GAINESVILLE — Beaming, the woman dressed in all black strolled past thatch palms and mossy oaks until she reached the end of the dirt path. Seventeen TV cameras pointed at a lectern under a green tent. Photographers readied lenses, and reporters opened notebooks.
As organizers prepared for the news conference to begin, Hilary Sessions, the mother of one of the most famous missing persons in Florida history, walked through the crowd and up to a strand of yellow crime scene tape strung between two trees. Behind the tent, a yellow excavator tore into the ground. Its arm raised and the bucket tilted down. A stream of dirt cascaded back to the earth.
Sessions stared and — for just a moment before investigators officially announced the biggest news in the 1989 disappearance of 20-year-old Tiffany Sessions — her smile vanished.
The local sheriff was nearly certain that convicted killer Paul Rowles had murdered Tiffany — a development the Sessions family had waited more than two decades to hear.
Though investigators believed they were as close to Tiffany as they had ever been, for Hilary Sessions, for all of them, it was not enough.
What drew only passing references at the news conference was that excavator and the football field of ravaged dirt and splintered wood beyond it. Sheriff's officials picked that spot for the announcement because Rowles had buried another of his victims there, and investigators believed the ground might also hold Tiffany's body.
For two weeks, they had watched the dirt fall. They had waited to see pieces of bone or the Rolex watch Tiffany last wore. They had dug for closure, but the holes were all empty.
• • •
Twenty-five years ago this month, Tiffany left her Gainesville apartment and went for a walk. She never came back. Her disappearance — along with the Danny Rolling serial murders in the months that followed — haunted the city for years. Students went out in groups, and young women stopped jogging alone at night. Even in the quietest neighborhoods of a town that still considered itself both Southern and sleepy, people locked their doors.
Throughout, the Sessions family persisted, unwilling to let her memory die.
Tiffany's father, Patrick, offered a $250,000 reward. Charter buses brought more than 700 searchers to town. Her image — blond hair, brown eyes, white smile —became a piece of Florida's landscape. It appeared on fliers and billboards, in TV broadcasts and newspapers.
Her mother screened more than 170 bodies, met with psychics at least 100 times and put more than 275,000 miles on her 1986 Oldsmobile driving to Gainesville from her home in Valrico.
Thousands of leads poured in, but none proved worthwhile. The courts declared her dead two decades ago, and her family quit hoping for a miracle.
Closure faded from sight.
Last year, though, the family began to think Rowles' history might lead them to it.
In 1972, at 23, he attacked and killed a neighbor in Miami. He received a life sentence for her murder but was released on parole in 1985. Nine years later, he kidnapped a 15-year-old girl in Clearwater and drove her to Jacksonville. He raped the girl multiple times before she escaped.
Rowles was serving a 19-year-sentence for that crime when, two years ago, investigators matched his DNA with that found on the body of Gainesville college student Elizabeth Foster, who was murdered in 1992.
Only then did he become a suspect in Tiffany's disappearance.
Detectives learned that at the time she vanished, Rowles had lived in Gainesville, delivering pizzas and working on construction jobs near her apartment.
Cold case detective Kevin Allen interviewed Rowles about Tiffany, but he denied involvement. After Rowles died last year investigators discovered the most compelling link: an entry in his diary that included the date Tiffany disappeared along with the numeral "2," perhaps implying she was his second victim.
Deputies had found Foster's body in those woods where the news conference was held, a spot now marked with an orange stick that was within view Thursday of the tent. It made sense that Rowles might have buried Tiffany there as well.
Investigators acknowledged that even if Rowles were alive today, they likely would not have enough evidence to charge him. But at this point, it didn't matter. Finding Tiffany was the objective.
Detectives brought in cadaver dogs and, not far from where Foster was buried, the animals alerted, pouncing on the ground in a way that convinced the Sessionses and investigators their search might be near its end.
Instead, they discovered septic tanks.
• • •
The news conference ended, and as a man in jeans and a cowboy hat climbed back into the excavator, the media swarmed Tiffany's mother and father, who are both in their late 60s.
She said a minute seldom passes when her daughter doesn't consume her mind. He said even if they prove beyond doubt Rowles was the killer, nothing will bring his daughter back.
And then, the obvious question.
"What would real closure be?" a reporter asked the father.
"Finding her," he said, without pause.
How would she find closure, a reporter asked her.
A funeral, she said. "That's the reason for this whole thing."
Larry Ruby, 62, a retired agent from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, had watched the news conference from behind the TV cameras. He worked the case for two decades.
"As close as I've come to it," he said.
Michael Warren, a professor in the Florida anthropology department, had led dozens of searches for Tiffany's remains in the last two decades, including the latest.
"I'm optimistic at each basketful," he said, "and I'm disappointed with each she's not in."
The media mostly gone, Tiffany's father stood next to the final hole to be dug, and watched another pile of dirt fall to the ground. His face was red from two weeks in the sun.
Nearby, Warren and Hilary Sessions hugged and talked about what would come next.
"If this doesn't pan out, then I will see you again?" he asked.
"Oh," she said, "absolutely."
Times researchers Caryn Baird, Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.