Eighteen-year-old Tiffany Valiante seemed to have a lot going for her. A gifted and popular athlete at her school, the outgoing and cheerful young woman was getting ready to start college and things were looking bright. Her high school graduation party was held in her hometown of Mays Landing, New Jersey on July 12, 2015, which she attended with her parents Dianne and Steve, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits having a good time. Yet the evening was about to take a sharp turn into the strange and become a tragic and perplexing unsolved mystery.
Shortly after the party, at around 9 p.m., Tiffany’s friend approached her parents in quite an agitated state. She accused Tiffany of using her debit card without her permission, something which Tiffany vehemently denied. Although she had stolen some money from her parents on one occasion several months before, her mother nevertheless defended her daughter and told the friend she was no thief. The friend was adamant, and so Dianne went to go check Tiffany’s car just to be sure. It was at this point she caught a glimpse of Tiffany covertly putting the card in her back pocket, and without saying anything Dianne went to tell her husband. When they went back out to the car Tiffany was nowhere to be seen.
At first they thought she had just run off to cool down because she was upset or maybe to maybe get rid of the evidence, but the hours passed with no sign of her. They couldn’t call her because she had left her cell phone behind, something they thought was odd because according to them she never went anywhere without it, and also odd because the phone was found on the driveway. At 11:30pm they called the police, and it did not take long at all for them to find the missing girl. Sadly, when they did find her it was on some train tracks a few miles from Tiffany’s home, and she had been killed by an incoming New Jersey Transit train. For police it was an open and shut case. To them, Tiffany had obviously been very upset and had committed suicide by jumping in front of the train, and that was that. Her family immediately took issue with this, insisting that their daughter would have never wanted to kill herself, and Dianne would say of it:
I was devastated. I couldn’t understand how they could come up with that. My daughter wasn’t depressed. She wasn’t suicidal. Tiffany was happy! She was making plans to go to college, she was making plans with her roommate, she was making plans to play softball that Wednesday. She had plans to go to Great Adventure the next morning with friends. There was no way in hell that she committed suicide. People that knew Tiffany just couldn’t believe it.
Family and friends also claimed that Tiffany was deathly afraid of the dark, meaning that it was unlikely that she would have just wandered out there into the lonely night so far on her own, Nevertheless, authorities stood by their official assessment, further bolstered by the discovery of a receipt from the stolen debit card later found in her room, and one of her friends also told police that Tiffany was depressed and suggested that untreated mental illness could have had something to do with her death, and that she had harmed herself on several occasions. Even more evidence was that child protection services had apparently visited the home on several occasions after being called on suspicion of abuse, something Tiffany’s parents strongly denied. For police, this obviously troubled youth had felt extreme guilt over the card and this had caused her to snap and decide to end it all, but besides her parents’ insistence that she was not suicidal, there were myriad other clues that didn’t add up. First was that, although she had left her home fully clothed, further proven by a deer camera that caught her in an image showing her fully clothed shortly before her death, her body was naked except for her underwear, and she was barefoot. If she had committed suicide, then what had happened to her clothes? There was also the fact that her feet were in pristine condition, smooth and clean and not the feet of someone who had walked miles in their bare feet.
Two weeks later, Dianne would find her daughter’s shoes and headband in a neat pile by the side of the road, miles from the train tracks and miles from her home, something the police had missed on their sweep of the area and something the bloodhounds had not picked up on. In fact, bloodhounds had followed a meandering, zig-zag course, showing that Tiffany had wandered about rather than just heading to the tracks, and they had somehow missed the shoes. The rest of her clothes were supposedly never found. How had her shoes ended up out there and how had she managed to walk all of that way and still have clean feet that looked as if she had just taken the shoes off? Where were the rest of her clothes? None of this fit in with the suicide angle, and Tiffany’s family would come to the conclusion that she had either been murdered and then her dead body placed on the tracks to cover the killer’s trail, or she had died being hit by a train while trying to escape from a rapist.
In addition to these sinister clues, it seems that the police also bungled the investigation from the very beginning. The first ball dropped was probably that the case was taken up by the New Jersey Transit Police rather than the regular local police department, meaning they were not nearly as experienced with or prepared to deal with suspicious deaths or murders. They apparently did a poor job of securing the scene of Tiffany’s death, were slow to respond, did not use bloodhounds until days after the death and after a rain storm, and had even misplaced key evidence. An even more egregious fumble was found later by private investigators, who discovered that authorities had actually found an axe marked with red not far from the scene of death that they had failed to mention. Police would claim that at some point, the axe had just disappeared from storage and so could not be properly analyzed. How could an axe just vanish without a trace from police possession? Unbelievably, it would also turn out that they had in fact found Tiffany’s shirt, but that it had been contaminated with mold after being improperly stored. This was not divulged by police. It is all odd to say the least. Police had also failed to mention that in the deer camera photo there can be seen a hint of what might be car headlights in the corner, but this had never been investigated as a possible lead to a potential abductor. It all points to foul play, with the investigation hopelessly bungled, and Paul D’Amato, the family’s attorney has said of it:
You have parents, you have sisters, who have to live with the fact that some governmental agency concluded that their loved one committed suicide when the fundamentals of a suicide investigation weren’t done. “There’s a wrong here we’re trying to right, for the benefit of them. We have no doubt that Tiffany did not take her own life and that the medical examiner’s office made a grave error in misclassifying her death as suicide. It is our hope that this litigation will not only result in the proper classification, but also brings to justice those responsible for her death. We know so many others that also believe Tiffany’s death was not suicide, that there was a rush to judgement to close the case, and that the real story of how and why she died has yet to be told. The combination of this new, deeply-researched, fact-based program, and the increased reward, might just be what’s necessary to help get Tiff’s case reopened.
Despite legal action taken by the family to have the case reinvestigated, it remains officially a suicide. The case was famously covered on an episode of the new iteration of Unsolved Mysteries, titled Mystery at Mile Marker 45, but it has done little to solve the case and oddly no police agreed to be questioned for the show. In the end we are left to wonder just what happened to this young woman. Did she just wander off to end up naked and dead in a suicide bid? Or was there perhaps something more to it? The questions remain, and for not a few people it remains far from answered.