On the trail of a serial killer

 

The 1989 murder investigation of a then 20-year-old Tiffany Sessions of Miami-Dade is a tapestry of the uncertain, the infuriating, and the heartbreaking.

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

In all the agony and exhaustion and ennui of 25 years of searching for his lost daughter, Tiffany, Patrick Sessions still remembers the exact chilling moment that foretold what he was really up against. Just a few months after Tiffany vanished while taking a walk near her Gainesville apartment, her real-estate developer father had convened a meeting of half a dozen or so frustrated investigators — cops, private detectives, forensic psychologists — who had fruitlessly been chasing the few, fleeting clues in the case.

“We were still wrestling with the question of was there any logic to this,” Pat Sessions recalls. “Had it been done by somebody she turned down for a date? Was it somebody I had fired or somebody who didn’t like me and was seeking revenge? Or was it some drifter who came in off the highway and then left again?

“One of the guys there was from the FBI behavorial analysis unit in Quantico, Virginia. He listened to us for a while, and finally he interrupted. ‘We know of at least 50 serial killers out there,’ he said. ‘We have no idea where they are or what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. And any one of them could have taken Tiffany.’ And I just sat there, frozen, not knowing what to think or say.”

The Sessions investigators didn’t know it, but they were already groping their way along the trail of a serial killer. Its faint outlines wouldn’t become apparent for more than two decades and its end still hasn’t been reached.

Police two months ago declared the case solved after they discovered what appeared to be a coded reference to her death in an old address book belonging to Paul Rowles, a sexually tormented serial killer who died of lung cancer in a South Florida prison hospital a year earlier.

Rowles was convicted of one murder, more than 40 years ago in Miami, and shortly before he died was conclusively linked by DNA evidence to another, in Gainesville. A third victim narrowly escaped death, running naked from his Jacksonville apartment after being kidnapped and raped. His address book contains notes on two of those victims, as well as the apparent reference to Tiffany.

But police haven’t closed the investigation and are still pursuing leads — digging up suspected grave sites, patrolling deserted fields with cadaver dogs, hunting for Tiffany’s jewelry and a vehicle that may have transported her body, even searching homes. The information they found in Rowles’ address book, though compelling, falls well short of certitude. It probably wouldn’t even be enough to charge him if he were still alive.

“Our case is circumstantial,” admits Kevin Allen, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office cold-case detective who’s running the investigation. “But it’s significantly circumstantial. The fact that he documented two other victims alongside the reference to Tiffany is highly significant.

“He’s by far the most significant suspect ever identified in the case.... If we could just find the wristwatch she was wearing when she disappeared and tie it to him, or find her DNA in his old vehicle, that would close the final link.”

For Allen, the continuing investigation into a 25-year-old disappearance where there’s no hope of either saving the victim or punishing the culprit is an effort to close that final link. For Tiffany’s parents — who accept without reservation the identification of Rowles as her killer — there’s a much simpler reason to keep looking.

“I don’t want Tiffy out in a field, under a tree or a rock,” her mother Hilary says. “I want her back, even it it’s just one bone. I want to give her a Christian burial and know she’s come home.”

Until then, investigators will continue charting the trail of Paul Rowles. Their search, as pieced together by the Miami Herald through interviews with police, prosecutors, and victims, as well as hundreds of pages of court documents and police reports, is a tapestry of the uncertain, the infuriating, and the heartbreaking. For every Aha! moment there are a dozen Oh no! moments. There have been heroes, to be sure, but mostly there have been victims

LINDA SHAFFER

The trail begins in 1969 in St. Petersburg, where pretty blonde Linda Shaffer and one of her girlfriends were driving a downtown street that was a regular weekend cruising spot for local college kids like them. To their surprise, a lean young blond guy with a tousled surfer look boldly jumped into the back seat.

His name was Paul Rowles, he said, he was 21 — just a few months older than Linda, who was nearing her 21st birthday — and he worked in the restaurant in the Holiday Inn. Taken with his brash charm, Linda gave him her phone number.

Perhaps, if she had known more about him, she wouldn’t have. Rowles grew up in Pennsylvania in a home that was irretrievably broken even if all the pieces were still clustered together.

