ACWORTH — Janet Paulsen won.
When she pulls into her driveway every day, her tires rolling across the concrete where she once lain paralyzed and bleeding from the six bullets that had pierced her athletic body, that’s what she says to herself.
Paulsen was the portrait of suburbia perfection in November 2015. She was the executive vice president of the Acworth Baseball Association, supporting her athletic and active twin, 13-year-old boys. She and her husband of 15 years owned a mortgage servicing business. She was in the best shape of her life, having just trained for and completed a grueling Savage Race. The Volunteer of the Year Award, given by the Georgia Parks and Recreation Association, had just been minted with her name as its recipient.
She was also living with an abusive, alcoholic husband — a living nightmare sleeping beside her every night.
“We met on a blind date and the first 10 years were good. But he started to spiral the last five years and it got pretty dramatic toward the end,” Paulsen said.
When she told him it was time for the two of them to separate and divorce, he tried to manipulate her with scare tactics and threats to keep her from leaving.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you go upstairs and get the boys and try to leave, and see what happens to you. Go ahead and try it. See what happens to you.’ I just kept asking him why he was threatening me and I asked him to stop but it didn’t. I just got worse,” Paulsen recalled.
Soon after, he had called Paulsen’s father on the phone and said that he was going to kill Paulsen. That was the final straw for her so, one day, she picked up her sons from school and took them to a hotel, where they lived for about a week. She took out a temporary protective order against him, which he soon violated after she discovered he was tracking her and her sons’ whereabouts through a phone app. She had the locks on their house changed, as well as the garage door code, and, with him seemingly gone, her parents came to live with her and her sons.
Just five days later after getting the TPO, on Nov. 5, 2015, Paulsen was at her sons’ football practice with her father. Practice was going long and she had groceries in the car that needed to be refrigerated, so she went home while her father stayed so he could drive the boys back to the house.
What happened next could only be described as terrifying.
“I pulled the car into the garage and I hit the garage door opener for it to come down behind me,” Paulsen explained. “When I did that, I saw the garage door kind of kick up in the rear view mirror behind me. But it started coming down again. So I reached for the car door handle and when I looked up, I saw in the rearview mirror that he was two feet away from me, leaning against the garage wall, cocking a gun.”
A voice in her head, the same voice that would soon narrate the entire nightmarish scene, told her that he was just there to scare her. But then the same voice screamed at her and said, “You can’t take that chance! Get out of this garage right now!”
So Paulsen, fearing he might try to shoot her in the head, put her head down and shifted the car into reverse. She put her foot on the gas pedal as quickly and forcefully as she could and her car burst through the garage door. She was trying to make it to the street but she backed into a tree in her neighbor’s yard. The jolt made her head come up and she saw him walking down the driveway, his gun pointed at her.
She was trying to put the car in drive again and put her head down but, through hysteria and not being able to see everything, she ended up in a nearby embankment and crashed into a clump of trees in the woods next to her house.
“I saw he was still coming after me. That voice again said, ‘Get out of this car or you’re dead.’ So I pushed open the passenger side door and somehow I was able to get out of the car. I started running through the woods and I heard, ‘Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!’ And I knew he was firing at me. I remember the sound of a bullet going past my ear, that eery, high-whistled sound. Then I felt stinging in my abdomen. And I knew I had been shot,” she recalled.
She was trying to get through the woods to another neighbor’s house and thought the trees would give her some cover from the flying bullets, but she was afraid she was going to fall in the woods and then no one would find her so she cut back over her driveway to get to the other neighbor’s house.
“When I came up the embankment to the driveway, he shot me in the leg. I kept going, then he shot me in the other leg and I fell over in the driveway. Then he came up to me in the driveway and I watched him shoot me two more times,” she said.
In the series of shots, she felt a jolt of electricity jerk through her body and, at that moment, she knew she was paralyzed.
Paulsen said she was screaming for help through a voice she didn’t even recognize, and also heard a neighbor screaming for him to stop firing.
Her estranged husband then walked up to Paulsen, who was unable to move and bleeding profusely, and told her to look at him. He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but it clicked instead of firing. He had used all of his ammunition while firing at her. Dazed, he ran back toward the house.
“That voice was just saying, ‘You are not going to die. You were on your way from getting away from this man.’ And I just kept telling myself to not close my eyes. I felt this calm feeling come over me, and it just said, ‘It’s OK. Just close your eyes, and it will be alright.’ But I was scared. Some people say they see their life flash before their eyes, but I saw the future. I saw the future I was trying to build, without him. It took me five years to get the courage to divorce him. I knew I was going to pay a price. I didn’t know he was going to shoot me, but I knew it was going to be difficult,” Paulsen said.
A few moments later, Paulsen said he returned from the garage area, put the gun to his abdomen and fired. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
Luckily, Paulsen’s sons and father had not yet arrived when the shooting was taking place, and came home only after her father received a phone call from the Acworth Police Department.
Paulsen’s heart stopped as soon as she arrived at the hospital and her heart was massaged by the doctor’s hands until it started beating again. Paulsen was told only maybe one in 100 people survive that.
She remained in WellStar Kennestone Hospital for six months, then was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for six weeks. She still has to undergo multiple surgeries and has had to learn other sports, such as water skiing and scuba diving, but Paulsen can walk with a cane, drive and has become quite a professional at handling her wheelchair. She said the Shepherd Center, friends and family and her Acworth support system have helped in her recovery.
She is the featured speaker at tomorrow’s Domestic Violence Candelight Vigil, being held on the Marietta Square’s Glover Park Stage from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The Vigil is held in remembrance of those who died this past year as a result of domestic violence and is hosted by Marietta-based liveSAFE Resources. liveSAFE provides counseling, shelter and other programs for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.
“Public speaking wasn’t something I was ever comfortable with, but it’s important for me to give a voice for those who didn’t make it, and for those coming behind me. There’s a greater purpose in what happened to me and that’s a part of my survival,” Paulsen said.
As for choosing to stay in the same home she shared with her shooter, Paulsen said that is part of her survival as well.
“People ask how I can drive over that spot in my driveway every day, but to me, that’s where I won,” Paulsen said. “That’s where I finally beat him. That is my house. That is my boys’ house. We love the community. He is not going to run us out of town. It’s really easy to go down rabbit holes of depression, but there is also so much good in this world. And I’m finding it.”