GAINESVILLE -- Twenty-five years of frustration, dead ends and pure heartbreak in the search for missing University of Florida student Tiffany Sessions are at an end, her father declared Wednesday as he announced that police believe she was murdered by a serial killer who died last year in a Miami-Dade prison.
“To me, the case is solved,” Patrick Sessions said by telephone as he watched earth-moving equipment dig up a swampy, wooded field on the south side of Gainesville in search of his daughter’s remains. “I’m convinced this is the guy who did it.”
The guy is Paul Eugene Rowles, who died of cancer last year in the prison hospital at the South Florida Reception Center.
Rowles, convicted of the murder of another young woman, died just as police were about to charge him with a second homicide, and was serving time for the abduction and sexual assualt of a third one who escaped.
Before his death, Rowles denied any connection to the 1989 disappearance and presumed murder of Tiffany Sessions.
But he left behind an address book containing notes about the victims of the other three crimes — and what police and Tiffany’s father believe is a coded reference to Tiffany’s disappearance. Rowles lived in the Gainesville area at the time she vanished, and worked delivering scaffolding to a construction site along the route she regularly walked for exercise — a walk from which she vanished on Feb. 9, 1989.
The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office offered a general confirmation Wednesday that it agreed with Sessions, but otherwise declined interviews. Officials said they would discuss developments in the case at a news conference Thursday morning at the site where the body of a woman they believe was one of Rowles’ victims was discovered in 1992.
Wednesday’s search focused on that area. Hidden behind the faded blue and beige façade of the closed sports bar Art of Billiards, with a caricature of a brawny, beaming University of Florida Gator shooting pool on its front, officers combed through trees and underbrush seeking Tiffany Sessions’ body.
The corner of U.S. 441 and Southeast Williston Road was busy with traffic from cars pulling into the BP and Texaco gas stations that flank the road.
Soundlessly behind the rumble, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Detective William Beck strung yellow caution tape around the slender tree trunks populating the wooded area behind the sports bar. A dirt path cut through the vegetation, revealing an idle excavator in the distance among the trees.
“We will be here all night if we have to,” Beck said.
The area being searched Wednesday yielded, more than two decades ago, another body: that of a college student from New Jersey named Elizabeth Foster, whose 1992 murder was eventually linked to Rowles.
Police at the time didn’t find anything connecting the two cases. But reporters who covered the investigation remember a chilling vignette: During a news conference on Foster’s murder, a woman raised her hand with a question.
“You know who I am,” said Hilary Sessions, Tiffany's mother.
“Yes,” the sheriff’s spokesman agreed somberly.
“Did you find any piece of evidence of Tiffany back there?”
“No, Hilary, we found nothing.”
Now, cops believe the two women shared not only the same grave but the same murderer. And their promise to keep searching was a grim echo of many, many police statements over the years as the Sessions case became Florida’s most famous and most frustrating missing-persons case.
In the weeks and months after Tiffany’s disappearance, the efforts of her parents to keep the police and public from forgetting about Tiffany — famous faces like Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and future Gov. Jeb Bush were often enlisted in the cause — yielded lots of ink and TV time, but few solid leads.
“We had a couple of suspects that looked good at one time or another, but nothing ever panned out,” Patrick Sessions, a Miami developer, said Wednesday. “I was frustrated that I didn’t accomplish much in 20 years. I got her name out there, but there was no arrest. Frankly, I looked at the whole effort as a failure.”
But the search took on renewed vigor about 18 months ago, when deputies began taking a closer look at another Alachua County cold case using new DNA-testing techniques to zero in on a suspect in the 1992 rape-murder of Santa Fe College student Elizabeth Foster.
The suspect was Rowles, convicted in two previous violent sex crimes. In 1972, he slipped into the apartment of Linda Fida, a neighbor in North Miami’s Robin Hood Apartments, while she went downstairs to the laundry room. When she returned, he raped and strangled her.
Though convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1976, Rowles was released after completing a program for sex offenders. (“Some idiot judge let him out and he went on to ruin the lives of three more families,” Sessions said bitterly Wednesday.) Rowles went back to prison, sentenced to 19 years, after kidnapping a Clearwater teenager and driving her to Jacksonville, where he raped her. Whatever other plans he may have had were thwarted when she escaped and called police.
Rowles had been a suspect in the murder of Foster for some time, but the presence of his DNA on her corpse convinced police that he was the killer, and they turned the case over to prosecutors. They decided to question him about Tiffany Sessions, who disappeared about a mile from where Foster’s body was found.
Rowles, already ravaged with cancer, angrily denied having anything to do with Tiffany. After the cops gathered more evidence, they wanted to question him again, but by then he had slipped into a coma from which he never awakened.
“The police, though, just wouldn’t let it go,” Patrick Sessions said. “They decided to look through his personal effects for clues.”
Police tracked Rowles’ meager belongings to Tennessee, where they were stored in the garage of the former prison priest who had received them from Rowles. “The police had to really do some talking — the guy really didn’t want to give them the stuff — but eventually they persuaded him,” Sessions said.
Among the belongings were the address book and appointments diary, ironically published by a Bible-study company. On facing pages, Rowles had jotted names, addresses and ages of the three victims to whom police had already linked him.
Tiffany Sessions’ name did not appear in the address book. But on a page with a calendar is written “2/9/89” — the date she disappeared — and “#2.” If Tiffany was indeed abducted by Rowles, she would have been his second victim.
The diary, coupled with what he says is supporting evidence not yet released, is enough to convince Patrick Sessions that Rowles killed his daughter.
“He had the means and the motive — he was a convicted sex offender — and he was in the area at the right time,” Sessions said. “He drove deliveries right next to the place where she walked every day. He also delivered pizzas and could have met her that way. And I don’t know how you explain the stuff in the address book any other way.
“The case isn’t closed. We want to get more evidence. And obviously I’d like to bring Tiffany home. If we’re not lucky — I guess that’s the word — to do that, I hope we can at least get more corroborative evidence. That’s why we’re making such a big deal about this.
“Maybe somebody who knew Rowles will say, hey, I know something about this, somebody who doesn’t know they know something important. Or maybe somebody who was in jail with him heard him say something.
“But I know he did it. This is the one.”