Ronald Lee Paulson, in the 1964 yearbook for the State Industrial School in Miles City, Montana.

The tangled web of Ronald Lee Paulson

Ronald Lee Paulson killed his mother when he was 14, and at age 28 married a 13-year-old girl, even though he was already married to someone else. But that was only the beginning. And a prosecutor says what was to come could have been prevented.

POULSBO — Former Poulsbo resident Ronald Lee Paulson will be sentenced on Nov. 17 for statutory rapes dating to the mid-1980s.

Paulson, who had contended he was not guilty, entered an Alford plea on Sept. 6, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the evidence is sufficient for a likely finding of guilty. The prosecutor will recommend a sentence of 144 months.

The sentence means the end of Paulson’s 30-year effort to avoid justice. But, it turns out, this case is only one chapter in a life of deception and manipulation. Paulson killed his mother when he was 14, and at age 28 married a 13-year-old girl; at the time, he was already married to someone else. Statutory rape, an assumed identity, and life on the run would follow.

The subjects interviewed for this story are being referred to by initials in order to protect their privacy. Paulson’s attorney, David LaCross of LaCross &Murphy in Port Orchard, declined to comment for this story.

1961: ‘Now I’ll join my buddy Jim’

Ronald Lee Paulson was born on April 23, 1946 in Los Angeles, California, but grew up in Great Falls, Montana, where his mother worked as a night nurse and his father, a World War II Army veteran, worked for Cascade Electric.

Paulson was a member of a Boy Scout troop and had a best buddy, James Sebens. But he was “not very popular with schoolmates” at Great Falls East Junior High School, school officials later told a newspaper. Classmates called him “Piggy” — he was 5 feet 6 inches and 155 pounds — and school officials reported that he had “a record of minor school difficulties” and “liked to draw attention to himself.” School officials also said Paulson had “a slightly below normal mentality.”

In summer 1960, Sebens beat and strangled his own mother to death; after his arrest, Sebens told a reporter, “I’ve been unhappy lately. Little things that my parents did bothered me.” He was committed to the State Industrial School in Miles City, Montana until age 21.

Paulson soon joined him.

In December that year, Paulson ran away to California, where an aunt lived. On Jan. 17, 1961, he was returned to his home in Montana and, as punishment, according to a later newspaper report, was restricted from using the family car.

On Jan. 26, Paulson fatally shot his mother in her sleep; he told investigators that he aimed at her five times with his father’s hunting rifle, and on the sixth time found the nerve to pull the trigger.

According to a newspaper report, he had planned to kill both of his parents because his father wouldn’t let him have a boat and he was not permitted to use the family car as often as he liked. His father wasn’t home at the time of the killing; the younger Paulson called police and reported it, saying, “My mother has been shot by my father’s gun,” a newspaper reported at the time.

On Jan. 27, he appeared in court, accompanied by his father, and pleaded guilty to murder. He was committed to the State Industrial School in Miles City, Montana until age 21. The county attorney said Paulson told him, “Now I’ll go down and join my buddy Jim.”

At the State Industrial School, Paulson seemed to thrive. In the 1964 edition of “The Beaver,” the school’s yearbook, Paulson was listed as a member of the All-Conference football team, and a member of the basketball, track, and wrestling teams; choir, band, dramatics, and the yearbook staff; speech club, pep club, and intermurals. He had a role in the Christmas play and attended church camp. (His buddy, Jim Sebens, went on to attend what is now Miles Community College.)

S.G., one of Paulson’s wives, said she met Paulson’s former house parents during a visit to Miles City in the 1970s. “They loved him. They raved about him,” she said.

Paulson had earned their trust. There was no fence around the school grounds, and yet Paulson never strayed. For prom, Paulson’s house father lent him his watch so he could be back by curfew. Paulson returned in time, and returned the watch.

“They thought the world of him,” she said.

One person S.G. didn’t meet — and would never meet, she said — was Paulson’s father. She said Paulson told her that the father had killed the mother, enlisted him to hide the body in a barrel in the backyard and to take the blame because of his age. S.G. said she learned the truth years later when prosecutors showed her copies of newspaper accounts of the crime.

