Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Paul Rowles' only surviving victim shares her story

Of Paul Rowles' victims, she is the only one who lived.

She was 15 in 1994 when Rowles crawled through a window in her family's Clearwater apartment and forced her at knifepoint to leave with him. He bound her with duct tape and drove her to his Jacksonville apartment, where he sexually assaulted her.

When he let her go into another room to get a drink, she unlocked the front door with one hand and used the other to move the tire he had used to bar the door. She ran to a neighbor's for help. She thinks the escape took 10 to 15 seconds.

Authorities told her then that Rowles had served time for strangling his neighbor in the 1970s. But it wasn't until she saw his photo on the front page of a newspaper Thursday that she realized there were more suspected victims.

In a high-profile case that gripped Florida for decades, Alachua sheriff's investigators held a news conference Thursday to announce they now believe Rowles killed 20-year-old University of Florida junior Tiffany Sessions in 1989. They found the connection after DNA linked Rowles to the death of another young college student, Elizabeth Foster.

"Now knowing there were two other victims, I know for sure I wouldn't have made it out if I hadn't escaped," she said.

• • •

Rowles confessed to killing his neighbor Linda Fida in Miami in 1972. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled in 1985 because of lax sentencing laws at the time.

His early release was widely criticized during his trial on kidnapping and sexual assault charges in the Clearwater case.

It was a fact not lost on the victim, who the Tampa Bay Times is not naming because of the nature of the crime.

"I feel the justice system should have never released him from prison after he murdered his first victim," she said. "If not, what happened to me and the other victims at the hands of Paul Rowles would have never happened."

Richard Kuritz prosecuted the case involving the Clearwater victim and pushed for the longest sentence possible, fearing Rowles would hurt other women if freed. Rowles got 19 years and died in prison last year.

Kuritz said he wasn't surprised to learn of Rowles' link to Sessions.

The victim, who is now 35 and still lives in Clearwater, says her faith kept her strong during and after her attack.

While she was held captive in Rowles' red Ford Bronco, she prayed for protection. "I just really felt the Lord saved me," she said.

These days, her prayers are more thankful, often focused on gratitude for her four children.

Her memory of the ordeal has faded over the years, she said.

She remembers him stopping in woods on the way to Jacksonville, but not the actual words he spoke there. According to reports from the time, he pointed out the spot as a good place to leave something he didn't want found.

Hearing that detail again made her cringe. He could have intended to kill her and dump her body there, she said.

Investigators say Rowles left Foster, a 21-year-old Santa Fe Community College student, in woods off Williston Road in Gainesville in 1992.

Crews recently searched that area for two weeks looking for Sessions' body, but didn't find it. It was there Thursday that investigators and Sessions' family announced they had a prime suspect in the 25-year-old case.

They gave reporters pictures of an address book where Rowles wrote the date of Sessions' disappearance.

The Clearwater woman's name was there, too.

• • •

Rowles' death gave investigators access to the address book, which provided a key link to Sessions' case. But her family says they won't have closure until her body is found.

For the Clearwater woman, that came in the mail last year.

It was a letter from the state informing her that Rowles, 64, had died in prison of lung cancer.

"I began crying tears of joy that we'd never have to fear him hurting me or my family again," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at [email protected] or (727)-893-8804. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.

 
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