They found nothing in the dirt.
The yellow front-end loader slowly shook clumps through the bucket’s metal teeth, sifting through earth and letting it fall beside an 8-foot trench blocked by caution tape.
There was no sign of the remains of Tiffany Sessions, the UF student who went missing 25 years ago Sunday. But for the teary loved ones and stoic law enforcement officers who gathered Thursday morning at the excavation site just past the intersection of U.S. Highway 441 and Williston Road, there was a glimmer of an explanation to an important question: Who did this?
The answer: Paul Rowles.
Although no DNA evidence definitively links Rowles to the case, “every other indicator is there,” said Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell during a press conference in which authorities named the deceased serial killer as the formal suspect.
Darnell, investigators and Sessions’ parents spoke during the conference, finally able to release new information about a case grown cold.
“It’s been a 25-year struggle,” said mother Hilary, her voice wavering.
But before the years of heartbreak, before the evidence pointing to Rowles, before Tiffany Sessions became the Gainesville girl who went for a walk and never came back, there was a 20-year-old finance junior and a man with the urge to kill.
The 125-pound blonde beaming out from “MISSING” posters is beautiful, but she wasn’t perfect. Actually, her dad said, Tiffany was just … normal.
“Tiffany got put on a pedestal,” said Patrick Sessions, who recalls his daughter as a headstrong woman prone to relationship drama. “Tiffany was a pretty, young college girl, and she had all the same issues you had when you went to college ... boyfriends and girlfriends and grades and whatever else goes along with that.”
After spending her days studying finance at UF, Tiffany took nightly four-mile walks with her roommate. From their Casablanca East condominium, they’d walk along Williston Road near buildings where authorities believe Rowles delivered scaffolding and Pizza Hut orders. The women always went together, until the night they didn’t.
On Feb. 9, 1989, Tiffany’s roommate had a 7:20 p.m. class, so she decided to go alone. She left her keys and wallet at home, taking only her Walkman and Rolex as she walked out the door at 6 p.m. She wore red sweatpants and a white sweatshirt.
Detective Kevin Allen thinks Rowles was watching. He said Rowles stalked Tiffany, planned her murder and probably practiced the kidnapping before he did it.
“If and when he took Tiffany,” Allen said, “he took her to her grave.”
When Tiffany didn’t return by 8 p.m., her roommate called the police. Deputies were out searching by 9 p.m. with German shepherds and a bloodhound. When they didn’t find her, they called her parents, who launched a full-scale investigation complete with a private detective.
By Feb. 18, most of the state was searching for her.
More than 300 UF students from 35 student organizations — including fraternities, ROTC and the Gator football team — knocked on doors and asked for leads. Miles away, 400 military volunteers searched the woods where she disappeared. Domino’s delivered pizza boxes across the Southeast with “MISSING” fliers tacked on top. Driving back and forth from Valrico to Gainesville, Hilary Sessions put more than 350,000 miles on her Oldsmobile and Honda Odyssey.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino got involved at the request of Tiffany's father, as did Gov. Bob Martinez. Helicopters, horseback riders and even cave divers scoured Gainesville for any sign of Tiffany.
“The searching is about over. Now, it’s the investigation part,” Patrick Sessions told the Alligator in 1989.
He had no idea the investigation would last longer than the time he knew his daughter.
Joe Nilsen had junk, and he wanted to keep it.
Nilsen, Rowles’ priest and confidant, took ownership of the prisoner’s personal items after his death in February 2013. Originally, the box containing Rowles’ possessions — including an address book with Bible verses on its pages — had been delivered to Rowles’ second wife, but she turned it over to Nilsen.
The priest didn’t want to give up the box. Allen told him to visit TiffanySessions.com, a website her family created to publish updates on the case. Nilsen called back 15 minutes later.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
When Nilsen saw Tiffany’s picture online, she looked familiar: She resembled Rowles’ first wife, with whom the killer was obsessed. The priest knew Rowles’ fixation was strong enough to make him target Tiffany.
In the notebook Nilsen handed over, Rowles had scribbled dates and numbers of four events.
The first was 1972. Beside it was Linda Fida, the name of his 20-year-old neighbor he confessed to raping and killing.
The second was just a date — no name.
“If there was any one day permanently etched in my mind, it was 2/9/89 — and I open the address book, and there it is,” Allen said. “I literally held onto the person next to me and said, ‘Tom, you’ve got to see this.’”
