The Disappearance of Tiffany Sessions

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EARLY LIFE:

Tiffany Sessions was born on October 29, 1968 to her parents, Patrick and Hillary Sessions. An only child, her parents would divorce a few months shy of her first birthday, and she would eventually have a half-brother via her father’s second marriage.

The Sessions family were well-known in their south Florida community. Patrick was a popular marketing executive with a large real estate company and was the one to oversee the creation of Weston, known at the time as one of the biggest building projects in the United States. His love of business had an impact on his daughter, with Tiffany hoping to follow in his footsteps and one day run her own business.

Known by her nicknames “Tiffy”, “Tiffer” and “Peanut”, Tiffany was a girl with a bright smile and warm personality – someone who was always willing to help others. Known for living an active lifestyle, she participated in horseback riding, tennis and was known to love boating. She was also family-oriented, spending her school and summer breaks with her loved ones.

Growing up, Tiffany was very close to her mother and their relationship would remain strong into her early adulthood, with the pair speaking on the phone daily. Hillary, a member of the United States Air Force, travelled a lot and Tiffany was always by her side. Due to this distance, Tiffany wasn’t as close to her father, with the pair only growing closer upon her entering her teen years.

In 1989, Tiffany was a junior at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she was majoring in finance. Those around her knew how seriously she took her studies, given her aspirations for the future. While attending university, she resided at the Casablanca East Condominiums, located between Williston Road and Archer Road, in the 2600 block of Southwest 35th Place.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

Between 4:00pm and 5:00pm on February 9, 1989, Tiffany informed her roommate, Kathleen Frezza, that she would be going for a power walk along Williston Road, as part of the new exercise regime she’d started up after returning from Christmas break. The route would see her walk east on Southwest 35th Place to Hickory Apartments, a nearby apartment complex, before turning south toward Williston Road and down the western section the street, before turning around at the Nationwide Insurance Office.

As she was planning on being gone for only a short period of time, she left behind her wallet, keys and identification.

DISAPPEARANCE:

Kathleen was expecting Tiffany to be back at the apartment by 7:00pm, as she had a pharmacology exam on campus. However, several hours passed with no word from her roommate. Worried, Kathleen drove the route she would typically run, hoping to spot her, but saw no sign of her.

At 9:00pm, approximately five hours after Tiffany left the apartment, Kathleen alerted Hillary Sessions to her daughter’s disappearance. This led to the authorities being notified.

SEARCH:

Initially, the authorities did not handle Tiffany’s disappearance as a crime, given she hadn’t been missing all that long and they’d been unable to locate an actual crime scene. There was no indication the she’d left the apartment complex’s parking lot, nor were there any signs of a struggle inside or outside of her apartment. Despite this, they still had crews out searching for clues, but all came up empty. Two weeks after she went missing, the case’s status was changed from a missing persons investigation to a likely kidnapping.

Initially, investigators had a handful of potential persons-of-interest who they felt could have had a hand in Tiffany’s disappearance, these including a local motorcycle gang, a truck driver known as the Highway Killer, and a small-time drug dealer whom Tiffany had briefly dated. However, there was no evidence to link any of these individuals to the case.

Shortly after Tiffany told her roommate she was going out for a walk, numerous witnesses came forward to say they’d seen a woman matching her description speaking to several unidentified individuals in a vehicle. She may have gotten into the car herself, but they were uncertain, and police have never been able to confirm if the woman was, in fact, Tiffany.

Approximately one week after his daughter’s disappearance, Patrick organized one of the largest search parities in Florida’s history, with over 700 volunteers stepping up to help, including students from the University of Florida, Marine reservists, recruits from Orlando’s Naval Training Center, and members of the Miami Dolphins pro-football team. This was just one of the many steps he took to personally ensure that all was being done to find Tiffany.

Along with the search, he also set up a hotline which, at one point during the investigation, was receiving 600 calls a day, and he raised a substantial reward for information – $250,000 for her safe return and $100,000 for tips leading to the location of her kidnappers. Patrick also utilized the media to help spread word of the case. He organized a press conference with John Walsh, Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and future Florida governor Jeb Bush, which launched the case into the national spotlight.

A few months after Tiffany’s disappearance, Patrick held a meeting with the case’s main investigators, private detectives, forensic psychologists and a behavioural analyst from the FBI, all of whom were frustrated at the lack of leads in the investigation. They began to theorize of any and all possibilities, including if the kidnapping was a random act of violence, or if it was done by someone seeking revenge on Patrick or a male who had been romantically rejected by Tiffany.

Missing person flyers were distributed throughout Florida and into Georgia. Tiffany’s image was also featured on billboards across Florida, and the Rolex watch she was known to wear (and that was missing) was flagged, in case someone tried to sell or pawn it. It can be identified by its unique serial number, R-6009006.

Months into the investigation, a man contacted Patrick, saying he knew where Tiffany was and that she was sick and in need of medical assistance. He requested $25,000 from Patrick and threatened Tiffany’s life if he was not paid. This resulted in a wild goose chase across the Miami area before the FBI caught the man and proved the whole thing had been a hoax. He was subsequently sentenced to six years in prison for the crime.