His mother, a nurse, had a nervous breakdown following a hysterectomy and was in and out of mental hospitals the rest of her life, sometimes undergoing what doctors now call electroconvulsive therapy but in those days was known as shock treatment. His father, who worked in the steel mills, had a drinking problem, a hitting problem and, eventually, a problem with life itself. He tried to hang himself, but the rope broke.

Paul was kicked out of the house at age 18, but he took some serious scars with him. He would later tell court-appointed psychiatrists that he started fantasizing about raping women and torturing them with hot curling irons when he was just 12. He peeped at windows. Sometimes he tried on women’s bras and panties; other times he stole them from the closet of friends’ mothers and chopped them up and burned them.

Even before his obsessions turned obviously sexual, Paul had a fascination with violence. At age 8, he told one psychiatrist, he tried to strangle a cat. During that same interview, in 1994, Paul freely discussed his sexual abberations and violent fantasies, his murder and attempted rape of one woman and his kidnapping and sexual molestation of a teenager. Noted the psychiatrist in his report: “The only time he sheds any tears is when he discusses the cat.”

But Linda would learn of Paul’s darker side only much later. For now, she was delighted that he called to take her to dinner and gave her an expensive handbag for her birthday. Soon they were seeing each other several times a week.

Linda didn’t return calls from the Miami Herald. But in conversations with friends and interviews with police, she said she loved the way he was affectionate without being sexually demanding. He was “old-fashioned,” he said, and would never be unfaithful; what he was searching for was “stability.”

Apparently he found it. Their relationship not only survived but flourished in 1970 as Linda moved to Atlanta for five months of flight-attendant training from Delta Airlines. She was assigned to fly out of Miami; they moved to Hialeah, where Paul played tennis and attended junior-college classes while Linda flew, and doted on her when she was home.

The only thing Linda found odd was the scarcity of their sex life. Even in the high passion of a new romance, Paul wanted sex only once a week. Soon it was once a month, then not all. Relatively sexually inexperienced herself, she thought perhaps she was doing something wrong.

But it didn’t seem to cast a pall over their relationship. Things got more serious, and after moving to Miami, they married at a nearby Lutheran church. The minister, Joe Nilsen, became their closest friend.

One morning in April 1972, Linda called Nilsen. “Open your newspaper,” she said. Nilsen didn’t have to guess which story she wanted him to read; it was the one with the headline BANDAGE LED TO SUSPECT, the one that reported Paul was under arrest for murder.

LINDA FIDA

No criminal in his right mind would have picked the Robin Hood Apartments, a small complex on Northwest Second Avenue in North Miami, to commit a murder. The buildings’ occupants, mostly rising young professionals, included seven cops, two newspaper reporters and a prosecutor. No crime committed there would go unnoticed or uninvestigated.

And the security was pretty good, too. The apartment of real-estate agent Joseph Fida and his wife Linda, for example, had a sturdy Yale lock, a deadbolt latch and two chain locks. The Fidas were typical of the Robin Hood’s bright-eyed, just-getting-started tenants: He was attending the University of Miami’s ROTC program by day, training to be a U.S. Navy pilot after graduation, while selling real estate at night. Linda, a beauty queen — second place in the Miss North Miami pageant two years earlier, was doing secretarial work.

“I guess life was stacking up pretty well for us,” Joseph Fida mused last week from his home in Kansas City. “I had a good marriage — less than a year earlier, we were still newly-weds — a good career, a new car. We were moving toward the American dream. Obviously, all that changed.”

Despite all those boisterous cops barbecuing their dinners in the courtyard most nights, despite all those locks, someone got into the Fidas’ apartment early in the evening of March 31, 1972 and murdered Linda. Joseph found her naked body, head underwater, in the bathtub, stab wounds in her breast, when he came home from work that night.

Laundry scattered around the living room, flecked with blood but otherwise clean, offered a clue about how she was killed — surprised while returning from a downstairs washing machine — and two abandoned Band-Aids offered one about who did it. Each was molded into a circular shape, like a ring, as if they had been wrapped around something about the size of a big toe. And clearly embedded in the adhesive part of one of the bandages were the sharp ridges and whorls of a toe print.

