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Convicted killer to be named as prime suspect in Tiffany Sessions disappearance

Three days shy of the 25th anniversary of Tiffany Sessions' disappearance, detectives in Gainesville will announce today that they think they know who killed the 20-year-old University of Florida student in the long-cold case that captured national attention.

Detectives will name convicted killer Paul Rowles as the prime suspect, said Patrick Sessions, Tiffany's father.

Rowles died in prison last year, and his death gave investigators access to a key piece of evidence — his diary. It included the date that Tiffany disappeared, along with the numeral "2," which investigators think indicates that Tiffany was Rowles' second victim, her father said.

Tiffany was last seen Feb. 9, 1989, when she left her Gainesville apartment with a tape player and told her roommate she was going for an evening walk.

In the years that followed, her family pleaded for tips. They sent fliers bearing their daughter's face to every Gainesville home. Tiffany's blond hair, big smile and the family's promise of a $250,000 reward helped spread her story.

They held news conferences and bought billboards and viewed the bodies of several young women in case they were Tiffany. Investigators pursued more than 1,000 leads but never found her.

"It is just horrible to wake up every day and not have a clue what's going on," said Patrick Sessions, who is 67 now and lives in Coconut Grove.

Eventually, the attention faded.

The family is hoping that today's announcement of Rowles as the prime suspect will generate more leads — and ultimately the location of Tiffany's body.

Tiffany's mother, Hilary Sessions of Valrico, said that during the first few years, she went through extremes. New leads made her euphoric. When they did not pan out, she would become depressed.

She has learned to control those emotions, and about 20 years ago, even forgave the nameless, faceless person who abducted her daughter, she said.

"When I did that, I went from being a victim to being a survivor because I freed myself from what the perpetrator did to me," she said.

Tiffany's brother, Jason, was 16 when she disappeared.

He said Wednesday that while the new information gives them hope, it also opens old wounds.

"It's definitely throwing up some emotions that we haven't dealt with for a long time on this level," said Jason, who is 41 and lives in Jacksonville.

Rowles, who once lived in Pinellas County, was serving a 19-year sentence for the rape and kidnapping of a 15-year-old Clearwater girl in 1994. He broke into her apartment, prosecutors said, abducted her and drove her to Jacksonville. He raped her, and if she hadn't escaped, a prosecutor said, he probably would have killed her.

The case had similarities to a 1972 murder he committed in Miami.

Rowles was 23 when he attacked and killed a woman who lived next door. His 1976 conviction came before the Legislature required murderers to serve at least 25 years of a life sentence. He was released in 1985.

Detectives think he might have run into Tiffany, a finance major, while working construction near her Gainesville apartment in 1989, her father said. Two years ago, Rowles was implicated in the 1992 murder of Santa Fe Community College student Elizabeth Foster. Her remains were found in a wooded area about a mile from where Tiffany disapppeared.

Rowles was interviewed by investigators, but slipped into a coma without admitting any involvement in Tiffany's disappearance. Still, her family began searching the wooded area where Foster's body was found two weeks ago.

"It's not fun, standing out in a field with a bulldozer looking for your daughter," Patrick said. "But it's not something I can walk away from, either."

He knows the family may never know exactly what happened, but the identification of Rowles puts them closer.

On Wednesday, Hilary Sessions, 68, was in a good mood, laughing often and talking about the importance of hope.

For 25 years, she has lived with dichotomous perspectives, she said: Without Tiffany's body, she held out hope that her daughter was somewhere and alive. At the same time, she understood how unlikely that was.

Not knowing has been the hardest, she said.

Hilary found some solace in helping other parents of missing children. With them, she found a community that understood her — sometimes better than her blood relations. She says Mark Lunsford, whose daughter Jessica was abducted and killed, is "like a brother."

It is important that parents never give up their search for answers, Hilary Sessions said.

"There is a solution to every case. Some take longer than others. You just have to have faith," she said.

A spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office would not confirm that Rowles will be named, but said an announcement based on cold case investigations and new evidence would be made at a 10 a.m. news conference today.

Tiffany's family and investigators will speak at the wooded area they are searching for her remains, near the intersection of U.S. 441 and Williston Road in Gainesville.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com.

Convicted killer to be named as prime suspect in Tiffany Sessions disappearance 02/05/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 9:31pm]

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