This would be the first of three extortion attempts on the Sessions family.

In 1994, a missing child’s hotline was contacted, with the caller claiming Tiffany was being held against her will in Austin, Texas, along with two other women, Tracy Kroh, who had gone missing from Pennsylvania in 1989, and Elizabeth Miller, who had disappeared from Colorado in 1983. According to the anonymous caller, the three of them had been forced into prostitution by their abductors. Police departments from three states came together to investigate the potential lead, but later determined it to have also been a hoax.

There have been numerous witness sightings of Tiffany, including one that said she was working as a caregiver at an elderly centre in Hawaii. However, all of these reported sightings have been false alarms.

In 2007, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement handed out decks of cards to small jails in the state, which featured information about numerous unsolved cases, including Tiffany’s disappearance. New leads came in as a result of the cards, but few details have been released regarding them.

That same year, the Sheriff’s Office reported that they were pursuing two leads, one about a suspicious person and a vehicle description, and the other about a suspicious person who lived near Tiffany’s apartment at the time of her disappearance.

As of publishing, there have been no arrests or charges in relation to the case. Given she has not been seen since the day she disappeared, police are working on the theory that Tiffany was murdered. According to the FBI, the search for her is the largest in Florida’s history, as thousands of tips were called in and hundreds of people were involved in the investigation. They’ve shared that some of the tips have actually helped solve other unrelated crimes. Police are still digging up suspected gravesites and using cadaver dogs to search any areas of interest.

The Sessions family is currently offering a $25,000 reward for information regarding the case. They continue to work closely with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to find her remains and/or convict those involved in her disappearance.

Tiffany’s dental records and DNA are available for comparison. She has been compared to numerous Jane Does found throughout the United States, including the Sarasota County Jane Doe, Bitter Creek Betty, the 1990 Hillsborough Jane Doe and the Fond du Lac County Jane Doe.

SUSPECTS:

1) The prime suspect in Tiffany’s kidnapping and presumed murder is Paul Eugene Rowles, a convicted murderer and someone who was known to stalk women, break into their apartments and peep through their windows. He has a long criminal history, which features numerous crimes against women.

On March 31, 1972, he was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal murder of his neighbour, Linda Fida, but was released from prison in 1985 after completing a sex offenders program. In 1994, he was sentenced to 19 years for several offences, including sexual battery, lewd and lascivious molestation, and attempted sexual battery, in relation to the kidnapping of a 15-year-old girl from Clear Water, Florida in February of that year.

In 1990, he’d drawn the attention of authorities after the Gainesville student murders, this before drifter Danny Rolling plead guilty to the slayings. On April 16, 1991, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office questioned him after he was spotted in a wooded area on the south side of the city, near Bivens Arm Nature Park, behind a business in the 3500 block of South Main Street. They believed him to be a burglar, as he’d been caught with gloves and a towel, but the attending officers were not aware of his background and didn’t have any evidence that a break-in had occurred.

Rowles moved to Gainesville just nine months before Tiffany’s disappearance and he held down jobs delivering pizza for Pizza Hut and scaffolding equipment for Crom Equipment Rentals, the latter of which involved him attending a construction project along the missing woman’s jogging route. According to those who worked with him, he did not show up for work the day she was last seen.

Given his criminal history and evidence found in his jail cell after his death in February 2013, it’s believed he was a serial killer and that Tiffany was his second victim. Investigators found a notebook that contained information about the people he murdered, and while it did not directly name Tiffany, he had written the number “2” next to the date of her disappearance – “#2 2/9/89 #2” – and made possible references to two other victims, Linda Fida and another woman, 21-year-old Elizabeth Foster, whose body was found in a shallow grave only a mile from where Tiffany disappeared. Once they were able to link the cases, investigators searched the site where Elizabeth’s remains had been found, but found no trace of Tiffany.

Investigators spoke with Rowles’ second wife’s grandson, whom she’d raised as her own child, as his mother had given birth to him while she was a teenager. He said that he recalled Rowles giving his mother an expensive-looking watch for Christmas in 1993. This led the police to speculate on whether it could have been Tiffany’s missing Rolex watch. However, this lead led nowhere, as his mother was known to pawn a lot of jewellery and investigators were unable to find records regarding her pawning a watch.

In 2013, Patrick received an email from a woman, asking for his forgiveness surrounding a memory she wanted to recount. On February 10, 1989, she was just 16 years old and had decided to drive to her father’s for the night. He lived a few miles north of Gainesville. On the way, she’d rounded a curve in a rural wooded area, approximately 10 miles outside of the city, and saw a distressed blonde girl run into the middle of the road. Alarmed, the woman ran her car off the road and into the ditch. While trying to back out, she saw a man exit a red truck that was hidden along the tree line and approach the girl. Terrified, the woman immediately drove away and when discussing what she’d witnessed with her father, was told that what she’d seen was likely a lovers’ dispute. However, as she began to see news coverage of Tiffany’s disappearance, she wondered if the girl she’d seen had been the missing 20-year-old.