The police who flooded into the Robin Hood after Joseph Fida’s frantic call didn’t make much progress the first night; nobody had seen anything. But the next night, one of the Fidas’ downstairs neighbors called James Woodard, an assistant state attorney who lived in the complex and whose apartment had been turned into a command post for the investigation.

“There’s somebody in the aparment upstairs! I can hear them!” exclaimed the young woman. “Isn’t it all sealed with crime-scene tape? Could the killer have come back?”’

Woodard promised to check, then asked if the woman had a safe place to wait. Yes, she said, giving the apartment number of a married couple who lived elsewhere in the complex. Woodard hurried toward the murder scene, where he found the door ajar. Inside he saw a cop accompanying the widowed Joseph Fida, who was packing some of his wife’s clothing to take to the funeral home.

Relieved, Woodard went to the apartment where the alarmed neighbor had gone to wait. She opened the door, and introduced him to her friends: a married couple relatively new to the complex from Hialeah, Paul Rowles and Linda Shaffer. Woodard quickly explained that everything was okay, then hurried away before his face gave anything away: On Paul’s sandaled feet, his big toes were wrapped in Band-Aids.

“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he was probably the guy who did it,” recalled Woodard, now in private practice in Coconut Grove, last week. “I called the police and said, ‘I think I’ve got your man.’”

A couple of days later, after obtaining Paul’s toe prints with a ruse and matching one to the print in the Band-Aid, police arrested him. He was quiet, but Linda Shaffer wasn’t. “I don’t even want to repeat what she said, strong language and bad names,” remembers Marshall Frank, the now retired homicide investigator who arrested him. “She thought we were bullying him. Saying stuff like ‘He would never, ever do a thing like this, you’ll see, you’ll see.’”

Her rage didn’t last long. It took homicide investigator Marshall Frank less than an hour to obtain Paul’s full confession. As he would in another case more than a decade later, when confronted with overwhelming evidence against him, Paul crumbled.

“We weren’t browbeating him or causing him any stress,” Frank says. “We talked for a while about other stuff, things he liked to do, just conversation. Then I said, ‘Look, tell me about the urges. We understand how you feel, other people have urges too, it’s not just you.’

“He told me it started when he was a kid, that he’d been close to attacking women before, he’d actually gone out to attack women, but something had always happened to stop it. In particular, he told me about being in an elevator with a girl, and he was just ready to jump when she said something nice and it turned him off.”

Even so, Paul insisted, he had intended only to rape Linda Fida, not kill her. Peering from the peephole of his apartment, right across a passageway from hers, he watched her walk up and down the stairs carrying laundry. When she left the last time, he slipped across the hall to try her door and found it unlocked. He waited behind it and jumped her when she returned. As he tore her clothing off, he held some of the laundry over her face so she couldn’t see him.

“Instead of trying to keep from getting choked, she got the clothes off her face to see who it was,” Paul said as a police stenographer took down his words. “Then I know she knew what I looked like and I kind of went out of control...Things went a little fuzzy.”

He choked her with his hands, stabbed her with one knife until the blade bent, went to the kitchen to get another, stabbed her some more and finally held her face under water in the bathtub “for five or six minutes” to be sure she was dead. (A medical examiner would later conclude Linda Fida didn’t survive past the choking.) He also tried to rape her but “nothing happened.” Years later, Paul would tell a psychiatrist that he slipped on a woman’s wig and blouse before sneaking into the Fidas’ apartment. “He said he thought it was a disguise and if the act had more sexual meaning, he did not know it,” the psychiatrist noted.

Paul also cleared up a smaller mystery that had intrigued the police: the Band-Aids. He regularly banged up his toes playing tennis, Paul said, and wore the Band-Aids to cover the ugly damage.

As he confessed, Woodard, the prosecutor who lived at the Robin Hood, listened raptly outside the door, aghast at what he heard. “I had never encountered a person quite like this, not before and not since, either,” Woodard says. “He was a complete sociopath. He didn’t seem disturbed at all by what he had done.”

Paul’s wife Linda Shaffer was equally horrified. When she asked him about the murder, he said only: “It was something I had to do...I’ve always had a problem with women.” She helped with his defense, selling his car to hire an attorney and continued to visit him regularly in jail. She even agreed to stay married to him for a while for the sake of appearances during his trial.

