TAMPA — At first, Hilary Sessions counted the years one by one, then by fives. Now, three days shy of the 25th anniversary of the disappearance from Gainesville of her 20-year-old daughter, Tiffany, in what became one of Florida’s most notorious missing persons cases, authorities are poised to reveal the name of the suspected killer.
He’s a convicted murderer, kidnapper and suspected serial rapist who died in state prison last year.
“I’m extremely pleased,” said Hilary Sessions of Valrico, who embarked on a mission in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance to get laws in place that allow law enforcement to better and more quickly search for missing persons.
She said the unsolved case has weighed on her and her family for 2½ decades.
“You think about it all the time,” she said Wednesday morning. “You plead with God and say that you know that one of the reasons for being here on Earth right now is to learn patience. It’s been five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. You say, ‘Don’t you think I’ve learned enough patience now?’ ”
Sessions didn’t want to discuss the specifics of the case, opting to wait until after a news conference today in Gainesville, where Alachua County sheriff’s detectives will announce recent developments in the case, including identifying Paul Eugene Rowles as Tiffany Sessions’ killer.
For four decades, Rowles has in and out of prison on a variety of charges, including murder, kidnapping and multiple counts of sexual battery. He was sentenced to life in prison for a 1972 murder in Miami-Dade County but was released in 1984. He was sentenced in 1995 to 19 years in prison for multiple rape charges, but died of natural causes in prison last Feb. 12.
The registered sexual predator was 65 when he died and did not deliver a death-bed confession, authorities said.
“I’m very pleased with where we are today,” Sessions said. “Based on what’s going to be disclosed, people will see that cold cases can get exposure” and be solved.
Her daughter, a University of Florida student, disappeared near Gainesville on Feb. 9, 1989, sparking a statewide search. Cold-case detectives reopened the case in January 2013, she said.
A body has never been recovered.
In September 2012, Alachua deputies said DNA linked Rowles to the 1992 homicide of Elizabeth Foster, whose body was found in a shallow grave in a wooded area near where Sessions often walked, though no charges were filed against the prison inmate at the time.
In January 1994, Rowles kidnapped and sexually assaulted a teenage girl from Clearwater, for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Investigators said Rowles confessed to the kidnapping and sexual assault.
Alachua sheriff’s detectives will announce today that they believe Rowles killed Sessions. Part of the evidence: an address book left by Rowles that contained the number 2989 scribbled on one page, which is the date Tiffany Sessions disappeared. Next to the numbers is written “#2.” That has led detectives to believe Sessions may have been Rowles’ second homicide victim.
Authorities said Rowles was a pizza deliverer in Gainesville and may have delivered pizza to Sessions’ door. He also worked on a construction site on the route where she walked every day. She disappeared while taking her regular evening walk.
The sheriff’s office said it will make available details of the investigation, as well as case photographs and information regarding the suspect in the hope gathering more information about the case from the public.
In the years since her daughter’s disappearance, Hilary Sessions has been active in organizations assisting families with missing children. She also helped create a 2008 state law that requires police to start searching within two hours of a report of a missing person younger than 26 and suspected of being in danger.
She was instrumental in getting a law passed that requires taking a DNA sample from every person arrested on a felony charge, a law that last year withstood a challenge that ended up before the Florida Supreme Court.
Each of the laws, she said, “helps families get closure earlier.”
Three years ago, she wrote “Where’s My Tiffany,” a book in which she details the agony a parent feels when a child is lost.
“You have to take it one day at a time,” she said. “It’s been such a long time.”
The apparent announcement that authorities know they know who killed Tiffany is a relief to the family, she said, even though the suspect is dead.
“You know there are a lot of cases that are cold,” she said, “and many departments let those cases collect dust at the bottom of a drawer.”
Tiffany Sessions’ father, Patrick, who traveled to Gainesville from his home in Miami on Wednesday so he can attend today’s news conference, said he’s convinced Rowles is the man who murdered his daughter.
“I really believe it for a lot of reasons,” he said. “He had the opportunity, he was living in this area and this is what he did. He stalked young women and he killed them. He killed Beth Foster a mile from here in a very similar case that was proven through DNA. And the stuff that ties it all up is what was in his journal, his address book.”
Still, he said, the evidence is circumstantial and more is needed to make absolutely sure, and that’s what this news conference is for: to stir the memories of people who lived here at the time, who may have known Rowles and who might be able to add something to the case. Anyone with information about the Sessions case is asked to call Detective Kevin Allen at (352) 384-3323 or Crime Stoppers at (352) 372-7867.
“Somebody knew this guy,” Patrick Sessions said. “We haven’t had much luck finding them. He was loner, a psychotic,” who didn’t know or get close to a lot of people.
The family, he said, is convinced Rowles is the killer, even if no one steps forward with more information.
“We feel strongly about this,” he said. “I think it was him. We all feel this way.”