Patrick put the woman in touch with the police, who had her take a polygraph test and undergo hypnosis, in the hopes more details would emerge. They had her direct them to the the curve on Racetrack Road and team of cadaver dogs were sent to search the woods, but unfortunately they did not get any hits.

In 2014, a search was conducted of a 10-acre area on US Route 441, at Williston Road, near the Security Mini-Storage on Southwest 13th Street. The area was of interest because it was a mile from a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant. Investigators brought the woman Rowles had kidnapped back in 1994, as she had recalled them stopping at a restaurant sharing that name during her abduction. While she couldn’t be sure it was the same area, the woods had creeped her out enough for her to ask to be taken away.

Another search was conducted in February 2020, this time in an unspecified area of northeastern Alachua County. A tip had come in about it having been a place Rowles frequented while alive, with the witness saying they remembered seeing a red truck and a man matching his description dragging a woman who resembled Tiffany off the road and into the woods. The once-wooded area had been searched before, but as the land had since been cleared, a more thorough search could be done with the assistance of other law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, cadaver dogs were unable to detect or recover remains, although it has been reported they did alert to some sort of evidence, which is currently being processed.

The Sessions family, as well as investigators, believe him to be responsible for Tiffany’s disappearance, with police calling him the most significant suspect ever identified in the case. The case they have against him is circumstantial, as they have yet to find a DNA match to establish a link between him and Tiffany, but they say his documentation of the two other victims and the reference made to Tiffany is highly significant.

2) Michael Christopher Knickerbocker was initially considered a suspect in the case. A repeat sex offender, he had been convicted of numerous sex offences and other crimes, including the 1989 rape of a 20-year-old Gainesville college student and the first-degree murder of a 12-year-old girl from Starke, Florida.

According to a jailhouse informant, he’d told other inmates that he’d chained Tiffany to a tree near Gainesville, before murdering her and disposing of her remains on in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers, Florida on the night she went missing. A search was conducted of the area, but nothing of value was recovered. The informant also delivered a letter that had been written by Knickerbocker himself, but many related to the case feel it to be an empty boast, and Knickerbocker himself has said his confession was a cruel joke.

Knickerbocker is said to have also commented on the sweatshirt Tiffany had been wearing on the night she went missing, saying he’d buried it outside of Gainesville. In August 2002, investigators searched the location and recovered a piece of blood-soaked material, which did not appear to have come from the sweatshirt. DNA testing was conducted, but the results have not been made public.

At one point during the investigation, he was considered a strong enough suspect by Patrick and Hillary that they both signed letters giving their permission to Alachua County prosecutors to waive the death penalty if Knickerbocker led them to Tiffany’s remains.

It has been noted by many that Knickerbocker was living in the vicinity of his 12-year-old murder victim, whereas he wasn’t living in Gainesville at the time of Tiffany’s disappearance.

AFTERMATH:

Hillary wrote and published a book about Tiffany, titled Where’s My Tiffany? which describes the joy she experienced when raising her daughter and the sadness she’s felt as a result of losing her.

The Sessions family launched the Tiffany Sessions Project on Facebook, where they provided updates about the case, which coincided with a now-defunct website Patrick created. The Facebook page has not been updated since February 2015.

Hillary now dedicates her time to helping other children as the director of Child Protection Education of America, the second-largest missing children’s organization in the United States. Along with training kids on how to protect themselves in the event of an attempted abduction, it also group fingerprints them, distributes photographs of missing children and offers support for their families.

In February 2009, Hillary planted a memorial tree for Tiffany outside of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Tiffany Louise Sessions went missing from the 2600 block of Southwest 35th Place in Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida on February 9, 1989. She was 20 years old, and was last seen wearing a long-sleeved white pullover sweatshirt with grey horizontal stripes and the word “Aspen” stitched in green lettering along the lower front of the collar, red sweatpants, either blue or white low-cut Reebok sneakers, and a two-tone ladies’ silver and 18-karat gold Rolex watch with a blue-tinted face and the serial number R-6009006. She was also carrying a black Sony walkman radio. While her ears are each pierced once, she is not believed to have been wearing earrings at the time she went missing.

At the time of her disappearance, Tiffany stood at 5’3″ and weighed approximately 125 pounds. She had wavy, shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair with light blonde highlights in it, and her eyes are described as being either brown or hazel. Her teeth have numerous defining marks: her lower front too is chipped; she has different colour filling on several of her front teeth, the result of a horseback riding accident from when she was a child; and the middle tooth on her bottom jaw has no enamel. She also has numerous scars, including a crescent-shaped one on her left knuckle, with five stitch marks; several stitch marks on the top of her right ear from where a skate pick hit her; and possible scarring on the inside of both ears from previous operations.

Currently, the case is classified as endangered missing, with investigators working off the theory that Tiffany was murdered not long after her abduction. If alive, she would be 52 years old.

Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office at either 352-367-4000 or 352-384-3323. Tips can also be called in directly to the Cold Case Unit at 352-367-4161.

Image Credit: Florida Department of Law Enforcement

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