But every new revelation brought fresh revulsion. A member of Paul’s defense team, she would say later, told her that he would work to spare Paul the death penalty, but not to get him out of jail, because he would almost certainly kill again. “You may be the only woman in the world safe from him,” the man said. “He really loves you.”

She wasn’t reassured. About a year after his arrest, she visited Paul in the forensic ward of a state psychiatric hospital in Pembroke Pines. She was seeing other men, she told him, and was going to file for divorce. The news infuriated and depressed Paul — “He just snapped,” Nilsen the minister told police later — and Linda never saw him again.

But she heard from him, plenty. His long letters continued to arrive for another 10 or 15 years. She never answered, destroyed all her photos of Paul, and even most old pictures of herself. When police asked her for a photo earlier this year, she couldn’t find one before age 30. Over the years, her terror of her ex-husband had grown so much that she wouldn’t give the cops a sworn statement about him, even though he had been dead for a year.

And perhaps she was right. Nearly until the day he died, Rowles wore homemade paper rings, one on each finger, bearing her name, the date of their wedding, and — take your picking, chilling or tender — terms of endearment like “the love of my life.” And among his personal effects were letters indicating he had tried to tried to hire private detectives to find her.

KATHRYN FORGUSON

As it turned out, no extraordinary legal efforts were necessary to keep Paul out of the electric chair. A few months after his arrest, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively abolished all capital-punishment laws. It would take states several years to fashion new ones. Paul pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Affable and well-behaved when not in the grip of his lurid obsessions — “he was a nice person who, to make an analogy, was possessed by demons,” says Frank, the homicide cop who got his confession — Paul got along well in prison. After a few years, with some junior-college business administration courses under his belt, he was assigned to work in an accounting office. His supervisor was a woman his same age named Kathryn Forguson. They fell in love.

Kathryn herself in 1984 would write to what was then known as the Florida Parole and Probation Commission that “It wasn’t long after I began working with Paul when we both realized a relationship was developing between us going beyond that of employer/employee.” They were in love, planned to marry and have a family, she declared.

Florida abolished parole in 1995. But before that, all convicted felons were eligible for early release from prison on parole, no matter what their crime. And in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the legal pendulum swung toward longer sentences with compulsory minimums, they often got it.

“It was absolutely common for a person sentenced to life on a homicide charge to be out in seven or 10 or 12 years,” says Woodard, the former prosecutor. “That was a life sentence in those days. I saw it many, many times.”

Many law-enforcement investigators who’ve had access to a broader cross-section of Paul’s prison records believe that Kathryn, who was divorced and had two daughters, carefully coached him on fashioning himself into a good candidate for parole, directing him toward prison rehabilitation programs that impressed parole hearing officers.

His parole commission file is stuffed with letters from her, promising to get him a job after release and festooned with sociological buzz phrases (”self-initiated psychotherapy...self-punish aspects of Paul’s personality...real inward changes which will ensure lasting success in returning to the mainstream of society”) that were popular with inmate-rehabilitation officials.

In one letter, she even suggested that Paul was as much a victim as the woman he murdered: “Perhaps the commission could have broadened their concept of ‘victim’ to include Paul. Paul’s crime was an outgrowth of many years of suffering physical and emotional abuse as a child.”

The strategy worked: Paul was released shortly before Christmas, 1985. He married Kathryn and they moved with the two daughters to the St. Petersburg area.

The idea that Paul was as innocent as the women he killed outrages their relatives. They believe Kathryn was cynically manipulated to engineer what amounts to a legal jailbreak. “I work in corrections myself,” says Joseph Fida, whose company provides services to inmates inside prison. “But that’s — I don’t know — a shocker, that he got out after 13 years. I thought somebody with a life sentence would do a hard 40, or at least 20 or 30 years. Thirteen just doesn’t seem right.”

If Kathryn truly foresaw a happy, stable marriage, she was disappointed. Life in their household was tense and fractured. Her teenaged daughters detested Paul. One would tell police later that he was “a monster” who beat her so badly she ran away. Paul himself confessed to having sexual fantasies about one of the girls. The atmosphere in the house was so grim that Paul would move out for months at a time, though he and Kathryn lied about it to his parole officer.

