, the statistics show that victims are not alone and they can always seek help for themselves and their loved ones.
“It’s a sad and pointed reminder that domestic violence is a very serious issue that we as a community need to be aware of,” Flores said.
Community Solutions has provided services for domestic violence victims, including crisis intervention, emergency shelter, legal advocacy, therapy and other resources to more than 1,000 domestic abuse survivors in Santa Clara County.
Anyone who is a victim or knows a victim of domestic violence can call Community Solutions’ 24-hour bilingual crisis line at (877) 363-7238.