updated 11/13/2008 AT 6:00 PM ET
•originally published 11/14/2008 AT 9:00 AM ET
Last week, Paula Abdul got flowers with a note signed, “Love, J.T.” and the message, “Hope you’re doing great. Here’s my new cell number.”
Thinking they had come from her restaurateur boyfriend J.T. Torregiani, Abdul called him asking why he had changed his number, a source close to Abdul tells PEOPLE. When he said he hadn’t, Abdul knew immediately who really sent them: ex-American Idol contestant Paula Goodspeed, according to the source.
Over the last three years – since Goodspeed was dismissed from her disastrous Idol audition with derisive comments from judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson – Abdul has received more than 100 letters, numerous phone calls and uninvited visits from Goodspeed, the source says.
“The flower thing was really scary – Paula [Abdul] really couldn’t handle that. She was terrified,” says the source.
Changed Her Name to Paula
On Tuesday night, the body of the 30-year-old aspiring singer was found in a car near Abdul’s home in Los Angeles, an apparent suicide victim from what police believe was a drug overdose. Her mother had reported her missing, directing officers to Abdul’s neighborhood and expressing fears Goodspeed was suicidal.
Signs of Goodspeed’s infatuation with Abdul included her car’s personalized license plate “ABL LV” and a photo of Abdul hanging from the rearview mirror. During her audition, she said that she often drew pictures of Abdul and been drawing them since she was young.
Also, PEOPLE has learned, Goodspeed had changed her first name from Sandra to Paula.
But a relative of Goodspeed, who knew her well, disputes the characterization of her as a celebrity stalker.
She Was a "Good Person"
“She was a good person. She’d give the shirt off her back for anyone who needed it. She was not suicidal,” says her niece, Sonja McIntyre, 20, of Maine, who last spoke with her aunt about two months ago.
“She was cheery. She was excited,” says McIntyre. “She was coming back to Maine” – where Goodspeed grew up.
McIntyre confirms that Goodspeed changed her name from Sandra to Paula, but says she did it about 16 years ago and suggests the decision may not have had anything to do with Abdul. “She just liked the name Paula,” she says.
Although Abdul says she never voluntarily met Goodspeed since the audition, Goodspeed told her niece that she had met Abdul about a year ago – “at Starbucks or something,” she says – and that Goodspeed was “excited she got to meet such a big star.”
When McIntyre visited California, her aunt showed her Abdul’s house, but not in a way that suggested she was a stalker.
“Me and her went by Paula’s house a couple of times. That’s about it,” says the niece. “She was showing me where she lived. We liked looking at the huge condos out there … Why they found her dead in her car near Paula Abdul’s house, I do not know. But I don’t believe my aunt killed herself.”
Struggled as a Singer
Ed Faris, a producer/songwriter in Los Angeles, worked with Goodspeed on her fledgling singing career around 2005 or 2006, and remembered her as “a bit off the wall.”
“I was hired by her singing coach to help Paula record some songs,” he says. “She wore the craziest outfits. She’d show up to my home studio wearing fluorescent pants and skirts, with trinkets hanging off her jacket. She was a sweet person, very nice, but a little insecure.”
Once she started singing, though, Faris immediately knew she wouldn’t be taken seriously in the music industry.
“She was a bit delusional thinking she could make a career out of this, but she was so incredibly determined, so [the singing coach] and I tried to encourage her,” he says. “Paula did make a couple references to Paula Abdul, but nothing really out of the ordinary.”
During the recording process, Goodspeed struggled and “broke down and cried several times,” Faris says, and in the end they finished only one song and left two others incomplete. He sent the tracks to the singing coach, “and that was the last time I worked with Paula,” he says.
“I was shocked to hear about her death, I never thought it would come to that,” says Faris. “It’s just a sad situation all around.”
Reporting by JENNIFER GARCIA, LIZA HAMM and KEN LEE
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2000: Ending a 15-year obsession, Brooke Shields’ stalker is arrested
2005: Paula finally ends her battle with chronic pain