Erick and Doris Paulson were identified in press reports and by authorities as either his foster parents or his adoptive parents. On Erick Paulson’s death record, Ron is listed as his foster son. California Birth Index lists the former Doris Moots as Ron’s mother; as an adoptive child he would have received a new birth certificate.

By the time Paulson met S.G., he had begun shaping a new identity. “He told me he was half Indian and half Italian, that his mother was full-blooded Indian and his father worked for the Chicago Mafia and was gunned down on a street corner in front of the kids,” S.G. said. “He said the mother couldn’t raise 10 kids on her own and had to put a few of them in foster homes.” She said Paulson carried a photo in his wallet of someone he said was his brother, Vincent.

S.G. said one of her and Paulson’s daughters had a DNA test done that showed her being mainly of Eastern European ancestry, and 1 percent Native American. That would indicate that Paulson had had a great-great-great-grandparent who was full-blooded Native American. It was an identity that would later become a prominent part of his public persona.

1974: A child bride, and bigamy

S.G. is now a 56-year-old grandmother with a successful career in Southern California. But her memories of the charismatic musician she had a crush on, and to whom she became a child bride 43 years ago, are both vivid and troubling to her.

S.G. and her family lived in Ellensburg, where her mother and stepfather owned the drugstore. Paulson was a familiar face in the household; he and S.G.’s sister dated for a while “and he befriended my parents.” After he and S.G.’s sister broke up they were still on decent terms, and he would visit the house or the drug store “and he and my parents would yuk it up and he would tease me.”

“I kind of had a crush on him. I mean, he was 28 years old, he was a musician and he drove a blue Stingray Corvette,” S.G. recalled (he was a drummer and taught her to play bass, and they would later perform together). “One day, I walked into the kitchen and he had told her parents he was going to marry me. He showed me all these hundred-dollar bills and I told him, ‘When I marry, it’s not going to be for money. I’m going to marry for love.’ ”

She was 13 years old.

Paulson invited S.G. and her family to watch him and his band perform in Friday Harbor, and the family stayed in a cabin on the island. It was there that Paulson gave S.G. a ring and asked her to marry him.

She knew some about Paulson’s troubled past, and her own home life wasn’t ideal; her stepfather was emotionally and verbally abusive, she said. In her young teen mind, “I thought it was fate that we found each other.”

Today, she considers it to have been child abuse. Her parents permitted the marriage, even helped make it happen. “We all went over the border to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. My stepfather created a fake I.D. for me — it was easier to do then — and changed the date to make me 17,” S.G. recalled.

They married on Aug. 9, 1974. S.G. became pregnant the following year, when she was 14. Not only was their marriage fraudulent, under the law their intimate relationship constituted statutory rape.

Years later, she asked her parents why they allowed a 13-year-old girl to marry a 28-year-old man. “I never got answers from them,” she said. Her mother has since passed away.

S.G. and Paulson moved into an apartment in Poulsbo. Within two weeks, a 20-year-old woman showed up. It turned out, Paulson was already married.

Records show that the woman, D.M., and Paulson had married on Dec. 11, 1972 in Spokane. “They were still married,” S.G. said. Paulson told S.G. that he had signed divorce papers but D.M. never filed them with the court. “They made a deal: He gave her the car and she wouldn’t press charges,” S.G. said. “Then they filed for divorce.”

(D.M. did not respond to Kitsap News Group’s request for an interview.)

S.G. and Paulson’s first child was born in 1976. The couple remarried on Aug. 9, 1977 in Everett, where they were playing a gig with musician Wade Gentry, who was one of the witnesses. (Gentry recorded two singles in 1974 for Safari Records: “Mystery Woman” and “Sweet Denver Woman.”)

1983-84: ‘I never sensed anything weird with him’

When he wasn’t playing music, Paulson worked in a saw mill or sold cars or office machines. He was charismatic and “everybody loved him,” S.G. said.

“He was a good provider. There was a certain period of time when he wanted to be a minister. It was out of the blue. I believed in God but I didn’t want to be a minister’s wife. I was a good person, but I didn’t want to be held to the standard of being a minister’s wife.”

Another side of Paulson began to emerge.

