Alachua sheriff: We found Tiffany Sessions’ killer

Paul Rowles, who died in prison last year, is suspected of having killed UF student Tiffany Sessions.
Paul Rowles, who died in prison last year, is suspected of having killed UF student Tiffany Sessions. Florida Department of Corrections

Declaring that the 25-year investigation of the disappearance of Tiffany Sessions has found its man but still isn’t over, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell begged citizens Thursday to tell her office anything they know about serial killer Paul Rowles.

“If you even think you know something, come forward,” Darnell told a news conference at the edge of the Gainesville woods where police believe the missing University of Florida student was buried a quarter of a century ago.

“There is no risk. He is dead,” Darnell said. “Thank God he's dead, he hurt so many people along the way.”

Police called the news conference to confirm what leaked out Wednesday: that they identified Rowles, a convicted rapist and murderer who died of cancer in prison last year, as the all-but-certain killer of Sessions.

Rowles, a delivery driver who drifted around Florida for four decades between lengthy stays in prison, was convicted of one rape-murder, died before he could be prosecuted for a second, and also served time for kidnapping and sexual assault of a teenager.

As police and Sessions’ parents talked to reporters, earth-moving equipment gouged giant holes in the ground nearby searching for her remains in the same field where another of Rowles’ victims was found more than two decades ago.

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The 10-acre woods has become Ground Zero in the Sessions investigation, which has shifted into high gear even though police are now literally chasing a ghost.

Not only have cops identified Gainesville college student Elizabeth Foster, whose battered body was found there shortly after her disappearance in 1992, as one of Rowles’ victims. They also revealed Thursday that a teenager Rowles abducted and raped in 1994 told them that he stopped in a wooded field in Gainsville while driving her from Clearwater to Jacksonville and told her: “This is where things get thrown away.”

The girl wasn’t able to specifically identify the woods, but she said it was about a mile from a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant where Rowles stopped to buy food. There’s a Steak ‘n Shake just over a mile from the woods, located just off U.S. 441 on the south side of Gainesville.

Though finding and identifying the weathered remains of a human body in a 10-acre site a quarter of a century after it was hidden seems like a long shot — “a very small needle in a very big haystack,” as Tiffany’s mother, Hilary, put it during the news conference — a forensic scientist who’s been on the case since 1991 said he’s confident it can be done.

“We have her dental pattern memorized and I would know if I found her,” said Michael Warren, director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida.

And although he’s participated in more than a dozen searches of areas with their own compelling reasons to be Tiffany’s last resting place, Warren remains hopeful.

“I’m optimistic with each bucketful and I’m disappointed at the end of each when she’s not there,” Warren said. “You’ve got to watch every bucket because if you’re not paying attention and you miss it, you might not sleep the rest of your life over that.”

“Could be this one, could be the next one.”

Tiffany’s parents were equally hopeful about the search, and even more convinced than the police that Rowles murdered their daughter.

Wearing a white rosebud symbolic of missing children and a white ribbon pin on her lapel, Tiffany’s mother said she is “positive” Rowles did it. Religion, she added, had already given her the strength to forgive her daughter’s killer. “Now I can put a face with who I forgave.”

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Much of the information released at Thursday’s press conference, attended by more than 40 journalists from across the state, had leaked out a day earlier – particularly the blockbuster disclosure that Rowles had an address book containing notes on three of his crimes and what cops believe is a coded reference to the abduction and murder of Tiffany.

But it was also something of a valedictory for police and forensic investigators who, as Tiffany’s father Patrick said, “grew old together” during the long trek through the evidence. (Many of the policemen who attended are retired, several after working 15 years or more on the Sessions case.)

There were also some relatively new faces, including Kevin Allen, a retired Fort Lauderdale Police Department homicide detective who joined the Alachua Sheriff’s office last year to work on its cold-case files.

Virtually everybody at Thursday’s press conference said Allen gave the Sessions case a jolt of energy. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” joked Hilary, who said she and Allen were so much on the same wavelength on the investigation that “we finish each other’s sentences.”

Working cold cases — those that have gone unsolved for years — is a daunting prospect, and even more so when you’re talking about probably the most famous missing-person case in modern Florida history, Allen admitted. The Sessions case file came with seven large boxes full of tips and rumors volunteered by the public.

“But, call me naive, I see the glass half full,” Allen said. “I started the case as I did every case when I was a regular homicide detective: Here’s what we’ve got, and there’s a good chance the answer is in here somewhere.”

