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October 31, 2014

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Deceased serial killer prime suspect in 1989 disappearance of coed

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Phil Sandlin / AP

An undated image provided by the Sessions Family is of Tiffany Sessions, a student at the University of Florida, disappeared in 1989. Authorities have linked her disappearance to Paul Rowles, a serial killer who died in prison last year.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Detectives on Thursday named a serial killer and sex offender who died in prison last year as their prime suspect in the 1989 disappearance of a University of Florida student.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office said Paul Rowles likely abducted the woman who disappeared while going for an evening walk 25 years ago this Sunday. She was 20.

"This case is highly, highly probable that Paul Rowles is the suspect in the disappearance and likely murder of Tiffany Sessions," Sheriff Sadie Darnell said.

Standing in front of a dig site where investigators spent the last two weeks searching for Sessions' remains, Darnell explained why she believes Rowles abducted and killed Sessions.

"All indicators have pointed to him," Darnell said. "There's not a DNA connection with him and Tiffany Sessions, and it's probably remote at this point 25 years later that there will be a DNA connection. But every other connection is there."

Detectives interviewed Rowles about the DNA match in 2012. Alachua County Sheriff's Detective Kevin Allen returned in 2013 to ask about Sessions, but Darnell said Rowles was medically unable to cooperate.

The best piece of circumstantial evidence was found after Rowles' death. Detectives discovered a 2002 calendar/journal/address book in his prison cell with names and dates of his victims. It also had the date Sessions disappeared — 2/9/89 — with "#2" written on either side. Detectives believe Rowles was referring to his second victim.

"It may not be a smoking gun, but it's close," said Sessions' father, Patrick. "We've got a lot here, and there's a lot more that y'all don't know."

Rowles was sentenced to life in prison in 1976 for a murder in Miami, but under old Florida law, was paroled in 1985.

He moved to Gainesville in April 1988, 10 months before Sessions disappeared. According to detectives, he worked delivering scaffolding to a construction site near where Sessions walked daily. He was not working the day she went missing.

Rowles also has been tied to a Gainesville murder.

Rowles ended up back in prison in July 1994, sentenced to 19 years for armed kidnapping and sexual battery of a minor in Clearwater. In 2012, DNA evidence linked Rowles to Beth Foster, a Santa Fe Community College student. Her body was found March 26, 1992, in a wooded area in southwest Gainesville — the same spot where detectives had been searching for Sessions' remains.

Patrick Sessions is a prominent South Florida real estate developer. He used his connections with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and other NFL players to gain attention to the case in 1989. He also organized one of the most extensive searches in state history, but his daughter was never found.

Her disappearance came less than two years before another serial killer, Danny Rolling, murdered five college students in Gainesville. Investigators were never able to link Rolling to Sessions. Rolling was executed in 2006.

Both of Tiffany Sessions' parents have remained close to the investigation.

"Pieces of this puzzle are still being put together," mother Hilary Sessions said. "What we need is the public's help because we're looking for a small needle in a very big haystack. ... We need your help to try to close this case. I know it can be closed. We just need that little piece of information that somebody has."

Detectives hope naming a suspect and showing his photos will stir 25-year-old memories, which might provide more clues and possibly more links in the case.

Last summer, authorities went back to the place Foster's body was found in hopes of locating Sessions' remains. Cadaver dogs gave detectives a "major-league alert" in several spots, Patrick Sessions said. But mosquitoes and snakes made searching and digging difficult, so they waited until January to return.

When detectives came back two weeks ago and started digging, they learned that the dogs were reacting to buried septic tanks — remnants of an old trailer park.

"It knocked the wind out of everybody," Patrick Sessions said. "We put so much hope into it."

Still, family and friends are convinced Rowles is responsible for Sessions' disappearance.

"I feel so much better today than I did a year ago," Patrick Sessions said. "I believe Rowles did it. If we don't find another thing, I'm not going to stop believing that. So I think we solved the case. But I'd like to bring her home. It would be nice to be able to put her to rest after all these years."

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