By Jackelyn Barnard
First Coast News
Christmas 1988 was the last time Tiffany Sessions would be home for the holidays. Six weeks later, she would just vanish into thin air.
The day was February 9, 1989. Her mom, Hilary, remembers it well. "Tiffany went out about four o'clock in the afternoon."
The University of Florida Junior left her apartment at Casablanca in Gainesville for some exercise. She went for a walk. An hour passed, then two hours, three hours. Five hours later, Tiffany's roommate made a phone call.
"About nine o'clock, Kathy called. It was her tone of voice, I immediately knew we had a problem," says Hilary Sessions.
Sessions says her daughter never came home. There was no sign of a struggle, no sign Tiffany even made it out of her apartment complex parking lot.
For days, crews searched the area looking for any clues. "Nothing -- no clothes, no walkman, no batteries, no shoes, no Rolex, no clothes -- nothing. It was like aliens came down and picked her up," says Sessions.
Eighteen years later, more than 2000 leads into Tiffany's disappearance have been investigated.
There have been possible sightings. The last one came in December 2006. Tiffany was believed to be a care giver at an elderly center in Hawaii. That lead and the thousands of others have been a dead end.
The lead investigator on the case, Agent Larry Ruby, of FDLE, says there is a new hope from a new lead.
"I've always told people when we solve Tiffany's case, it will be the last day I work," says Ruby.
Ruby has been assigned to Tiffany's case for the last 15 years. Ruby says a month ago, a new lead came in to his office. He says it actually surfaced back in 1996, but this time he says there is promising information. "It's nice to chase somebody instead of a ghost," says Ruby.
Ruby says the person he is investigating lives on the First Coast. He lived in Gainesville at the time Tiffany disappeared and he was also a long time student of UF.
"He's got kind of a violent history and he's just a person that could commit a crime like this and let it roll of his shoulders and never look back," says Ruby.
Ruby says the man had a job back in February 1989 that would allow him to go to apartment complexes as a delivery man. Ruby says right now, he has not found evidence that the man knew Tiffany.
"We don't have anything that connects them together other than we've gotten information that he liked to cruise the campus and kind of check out the girls on campus," says Ruby.
Ruby says he's not been able to rule out another man as a potential suspect either. Michael Knickerbocker, 41, is serving six consecutive life sentences for rapes in Gainesville and the 1989 rape and murder of a 12 year old girl in Starke.
"We haven't been able to associate him (Knickerbocker) to this crime and part of the reason is that we have no crime, no crime scene, no way we don't really know what happened," says Ruby.
No crime scene and no evidence means no DNA. "Rollercoaster... The worst rollercoaster I have ever been on. One day you're up, the next day you're down in deep depression. It's a fast ride it's a slow ride," says Sessions.
In the last 18 years, Hilary Sessions has looked at more than 170 dead bodies with the hope that one was Tiffany.
218 months have passed since she last saw her daughter. Still, Hilary holds out hope that her only child is still alive. "I can't give up that hope. There are days when I wish that it was over, one way or the other....either let me grieve or let me be happy, but this in-between is really difficult to deal with."
Sessions says tips called in over her daughter's disappearance have actually helped solve other murders. While frustrating, she is glad her daughter's case has brought closure to other families.
"I'm here on earth to learn two lessons and it took me a very long time to figure it out. The first one is I have to learn patience. Well, 18 years you can say well, my patience has run out, but I'm very patient. The second one is to educate. So, between both of those I'm learning my lesson."
Saving Other Kids
These days, Hilary spends all of her time focused on saving other kids. She is the director of the Child Protection Education of America. It is the second largest missing children's organization in the country.
The group fingerprints kids, distributes photographs of missing children and is also there to help support the family. "We recognize their birthdays and you can't believe the heartfelt thanks that we get from their parents. We have one child that has been missing 30 years and the mom says you still remember my child and that makes us feel so good that we can bring a ray of sunshine to the mom."
Sessions has taken her message to national magazines and even on the road to make sure her story hits home. It's a story she never thought she'd have to tell. Sessions and her team help to train kids how to protect themselves if someone ever tries to abduct them.
The children are actually put into a scenario where a retired police officer tries to grab them. The kids have to try to get away.
Samantha Jackson, 10, of Citrus County just finished taking one of the classes. "I thought he was really going to take me. I did stomping on the foot, hammer to the nose, pepper to the eyes, I think that's all I did."
Her mother sat by watching and got a little emotional seeing her daughter struggle to get away from her attacker. While it was hard to watch, Samantha's mom says her daughter is more prepared because of the class. "I think she's safe now...kids aren't safe today. They're not safe without the knowledge they need the knowledge."
Sessions agrees and that is why she spends all of her time preparing kids and their parents for the possibility of what happened to her could happen to them.
"I look at parents sometimes and I just want to shake them and I just want to say don't you understand what you have there. It is the most precious, the most precious gift that God can ever give you. One of the things that I want to do is make sure that every child is prepared, every family is prepared, just in case this should happen, because I always thought it was going to happen to someone else."
First Coast News