Rowles had already confessed or been identified for the three murder dates he wrote names next to. Maybe he didn’t put Tiffany’s name down by the date of her disappearance because he wasn’t suspected yet, Patrick Sessions surmised. If an officer took the notebook from his cell with that detail in writing, it would be the equivalent of a confession.
Sessions said details from the four cases referenced in Rowles’ notebook point to one of Rowles’ most prominent traits: He was a plotter.
During the 1972 interview in which Rowles confessed to the murder of Linda Fida, officers said he “denied ever raping or killing anyone before but stated he has been on the verge of doing so several times,” according to a warrant affidavit. “He had followed girls home or entered elevators with them, but something always terminated the urge, usually the presence of a third person.”
“He was not an opportunistic guy,” Sessions said. “He was a stalker. And he would find somebody he fixated on, and he would find a way to get them.”
Rowles’ morbid obsession with women dominated his 64 years.
He imagined stabbing their genitals and burning them with hot curling irons, according to sheriff’s office documents.
Rowles did more than fantasize about abducting and abusing women.
He often did.
By the time he moved to Gainesville in 1988, Rowles had already been sentenced to life in prison for killing Fida.
In a move Allen speculates was partially orchestrated by Rowles’ second wife, a prison employee, he got parole.
Tiffany disappeared in 1989.
Three years later, 21-year-old Santa Fe College student Elizabeth Foster vanished on March 15, 1992.
Her body was found in a shallow grave 11 days afterward, and an autopsy showed she had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death.
At the time, police insisted the Foster and Sessions cases were unrelated.
Cpl. Larry Roberts told the Alligator that “the only similarity I can see is we have two disappeared young ladies.”
In 1992, then-Alachua County Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Spencer Mann said there was no other evidence that connected the Foster and Sessions cases.
Then, DNA evidence revealed in 2012 that Rowles killed Foster.
Now, investigators are excavating the site where Foster's body was buried in hopes of finding Tiffany's remains as well.
The digging is an ebb and flow of optimism and disappointment for UF anthropologist Michael Warren, director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at UF.
He said the hard part is staying focused amid the copious details.
“You’ve got to watch every bucket because if you’re not paying attention and you miss it, you’ll not sleep the rest of your life over that,” he said.
At this point, investigators have sifted through about an acre of land, digging 4-foot-deep pockets that so far have only turned up more dirt.
Warren, who has excavated dozens of sites working on the case since he was a graduate student in 1991, said human remains are usually discovered by accident.
For a fruitful excavation, it generally takes a specific lead to pinpoint “X marks the spot,” he said.
With the only two people who knew the exact events of Feb. 9, 1989, gone, pinpointing an area, or any helpful information, is difficult.
The sheriff’s office and Sessions family are asking for help from anyone who may have known Rowles or seen something — anything — on that night.
That’s why the family and agencies agreed to go public with the details of the case now — because the public may hold the key to solving the mystery.
“Stuff that we would have kept confidential, we’re not now because the idea is to nail this thing down and to find Tiffany,” Patrick Sessions said.
They are pleading for people who may have known Rowles at any point or may have seen his red Bronco truck to come forward and help reconstruct the course of events.
No tip is too vague or too insignificant.
They are urging those with information to call the office at 352-955-1818.
“There’s no risk. He’s dead. Thank goodness he’s dead at this point,” Darnell said. “Don’t go to your grave thinking you had information and didn’t come forward with it.”
Hilary Sessions described the odds as “looking for a very small needle in a very large haystack.”
But the mother already has plans for when — if — her daughter’s remains are found: a Christian burial on an Episcopal church’s grounds back in Valrico.
Even on the brink of a possible conclusion, the pain will never really end for the Sessions family.
“This will bring answers, but it doesn’t make it almost over,” said Tiffany’s brother, Jason. “This is something I’m going to deal with for the rest of my life.”
Living in fear isn’t an option.
However, he said, living cautiously is essential — especially with young children of his own.
Nowadays, maybe it’s easier to stay safe, especially in the quadrant of Gainesville that Tiffany disappeared from in February 1989.
Apartment complexes like The Polos and Cottage Grove have sprouted up near the area of her disappearance that was once shrouded in woods. Almost everyone carries a cellphone. Students are constantly warned about walking alone in campus safety notices.
But some things are never forgotten, and mundane things, part of a landscape even, can revive a painful past.
While Jason Sessions and his family spoke to reporters in front of Tiffany’s old apartment Wednesday, three young women jogged by.
It was dusk, right around 6 p.m.
[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 2/7/2014 under the headline "Tiffany Sessions suspect named"]