Many of the details Allen provided Thursday made the Sessions case sound anything but cold. He offered a tale of startling and sometimes macabre twists and turns, streaked though with stupidity, pathos and heroic persistence.

At the center of it was Rowles, a blend of sociopathic rage and calculated cunning, who stalked his victims — sometimes for years — and meticulously planned his crimes. “He was an anti-social person who had a lot of violent fantasies about women,” said Allen. “He never should have been released back into society.”

Rowles’ first wife, Linda Schaeffer, a National Airlines flight attendant who returned from a flight in 1972 to discover Rowles had raped and murdered their next-door neighbor in a North Miami apartment complex, so feared him that, even 40 years later as her ex-husband lay on his prison deathbed, she wouldn’t provide a sworn statement against him.

Rowles met his second wife, Kathryn Forguson, an accountant in the Florida prison system, while serving what was supposed to be a life sentence for the Miami murder. Allen said he believes Forguson helped Rowles win release from prison after only 13 years in custody.

“But it’s also true that ‘life in prison’ in the 1970s and ’80s usually meant a 10-to-15 sentence,” Allen added, calling the era a time of laxity among judges and parole boards. “That’s the sad reality.”

Forguson found life with Rowles considerably less romantic once he was out from behind bars, Allen said, and they separated shortly after the murder of Elizabeth Foster, apparently never to reunite. When police tried to talk to Forguson years later, they discovered she was suffering from dementia.

Rowles first came onto the sheriff’s office radar in 1991, when Gainesville was in a panic over what became known as the Gainesville Ripper murders, five gruesome killings of students. (Eventually a drifter named Danny Rolling was arrested for the Ripper murders, confessed and was executed.)

Most of the killings included a sexual element, and the sheriff’s office asked the state department of corrections for a list of all paroled sex offenders known to be living in the area. Rowles’ name was one of many that was included.

He was also stopped in the late hours of the night on suspicion of prowling in April 1991, a few weeks after Foster’s murder, in the same area from which she was abducted.

But it would be several more years — after he was convicted in the abduction of the Clearwater teenager and began serving a 19-year sentence — that police began to seriously focus on Rowles. And only in 2012, after more advanced testing showed the presence of Rowles’ DNA on Foster’s body, did he become a suspect in the Sessions case.

Two Alachua deputies tried to question Rowles in prison about Tiffany, but he simply snarled at them to get out and leave him alone. “He was like a crotchety old man, in a lot of pain from the cancer, and he had basically lost his mind over the past couple of years,” Allen said.

Allen didn’t take part in that interview, which occurred about six months before he joined the department. “When I started in January 2013, the first thing the sheriff told me was to go down to Miami where Rowles was being held and try again,” Allen said. “But when I got there, he was already on life support, sedated and unresponsive, not conscious at all. And I couldn’t talk the nurses into adjusting his medication so he might wake up.

“So I just left a picture of Tiffany with the nurses, and asked them to show it to him if he woke up. Unfortunately, he never did.”

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. Police decided to examine Rowles’ personal belongings for possible clues. Allen, slightly correcting a version of what happened supplied to the Miami Herald by Tiffany’s father, Patrick Sessions, earlier this week, said the box of Rowles’ possessions after his death was held not by a retired prison priest but a Tennessee minister named Joe Nilson, the clergyman who performed Rowles’ first marriage in 1970.

“They had stayed in touch all those years, and Joe Nilson was Rowles’ only friend in the whole world,” said Allen. “And at first, when we contacted Nilson, he didn’t want to give up the box. ‘I don’t want to besmirch the reputation of my friend after his death,’ he said.

“I called him and said, ‘Please, just look at the website [maintained by her father] and see if it doesn’t change your mind.’ I don’t think it was 10 minutes before he called back and said, ‘I’ll give you the box, I’ll give you anything you want, I’ll do anything at all that you think will help.’ Because, he said, he’d seen the pictures of Tiffany and she looked so much like Rowles’ first wife she could have been her sister.”

That surprised Allen. But not nearly as much as what happened when he got the box of Rowles’ belongings and found an address book inside. On one of its pages was written the date 2-9- 89, and the notation #2.

“Since I’ve been working this case, if there’s one date that’s engraved on my brain, it’s Feb. 9, 1989, the day Tiffany Sessions disappeared,” said Allen. “And if Tiffany was real Rowles’ victim, she would have been his second. That just defies any kind of random possibility — it can only mean one thing.”

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