“He changed his name all the time,” S.G. said. “He was Ron Paulson, but he went by the name of Tinker, which he said was his nickname growing up because he liked to tinker with things. When we performed with Wade Gentry, he was Bo Gentry and he told me to go by the name of Bobbie Ray, because that’s how they did it in the music business. I hated it. I was [presented as being] four years older than I really was, and it was such a lie.”

He also began using cocaine, S.G. said. One time, he took out a bank signature loan for $3,000 to $4,000 that he said was going to be used to buy Christmas trees for a local Scout troop; she believes the money went to support his habit. “I had to file bankruptcy,” S.G. said.

Another time, he took an unusually long time driving a teen babysitter home. When he returned, he told her he had met up with a friend and stopped to play PacMan at a mini-mart. S.G. said the babysitter later told her that they had engaged in a sex act. (According to court documents from 1990, Paulson was suspected of sexual activity with other minors, but no charges were filed).

And then, one day in 1984, a neighbor boy told her what a young friend said her husband had done to her.

“I never sensed anything weird with him,” S.G. said of Paulson. “For the first several years of our marriage, when I was a teenager, I thought he might get tired of me and leave me for a woman. I even accused him of having an affair. I didn’t know it was with [a child].”

Confronted, Paulson underwent counseling, not prosecution, according to court records. The idea was, Paulson had a condition that could be treated. His psychiatrist prescribed Lithium, which S.G. said seemed to stabilize her husband’s mood.

“I think in some way he wanted help for it,” S.G. said of Paulson. “The psychiatrist led him to believe there was a cure for it, but there is no cure for it.”

In Paulson’s case, it happened again.

On Feb. 19, 1987, a girl told her mother that Paulson molested her on at least four occasions between September 1986 and February 1987. Confronted, Paulson checked himself into Harrison Medical Center for mental health treatment. According to court records, Paulson admitted to a mental health professional and a Poulsbo police officer that he had sexually molested the same child on more than one occasion.

Information provided separately to authorities by Paulson and the girl corroborated the other’s accounts. On Feb. 27, a warrant was issued for Paulson’s arrest on suspicion of first-degree statutory rape. Paulson left Harrison Medical Center and could not be found.

Paulson was a fugitive for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

1989: Protecting the abused, rather than treating the abuser

Two years after Paulson’s latest molestations, Kitsap County got tougher in its handling of crimes against children.

Kitsap County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ione George joined the prosecuting attorney’s office in 1989, right after the county received grants to start a child advocacy center. The center established protocols for responding to crimes against children, with the cooperation of law enforcement, Child Protective Services, the prosecutor’s office, social workers, and EMS/first responders.

The focus shifted to protecting the abused, “to ensure the criminal justice system protected them and was sensitive to the harm that had been done to them, and being sensitive in how we got the information we needed to meet the needs of the justice system,” George said on Oct. 3. “We still had a very aggressive treatment alternative. A treatment option was still available, but not in the way it was earlier.”

Ardis Morrow, an advocate for domestic violence survivors, worked hard to strengthen protections for children and change how society looks at child abuse.

“Child abuse is child abuse,” she said Sept. 22. “We overlooked the damage to the child for so long. I like to think that one area where I helped make a difference is that more people know about [abuse] and are more aware. More people are talking about it and realize it might be a neighbor who is afraid to say anything. The problem is there.”

1990: Another marriage, and another bigamy

Paulson’s father, Erick, died on April 24, 1987 in Big Sandy, Montana at the age of 82. His death record shows how little he knew of his son’s life after the State Industrial School. His son is listed as living in Oregon, even though the younger Paulson had lived in Washington for about 17 years. S.G. found the reference to Oregon interesting.

“He spent a lot of time there” during their relationship, she said. And that happens to be where D.M. lives. (In court records from 1990, Paulson used frequent business trips away from home as an alibi.)

On June 14, 1989, Paulson married again, in Clark County, Nevada. But his divorce from S.G. wasn’t final until December. Paulson again had committed bigamy.