After both Kathryn and Paul lost their jobs, the family moved to Gainesville. Paul worked as a delivery man, both for Pizza Hut and a construction company putting up scaffolding. When he was interviewing for the job at the construction company, the owner -- working from a standard set of questions -- asked if he was on probation or parole.

“Yes,” Paul acknowledged promptly, then told an odd lie: He had gone to prison for stabbing his father to death during a beating. The owner, impressed with his candor, hired him anyway.

Employees at both companies noticed that Paul seemed shy, even uncomfortable, in the presence of women. But if they weren’t looking, he would give the pretty ones a hungry stare. One of the construction workers later told cops that Paul liked his Pizza Hut job better because of the opportunities to spot women. “I had a really good night last night,” he reported after one shift of deliveries to attractive women.

But Gainesville also had its down side: Paul brushed shoulders with police. As a registered sex offender, he was asked for blood and hair samples and fingerprints in connection with the so-called Gainesville Ripper murders, the sexually depraved 1990 killings of five University of Florida students. (Another man eventually confessed to the killings.)

And on April 16, 1991, he was stopped in the wee hours of the morning prowling buildings near the Bivens Nature Park, a small, shady woodland on the south side of Gainesville. As cops approached him, he dropped a pair of gloves and a towel, then denied they were his.

The police, who suspected he was a burglar, let Paul go after they couldn’t find any evidence of a break-in. Not knowing his background, they didn’t consider another possibility: that he was planning to window-peep, or worse.

TIFFANY SESSIONS

Tiffany Sessions, 20, wearing the silver-and-gold Rolex watch that she almost never took off, went out for her regular walk on Feb. 9, 1989, and never came back. There were plenty of suspects — a local motorcycle gang, a small-time drug dealer Tiffany dated briefly, even a Texas trucker known as the Highway Killer who kept a traveling torture chamber in the cab of his rig who might have been passing through Gainesville at the time — but virtually no evidence.

The most serious suspect, for years, was a murderer and serial rapist named Michael Knickerbocker who committed some of his crimes in Alachua County. Knickerbocker came under suspicion after cops got a handwritten letter from an anonymous prison inmate saying he’d overheard Knickerbocker bragging about murdering Tiffany and selling her Rolex. “I hope you catch him so they can electrocute him,” the letter said.

The letter turned out to have been written by Knickerbocker himself. He was questioned many times over the next decade. Sometimes he said the letter was just an empty boast. Other times he was coy, dropping hints that it was true. He was an intriguing enough suspect that both Pat and Hilary Sessions signed letters giving their permission to Alachua County prosecutors to waive the death penalty if he would confess and tell them where Tiffany was buried.

“If you go back in old clippings, you’ll find a bunch where I’m quoted as saying that I’ll be the most surprised guy in the world if Knickerbocker doesn’t turn out to be involved,” says a rueful Pat Sessions. “And here I sit, surprised.”

What neither Pat Sessions nor anyone else knew was that Tiffany’s regular walking route took her by the construction site where Paul Rowles worked.

BETH FOSTER

Elizabeth Foster — everybody called her Beth — was a 21-year-old from New Jersey, studying sociology at Gainesville’s Santa Fe College. On March 15, 1992, she told her roommate she was going to Bivens Nature Park to read a book. She was never seen again. Eleven days later, her battered body was found in a marshy wooded area across the road from the park, the place where police questioned Rowles a year earlier.

Three months later, Paul Rowles abruptly left Kathryn and moved to Jacksonville.

THE TEENAGER

As 1993 drew to a close, Paul was back in touch with Kathryn, first by telephone, then with personal visits. After a long Christmas visit to the Clearwater apartment where Kathryn now lived, the couple decided to reconcile, and Paul prepared to move his belongings back from Jacksonville.

But then he saw the 15-year-old girl who lived in the apartment upstairs from Kathryn’s, sunbathing in a bikini behind the building. And his old fantasies of kidnapping and rape returned, occasionally at first, then three or four times a day, he would tell a psychiatrist. He began breaking into her apartment to steal the girl’s underwear.

