Much like the case of Julie Love (which I wrote about here), the disappearance of Tiffany Sessions is etched in my mind as an indelible memory from the 1980s, helped in part by the fact that Tiffany Sessions and I were the same age and both college students at the time.
Tiffany disappeared from Gainesville, Florida, the same town that would be rocked by serial killer Danny Rolling a year and a half after her disappearance. The Gainesville Ripper?s (as Rolling was dubbed by the overzealous media) crimes and capture would take much of the national news away from Tiffany.
Tiffany was a student at the University of Florida, a junior majoring in finance. A serious student with a 3.5 GPA, she was twenty years old that February of 1989 and a pretty girl with blonde hair and brown eyes. Known for her quick smile, she was considered warm and friendly, always willing to help. She had begun a new exercise routine after Christmas break, around the beginning of her second semester, and typically took a power walk daily around five o?clock. She left her residence at the Casablanca East Condominiums shortly before five, telling her roommate she was going to take her normal walk. She was dressed in red sweatpants, a long sleeved white pullover sweatshirt with gray stripes, and Reeboks and carrying a black Walkman. The only other item Tiffany had with her was her ladies silver and gold Rolex watch. Her wallet, identification and keys were left in her home.
Several hours passed and Tiffany did not return to her apartment. Her roommate drove Tiffany?s usual route, hoping to spot her. When that proved fruitless, she phoned Tiffany?s mother, whom Tiffany normally phoned daily. Tiffany and her mother were close, as her parents had divorced when she was less than a year old. As her only child, Tiffany?s mother wanted her to be as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Not especially close to her father growing up, the two grew closer as Tiffany reached her teen years. A real estate developer who counted many athletes and politicians among his clients and friends, he inspired Tiffany to want to run her own company one day.
It was her mother who first notified authorities. The police initially were hesitant to consider that a crime occurred; Tiffany had not been missing for long and there was no crime scene, so far as they knew, and no signs of struggle in her apartment or parking lot.
Witnesses later came forward to say they had seen Tiffany that Friday evening, some saying she had been speaking to several unidentified individuals in a vehicle and possibly entering the vehicle. Authorities have never been able to confirm or deny these reports or whether that woman was Tiffany Sessions.
Patrick Sessions didn?t hesitate. With his connections, he organized one of the largest missing person search parties in Florida?s history. More than 700 volunteers showed up to search for his daughter, including University of Florida students, naval recruits from the Naval Training Center in Orlando, Marine reservists, and even members of the Miami Dolphins football team. A hotline number Pat set up received some 600 calls a day. He used the media, organizing a press conference, where Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, future governor Jeb Bush, and the host of America?s Most Wanted television show, John Walsh, who himself had lost a child to a predator, to speak and generate publicity on Tiffany?s disappearance. This caused Tiffany?s case to go national. Missing person posters, with Tiffany?s beaming face, were distributed throughout Florida and into the neighboring state of Georgia.
Two weeks after Tiffany went missing, her case was reclassified from a missing person to a kidnapping. Pat Sessions offered a $75,000 reward for information on his daughter.
Months into the investigation, a man contacted Pat, saying her knew of her whereabouts and that she was sick and needed medical attention. He asked for $250,000 from Pat and threatened Tiffany?s life. Caught by the FBI, it turned out the man was a professional con artist and his claim to know anything about Tiffany was a hoax. He was sent to prison for over six years.
By the fall of 1989, Pat increased the reward from $75,000 to $250,000 for her safe return. He also offered $100,000 for any information that would lead to Tiffany?s kidnapper(s).
With few solid leads, however, and headlines being taken over by the Gainesville Ripper murders in August of 1990, the case went cold.
In 1994 a missing child?s hotline received a tip about Tiffany. The caller claimed that Tiffany was being held against her will in Austin, Texas, with two other missing young women, Tracy Kroh and Elizabeth Miller. According to the tip, the three were being forced to work as prostitutes. Tracy had disappeared from Pennsylvania in 1989 and Elizabeth from Colorado in 1983 but the police departments from all three states (including Florida) got together to investigate before determining the tip was nothing but an elaborate hoax and the case went cold again.