Paulson and his new wife, D.J., were found living in Bakersfield, California, where she managed an Arby’s restaurant. Paulson was returned to Kitsap County on July 13, 1990 to face charges of first-degree statutory rape. But he was allowed to post bond of $5,000 and return to Bakersfield until trial, which was scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 4 in Kitsap County Superior Court. Paulson was a no show. A no-bail warrant was issued for his arrest.

1990 to 2016: A new identity

Various online records show Paulson living in Bakersfield, California; Gardena, California; and Shawnee, Oklahoma during his time on the run. Various online records for his wife give an address in Pagosa Springs, Colorado; and in Meeker, Oklahoma.

In Shawnee, he lived a public life under a new identity: Warron Big Eagle.

He worked as a sales rep for a roofing contractor, organized an event called Market Dayz, hosted spiritual retreats, and raised money for the revitalization of downtown Shawnee. YouTube videos, now removed, showed him with a Native American flute at public events.

An online posting for a spiritual retreat he and his wife hosted, “Gathering of the Eagles” Aug. 28-29, 2004 in Meeker, described him this way: “He was born on a kitchen table on the Lame Deer Reservation nearly sixty years ago. He is of the Eagle/Bear Clan, a descendaent [sic] of the great Sioux Chief Crow Dog on his mother’s side and a Cheyenne death singer on his father’s side.”

That story is a departure from what he told S.G. And in online postings, several people who met him questioned his spirit fairs and psychic readings as being New Age and not Native American at all.

His online and public presence contributed to his arrest. In early 2016, the Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney’s office notified the Poulsbo Police Department that there was still a warrant for Paulson’s arrest. A Poulsbo police officer enlisted the help of police in other cities where Paulson was known to have lived and followed an online trail that seemed to point to Ronald Lee Paulson’s metamorphosis into Warron Big Eagle.

Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s officers confronted and interviewed Warron Big Eagle in Shawnee. He admitted he was, he is, Ronald Lee Paulson.

On May 27, 2016, Paulson was arrested and returned to Kitsap County. He was booked on June 23 into county jail.

At a bail hearing, a woman asked the court to not lower Paulson’s bail, recalling the last time Paulson appeared in a Kitsap County court he was allowed to post $5,000 bond and “he ran for 26 years. Those 26 years were hell for me. I have lived my life in the shadow of the things that that man has done to me. He ruined my life and all I am asking for is the opportunity to face him in court. … I need to be able to have my day in court with him. I need that closure.”

Bail was set at $500,000.

2017: The aftermath

Paulson’s arrest in Shawnee shocked the community in which he had lived for about 12 years.

Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Lt. Ken Vanduser was one of the arresting officers. His parents knew of Warron Big Eagle as an active member of the community and “it was kind of a shock. They can’t believe he did this,” Vanduser said. Big Eagle and his wife helped raise money for the restoration of an old downtown theater, served on local boards, took a child in from a troubled home and raised her as their own daughter.

The community “is in shock that he played them like that,” Vanduser said. “He tells a pretty good story.”

Vanduser said that, as of Sept. 22, no one in Pottawatomie County has come forward with information of other violations by Paulson.

After his arrest, Paulson’s wife in Oklahoma said her husband is “a good, honest, hardworking man” who started sharing the gospel at RV campgrounds and later gave sermons at his local church. “He very much loves the Lord,” she said at the time, adding, “People have a right to change. The man who is accused is not the man I’ve spent my life with. It’s not the same person.”

S.G. said Paulson recently wrote the family a letter, in which he seemed to be trying to drum up sympathy for himself. Despite his tell-all to a mental health provider and police, his years on the run, his assumed identities, his tone was “woe is me,” S.G. said.

S.G. said that seems to fit the pattern of a manipulator. She now views her ex-husband as “a narcissistic sociopath.”

And on Nov. 17 in Kitsap County Superior Court, at least one woman will face her childhood abuser.

“I have numbed my pain with drugs all my life,” she wrote the court. “I have been sober since August [2015]. In order to continue on my path to putting my life back together, I need to face my demon. That demon being [Paulson].”

— Richard Walker is managing editor of Kitsap News Group. Contact him at rwalker@soundpublishing.com.

 

Ronald Lee Paulson, 1980s. (Submitted photo)

Ronald Lee Paulson, 2016 booking photo. Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office