After his return to Jacksonville to pack, the fantasies turned non-stop. He even drove his red Bronco over to Clearwater some mornings to steal more underwear; he knew from careful observation that everybody in the girl’s apartment had left for school or work by 8:30 a.m. on weekdays.

On Feb. 2, 1994, Paul made another of his underwear expeditions to Clearwater. But when he climbed through the apartment window this time, he got a suprise: The girl wasn’t feeling well and had stayed home from school.

Paul grabbed her by the throat, warned her to be quiet if she wanted to live, and made her write a note to her mother saying she had gone out with friends. Then he forced her to take off her clothes and fondled and molested her, an action he would repeat several times over the next few hours.

After taping her hands together and her eyes shut, placing sunglasses over them and putting her in a fully reclined seat in his Bronco, Paul drove the girl to Jacksonville. Along the way, he stopped to pick up hamburgers at a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant on the south side of Gainesville. They went to a wooded area about a mile away, where Paul loosened the girl’s bonds so she could eat.

As they gazed out at the woods while munching their burgers, Paul seemed contemplative. “This is a place where people go to throw things away,” he reflected. the girl, who knew nothing of Paul’s past, thought the remark peculiar, but ultimately meaningless.

When they reached Jacksonville, Paul raped the girl. By now, certain their encounter would end with her death — she’d seen his face and knew exactly who he was — the girl tried to buy time by acting cooperative. Why not rest and watch TV for a while, she told him, and they could have sex again later? Paul was agreeable.

He popped some TV dinners in the oven, and when he went to check on them later, the girl unlocked the front door, shoved aside a tire Paul had used to block it, and raced to a neighboring apartment to seek help.

Paul was quickly arrested. When police questioned Kathryn back in Clearwater, she was certain he was innocent and that the girl had his identity confused with that of a man in a neighboring apartment. Even so, her support for her husband seemed to waver for the first time. She told the cops that “Paul was very smart and he could plan any crime that he put his mind to,” according to a police report.

And, she confided, their sex life had always been a frustrating one. Paul hadn’t been able to have an orgasm while making love with her in many years.

As he did in the Linda Fida murder case, Paul quickly confessed to kidnapping and molesting the girl. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison for armed kidnapping and sexual battery of a minor. But that was just a technicality; because his parole on the murder conviction was revoked, he would be in prison the rest of his life. A court-appointed psychiatrist said Paul was resigned to his fate. “He has not asked that he be set free,” the psychiatrist wrote, “but that he would like to get some help for his sexual fantasies which he feels he has no control over.”

The psychiatrist seemed to have little doubt that was true. He noted that Paul had been given the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a test designed to detect, among other things, psychopaths. Paul “so grossly endorsed and exaggerated psychopathology that his test was invalid,” the psychiatrist wrote. Whatever was wrong with Paul was literally off the scales.

PAUL ROWLES

Both trails — that of the wounded and dead victims left by Paul, and the one followed by the Tiffany Sessions investigators — went cold in the mid-’90s. Paul led a quiet life in prison; many inmates who served time with him don’t remember him at all, even when shown a photograph.

The Sessions investigation kept attracting psychics (some apparently well meaning, some out to score a quick buck), wily con men, and the just-plain-crazy, but practically nothing resembling actual leads. Tiffany’s parents quietly stopped referring to her in the present tense. Even in their most fanciful moments, they no longer believed she was coming back. “I thought all our efforts, the whole thing, had been a big waste,” says Pat Sessions. “We had nothing to show for it.”

The first big break in the case came in February 2012, from cold-case cops using new screening techniques to check DNA found in a substance on Beth Foster against that of known sex offenders who were living in Gainesville at the time of her murder. The surprised police got a match on Paul Rowles.

A few years earlier, the DNA evidence — for which there was no other plausible explanation than that he was the murderer — probably would have made Paul confess, just as he had when confronted with overwhelming evidence in the Linda Fida murder and the kidnapping of teenaged the girl.

But by 2012, his lungs were being eaten away by cancer and he was in serious pain from a leg broken in a prison accident. He refused to discuss the Beth Foster case at all.

