Netflix’s revamping of Unsolved Mysteries is back, and today, I finished the first of three episodes that dropped this week, “Mystery at Mile Marker 45.” I’m going to cut right to it: I earnestly wish Unsolved Mysteries would shy away from covering stories that are suicides, but due to the grieving nature of the family, plus the general ambiguity often present with suicides, can create an air of mystery. Such is the case with this first episode concerning the death of Tiffany Valiante on July 12, 2015.
Tiffany, a 6 foot 3 inches tall volleyball player on the cusp of college, was at a party with her parents and friends that night in May’s Landing, New Jersey. For whatever reason, she left the party at 9:15 p.m. to go home. At which point, she was accosted by one of her friends, who accused Tiffany of using her credit card. Tiffany denied this to the friend, but later admitted it to the mother. The mother then chewed out Tiffany and said she would have to tell Tiffany’s dad. At that point, Tiffany left the house and was captured on the family’s deer camera at 9:28 p.m. in a white headband, t-shirt, shorts and shoes.
After a search began to find Tiffany, they found her cell phone discarded by the side of the road near the family home. Less than two hours after leaving the house and about 2.6 miles from the home, Tiffany was struck by a train at 11:12 p.m. Within a manner of days, the New Jersey Transit Police, which had jurisdiction over the case because it was one of their commuter trains, ruled the death a suicide.
The senior engineer and the student engineer on the commuter train do appear to give conflicting reports, contradicting their initial reports that night and their sworn testimony 10 days later. For example, the senior engineer said he initially saw her and then later said he never saw her. The student engineer flipped that, saying he never saw anything until he was rights= ton top of her, and then later under oath, he said said he saw the “trespasser” (it’s odd they use this language) a half mile out, a quarter mile out and so on. But I don’t need to be a math guy to realize that, most likely, neither saw anything until it was too late. When you consider the train was barreling down the tracks at 80 miles per hour in the dark, I doubt there was much time for anyone to be a credible witness to whether Tiffany “stood still” or “jumped” to kill herself via the train. However, that doesn’t mean she didn’t kill herself.
Another issue that gets made a big deal of is that when canvassing the area for personal belongings of Tiffany’s, her mother finds Tiffany’s shoes and headband in the woods about 1.75 miles from the tracks and where Tiffany would be hit by the train. That lends credibility, to the family and their lawyers and private investigators, that something nefarious may have happened. In other words, the murder theory goes something like: Tiffany left the house, got into a vehicle with someone she thought she knew, turned out they were out to rape and/or kill her, they did so, and then to cover up what they did, left her to die (or she was already dead) on the train tracks and be killed by the train.
However, let’s go back to suicide. I do agree that the New Jersey Transit Police seem to be basing their theory of suicide on flimsy ground. That said, the reason I get uncomfortable with stories like this is that no parent wants to think their child would commit suicide, but it obviously happens and far too commonly. Let’s examine the two flags actually mentioned in the episode itself:
- The credit card incident, which itself speaks to things the parents didn’t know about their daughter, that she would do that. But such a scenario, even if it doesn’t seem worth losing your life over, could be exacerbated in the mind of someone already going through issues.
- They mention that a week before Tiffany died, she and her girlfriend broke-up. The family hedges that it was a mutual break-up and perhaps Tiffany was already seeing someone else, but that all seems superficial and presumptious. We don’t know the details of the break-up, and along with the credit card fiasco, could be an additional triggering event.
- Not mentioned directly in the episode, but at least alluded to is that Tiffany was about to go to college. The transition period from high school to college can be a fraught, uncertain time for many. Add in if other life events seem uncertain and you have a combustible brew here.
I find it odd, for the record, that nobody considers an accident as a possibility. The binary is either suicide or foul play, aka murder. An accident is harder to game theory out, especially with someone walking versus driving. I don’t know how you accidentally get hit by a train while walking (as in, you don’t hear it coming), but maybe her foot was stuck in the track as the train was oncoming?
I feel sorry for the parents and family. The descriptions of the uncles having to identify the body, tell the parents, pick up Tiffany’s strewn body parts around the tracks and so forth is beyond imagination and horrifying (New Jersey Transit Police really don’t look good in this episode, whatever one thinks of the manner in which Tiffany died). However, I still feel icky whenever a case seems like a likely suicide and the family, due to their grief and buttressed by private investigators and lawyers making money (I’m not saying they don’t genuinely care, but I doubt they’re doing it pro bono, either!), is desperate to believe it is anything else. Because at least, in some measure, you could make sense of someone murdering your child versus your child deciding to take their own life.
What did you think of this case?