Guilt haunts Fargo sanitation worker who tried to save 14-year-old after brutal attack
“I feel guilty because I keep thinking I didn’t do enough for her," Patrick Peterson told The Forum. "What if I had done my job five minutes faster?”
FARGO — Not a day goes by when Patrick Peterson doesn’t think of his 11-week-old daughter, Cali Anna Mae, who died about 14 years ago of sudden infant death syndrome.
He’s the one who found her dead in her crib.
The trauma from that experience came flooding back last month when he discovered 14-year-old Daisy “Jupiter” Paulsen after she was randomly attacked outside a Fargo store.
He remembered holding his daughter in his arms, the screams in the room, the three minutes before police, fire engines and ambulances responded. The anguish of a father losing his daughter.
"When I found Jupiter, all of it just resurfaced. Another child, just the fact that finding another body I guess, it made it all real again," he said.
Originally from Canada, Peterson came across Jupiter on June 4 shortly after he began his shift as a sanitation worker for the city of Fargo.
He recently returned to the spot where he found Jupiter lying on the ground in an alley near Party City along 13th Avenue South. He remembered the skateboard she was using to get to her mother’s house and then to work was on its side.
A memorial for Jupiter with candles, pictures and toys sits a few feet from where Peterson found her. The flowers have wilted. Balloons have flattened. His voice cracked with sorrow when he revealed the guilt he still feels more than a month after the attack.
“This was the second child I found now, and I know how it goes when you don’t talk to anyone about it. It rips you apart,” Peterson said. “You can never get over the grief especially a child, a daughter, a niece, you just have to find a way to deal with it."
Peterson was driving a garbage truck when he first spotted Jupiter and the man accused of attacking her.
“I came around the corner ... and I got out. I was trying to figure out what was going on. He was beside her, his left hand was at her throat, his right hand was over her mouth. He got up and stared at me. He had a white shirt on, but it was covered in blood on the front,” Peterson said.
Right away, the sanitation worker dialed 911.
“As soon as I mentioned the cops,” Peterson said, “he took off.”
The 911 dispatcher talked him through life-saving procedures such as chest compressions, counting the rhythm for him over his cellphone. He stopped only after a police officer tapped him on the shoulder.
Jupiter died about four days later. She was choked and stabbed more than 20 times over the course of about 20 minutes, according to her father and court records. Her organs were donated to help save the lives of four people.
“I feel guilty because I keep thinking I didn’t do enough for her. What if I had done my job five minutes faster?” Peterson wondered.
“There is always going to be guilt for me. That will never change. She was 14 years old. She won’t get a chance to have a life. She was a happy-go-lucky kid that just wanted to put a smile on someone’s face,” Peterson said.
Peterson, like Jupiter’s father, Robert Paulsen, has questions he wants answered.
“Why do people keep getting a slap on the wrist when they’ve committed violent crimes? I don’t understand," Peterson said. "How do you let someone go like that?”
Peterson stopped talking for a moment, looking around at apartment complexes that are within shouting distance from the scene of the crime.
“Personally, I have a hard time believing nobody heard or saw anything,” Peterson said. “Everyone here is always me, me, me, and don’t want to get involved or help," Peterson said, adding that he didn't do anything special, just helped when he was needed.
The episode hasn’t left Peterson hardened or afraid. He still drives the same route every Friday, but it’s painful to revisit the scene, he said.
“In 20 years of driving, I’ve never come across something like this. I will still do my normal thing. If someone else needs help, I will help them. If anything, this experience has made more of an urgency to help others,” Peterson said.
“Take someone’s pain, take it and suppress it, and I’ll deal with it. If I have to live a miserable life, that’s fine,” he said.
The experience has created a special bond with Jupiter’s family, he said. They call him a hero and their guardian angel because his actions may have postponed her death.
Paulsen said Peterson gave him and his family the time they needed to say their goodbyes. Jupiter's mother, Antonia Johnson, called Peterson a guardian angel.
"I believe he is a hero for his efforts. The fact that he prolonged my daughter's death so she could have a fighting chance to live. He also gave us the chance to say our goodbyes and donate her organs, so to me, Patrick is a hero," Paulsen said.
“I don’t think I deserve it,” Peterson said of the family's praise of him. “I’m hoping he (Robert Paulsen) will find the change he’s looking for.”
After describing the scene from the day he found Jupiter, he pulled down his T-shirt, revealing a tattoo of his daughter Cali Anna Mae over his heart.
“If I can’t have her in this world with me, this is where she’ll be, close to my heart as possible,” Peterson said about his daughter.