The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, nonetheless, considered the DNA definitive evidence of his guilt, and they turned the case over to prosecutors to file murder charges. And now Paul was on their radar for the Tiffany Sessions case, too. Two female deputies went to the prison hospital at the Dade Correctional Institution, where Paul was being held, to question him about Tiffany; but, in obvious pain as well as his customary discomfiture with women, he sent them away. Prison officials said the once-gregarious Paul had removed all the names from his list of approved visitors; he didn’t want to talk to anybody, about anything.

Six months later, the newly hired cold-case detective Allen made questioning Paul his first priority. “But when I got there, it was pretty obvious that we were too late,” Allen says. Paul had been moved to a bed in the Kendall Regional Medical Center where he lay in a coma, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator. Allen, wary of an inmate scam, tried to question him anyway, then left a picture of Tiffany Sessions by his bed where Paul would see it if he woke up.

He didn’t. On Feb. 13, 2013, Paul Rowles died. But he didn’t take all his secrets with him. He left behind two caches of photos, paperwork and personal effects — one at the prison, another with his old minister and only friend in the world, Joe Nilsen.

When Allen called to ask if he could see the box of papers Nilsen had, the minister — now living in Tennessee — was reluctant. “Paul is dead,” he said. “I don’t want his name besmirched any further.”

“Just take a look at Tiffany Sessions.com, would you?” Allen begged, referring to a website on the case maintained by Tiffany’s parents. “And see if that doesn’t change your mind.”

Minutes later, a clearly spooked Nilsen called back. “I’ll give you the box, I’ll give you anything you want, I’ll do anything at all that you think will help,” he promised. The picture of Tiffany Sessions, he explained, looked so much like Paul’s first wife Linda Shaffer that they could have been sisters.

It took two months for Allen to round up all of Paul’s papers. He skimmed through some of them, then opened up a small red address book. First his eye was caught by entries for the murdered Linda Fida and the kidnapped teenager. Then he saw a curious notation: #2 2/9/89 #2.

“I literally staggered against another officer who was standing beside me,” said Allen. “Literally. Because if there’s one date that is engraved on my brain from the Tiffany Sessions investigation, it’s Feb. 9, 1989, the day she disappeared. And she would have been his second victim.”

DANGLING THREADS

From the moment Allen saw that coded little note, so small and yet so full of meaning, neither he nor anyone else involved in the investigation has doubted that Paul Rowles kidnapped and murdered Tiffany Sessions. But the investigation has never stopped, either.

Police dug up 10 acres of the woods where Beth Foster was buried, going down four feet, without finding anything. The site is about a mile from a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant, and the girl Rowles abducted was brought in to see if she recognized as the place where Paul told her that people used to get rid of things. She couldn’t say for certain, but the woods creeped her out so badly that she asked police to take her away.

Searching for Kathryn Forguson, Allen discovered she has disappeared into the mists of dementia and is confined to a nursing home. Where, exactly, remains a mystery; her daughters, now in their 40s, angrily refuse to talk to police. “Paul Eugene Rowles is DEAD! He was and is NO PART of our family! ...You are causing me stress and anxiety and I WILL SUE YOUR ASS and HAVE YOUR BADGE if you continue to harass us,” one daughter wrote in an email. She didn’t respond to messages from the Miami Herald.

Allen had better luck with the son of one of the daughters, a young drifter named Andrew. The result of a teenage pregnancy, Andrew was raised by Kathryn Forguson as her own, and he grew up thinking of Paul as a father figure. He provided Allen with a knife once owned by Paul, told him of a box of Kathryn’s “personal papers and memorabilia” that’s in the hands of one of her daughters, and even pointed out one of Paul’s old houses where he lived apart from the family. Police got the occupants’ permission for a search, hoping to find an old bloodstain or concealed evidence in the attic, to no avail.

Most significantly, he told police that Paul gave his mother an expensive-looking gold watch for Christmas in 1993, which she later pawned. Could it have been Tiffany Sessions’ missing Rolex? Andrew took police to the pawn shop, which was able to dig up old records confirming that Kathryn sometimes pawned jewelry there — but nothing about a watch.

The watch is one of two dangling threads that might provide the final confirmation of Paul’s guilt. Police have the serial number, so they can positively identify it if it’s found. “Tiffany was wearing that the day she went missing,” says her father Pat. “If we can link that to somebody, it’s absolute proof they were involved.”