Inmate Michael Knickerbocker, sentenced to life for the 1989 rape of a Gainesville college student the same age as Tiffany and the 1989 shooting death of a 12-year-old Starke girl, told fellow inmates that he had chained Tiffany to a tree the night of her disappearance and then murdered her shortly thereafter, disposing her body in the Calosahatchee River near Fort Myers. Authorities searched the area but found nothing of note, not wholly surprising given that the river could have taken any evidence quite a distance away and enough time had passed to destroy any remaining evidence. In August of 2002, investigators searched an area outside of Gainesville where he claimed to have buried her sweatshirt and recovered a piece of bloodstained material. Tests were run to determine if the blood matched Tiffany?s DNA but, to date, the results have not been announced. It has been rumored that the material does not match that of a sweatshirt. Furthermore, Michael Knickerbocker later claimed that his so-called confession was a cruel joke.
Finally, in February of 2014 the biggest break in the case happened as Alachua County named Paul Rowles as Tiffany?s abductor. Rowles appeared to have been a career criminal, sentenced to prison in 1976 for the 1972 Miami rape and murder of his neighbor. He was released in 1985, moved to Gainesville in 1988. In 1994, he crawled through a Clearwater apartment window and forced a 15-year-old girl at knifepoint to leave with him in his red Ford Bronco. Binding her with duct tape, en route to his apartment, he stopped off at some woods and remarked to her it was a good location to leave something he didn?t want found. Once at his apartment, he forced his victim inside and raped her. When he allowed her to go into another room to get a drink, she ran out and to a neighbor?s for help. Convicted, Rowles was sentenced to 19 years.
He was such a sociopathic and terrifying individual that his first wife, the one who came home one day to find out that her husband murdered their neighbor, refused, forty years after the crime, to sign a sworn statement against him, even as he lay dying of cancer in prison. After his death, DNA linked him to the unsolved 1992 homicide of Santa Fe College student Elizabeth Foster, whose body was found in a shallow grave only a mile from where Tiffany disappeared. Rowles was known to have worked at a construction project along Tiffany?s normal jogging path. Furthermore, in a day planner Rowles kept in prison he had noted the names of his victims, including the 15-year-old girl from Clearwater. While Tiffany?s name was not there, Rowles had the notation ?#2? written in on February 9, 1989, the date of Tiffany?s disappearance. Serial killers are notorious for remembering the dates of specific events in their ?careers.? If Paul Rowles killed Tiffany Sessions, she would indeed have been his second victim.
Rowles? day planner, found in his belongings after his death, with the notation of ?#2 2/9/89 #2?
In February of 2020, an area in northeastern Alachua County was searched for human remains after authorities received a tip in Tiffany?s case. Asking that the exact location not be revealed, it was a tract of commercial timberland that Paul Rowles was known to have frequented when the property was flush with pines. The witness who contacted the sheriff?s office stated that, although they were very young at the time, they remembered seeing a red truck along the roadway and a man who matched Rowles? description dragging a woman who matched Tiffany?s description off the road and into the woods. Although the witness? memory fit the timeframe of Tiffany?s disappearance, cadaver dogs were unable to detect or recover remains (although it was reported the dogs did alert and the evidence found at the site is being processed.)
Tiffany?s suspected killer, Paul Rowles
Tiffany Sessions is still missing and her case officially unsolved. Even with few facts it appears she went for what was a normal walk that late afternoon of February 9, 1989. On this day she went by herself rather than with her roommate, with sad consequences. Paul Rowles likely was at the construction site and saw Tiffany, a pretty victim of opportunity. He would have lured her with some type of ruse, abducted and assaulted her, and then killed her. Given that her Rolex watch has never turned up, despite its serial number being on a hot list, in all likelihood he buried Tiffany with that watch still on in the area where he would dispose of Elizabeth Foster three years later. Rowles would angrily deny to investigators shortly before his death that he had anything to do with Tiffany Sessions but killers are known to lie.
What about Michael Knickerbocker, who claimed to have chained Tiffany to a tree and killed her? More lies. Knickerbocker was not even in the Gainesville area when Tiffany disappeared so he should be ruled out completely as a suspect.
Paul Rowles was a known and convicted sex offender and murderer. Tiffany was the right age and in his ?territory.? Tiffany?s father Patrick believes that Rowles killed his daughter but so far, Tiffany hasn?t been found. A search of the ten-acre area where Elizabeth Foster was found has been conducted but finding human remains nearly thirty years after being buried or placed there is a long shot. The Sessions family would like to find Tiffany and bring her home.
If Tiffany were alive today, she would be turning 52 this October.
Anyone with information is urged to contact Det. Kevin Allen of the Alachua County Sheriff?s Office at (352) 384?3323 or by email at [email protected]
Tiffany in life