The other important lead is the red Bronco that Paul owned at the time Tiffany disappeared. Police know it was used to transport one of his victims, the teenager. Could Tiffany have been inside it, too? Did she leave behind a trace of blood or something else with her DNA? It was last sighted in 2003 in Oklahoma, where the FBI is looking for it.

But as valuable a potential clue as the red Bronco is, its discovery could confirm the thing that the Sessions family has dreaded the most.

THE SECOND TEENAGER

Last year, long before police had publicly revealed anything at all about Paul Rowles or his red Bronco, Pat Sessions got an email from a woman. She started by asking forgiveness for what she was about to tell him.

In 1989, when she was just 16, the woman was living with her mother in Gainesville. Her parents had divorced, and her father lived in a small town several miles north. Her father had just gone home to recover from minor surgery, and early that evening she decided to drive up to see him.

She had only been driving for a few months, and was a little nervous about driving at dusk. So when she rounded a curve in a rural wooded area about 10 miles north of Gainesville, she panicked at the sight of a blonde girl running into the middle of the road, waving her arms in obvious distress. She ran her car off the road into a ditch.

As she tried frantically to back her car out of the ditch, the young woman could see in her rearview mirror that the blond girl looked terrified. And from the woods, a man was running toward her. He seemed to be coming from a red truck that had been backed into the treeline.

Terrified, she managed to get her car up onto the road and roared away. By the time she got to her father’s house, she was ashamed of leaving. Should she call the police? Her father pooh-poohed the idea. Probably just a boyfriend-girlfriend dispute, he said. Nothing to worry about. She decided to do as her father suggested, and let it go.

The woman’s trip north took place on Feb. 10, 1989. Over the next few days, she saw, over and over, reports about the disappearance of Tiffany Sessions the night before. She wasn’t stupid; the possibility that she had seen the kidnapped girl that everybody was looking for was plain to her. But how would she ever explain why she had just driven away and done nothing? The longer she waited, the more impossible it seemed to report what she had seen.

Yet over the years, her decision gnawed at her. Now in her mid-30s, with a daughter of her own, she understood more clearly than ever what Tiffany’s parents were going through. And she was reaching out. “I am beside you in your search for Tiffany,” she said.

Pat Sessions gratefully put her in touch with police. She easily directed them to the sharp and distinctive curve on Racetrack Road where she went into the ditch. She passed a lie-detector test and even agreed to be hypnotized in hopes that more details would surface in her memory. But they didn’t.

“Did I believe her? Enough to take a team of cadaver dogs out there to search those woods,” says Allen. “But the dogs didn’t get any hits. So there’s not much more that we can do right now. It’s a story we might be able to verify further if we find the Bronco.”

But verification would also dash the belief with which Pat and Hillary Sessions have comforted themselves the past two decades or so — that whatever happened to their daughter, it happened quickly. If Melissa’s story is true, it means that Tiffany was still alive at least 24 hours after her abduction.

“We don’t want to think she suffered,” Pat says. “And we don’t want to reexamine everything little thing we did or the police did and ask, ‘Was this is a mistake? If we had done something differently, could Tiffany have been saved?’”

Even from beyond the grave, Paul Rowles may still be claiming new victims.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
A sign stands at 1448 NW 103rd St. in Miami to let passers-by know the government demolished the house even though the owner was on active military duty.

    Miami-Dade County

    Miami-Dade demolished active-duty soldier’s home

    A federal judge ruled last week that the county should have delayed building-code violation proceedings against the soldier when he asked for a stay while he was in Iraq.

  • Friends and Neighbors

    Friends and Neighbors: Campaign raises money to feed hungry school children

    Local food banks want to help children who often go hungry get what they need to thrive in school. Community support is needed.

  • Friends and Neighbors

    Florida Mayors join forces to say no to bullies

    Looking back at my growing up days, I can remember how school bullies tried to made life miserable for me and a lot of other youngsters. I remember being followed home one day by a bully who wanted to start a fight. When I kept ignoring her, she soon turned, with her followers and went home. Unlike some of today’s bullies, she didn’t try to hit me. She was just all mouth, spitting out insulting remarks.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category