On the night of July 12, 2015, at precisely 11:07 PM, a New Jersey transit train struck 18-year-old Tiffany Valiante outside the small community of May’s Landing, about twenty miles from Atlantic City. She was likely killed instantly, but the speeding train took time to come to a stop, dragging and dismembering her body for a quarter of a mile. The medical examiner’s report is particularly grisly, eventually listing the cause of death as “multiple traumatic injuries,” and describing gruesome details like her limbs being ripped from her body and her brain “extruded from the cranial cavity.”
For all the grisly details of the tragedy, however, authorities initially saw little mystery in it. The medical examiner’s report, which was issued just six days after Tiffany’s death, lists the manner of death as “suicide.” For authorities, it was an open-and-shut case. The engineer who was operating the train at the time of Tiffany’s death told authorities that she had darted or jumped onto the tracks, and that she didn’t move when he sounded the horn.
The Valientes didn’t buy it, however, and their family lawyer, Paul D’Amato, went looking for a second opinion, appealing to former Atlantic County Medical Examiner Dr. Donald Jason, who theorized that New Jersey Transit was “very happy to just call it suicide because then they’re off the hook.” D’Amato and Tiffany’s parents weren’t satisfied, however, and have continued to push, in the intervening years, for the case to be investigated as something other than a suicide, and for the official manner of death to be changed to “undetermined.”
Tiffany’s parents say that they don’t know what happened to their daughter that night, but they suspect foul play. According to them, Tiffany Valiente had no reason to take her own life. She had recently graduated from high school with a volleyball scholarship to Mercy College in New York. Earlier in the evening of her death, she and her parents visited her uncle’s house across the street, where a graduation party for Tiffany’s cousin was underway.
While witnesses recalled Tiffany enthusiastically talking about going off to college and hatching plans for her mother’s birthday at the party, the evening didn’t go entirely smoothly. Not long after 9 PM, Tiffany’s parents got a call. It was a friend of Tiffany’s, who claimed that Tiffany had used her debit card without permission. Steve and Dianne, Tiffany’s parents, went back to their house to meet with the friend and her mother, calling Tiffany over after the accusations had been made.
Though Tiffany denied using the debit card, it wasn’t the first time that she’d been caught out in some fiscal fraud. A few months earlier, Steve and Dianne had caught her stealing money from their bank account. Nonetheless, the conversation ended in short order, with Tiffany’s friend driving off with her mother at around 9:24. Shortly after that, Tiffany disappeared.
According to a timeline provided by Paul D’Amato, the Valiantes’ lawyer, Tiffany and her mother began searching her car for evidence either proving or disproving the friend’s claims. Dianne saw Tiffany slip the disputed debit card into her back pocket, and went inside to get Steve. When she got back, Tiffany was gone.
A deposition transcript shows that Dianne called Tiffany’s friend and said that Tiffany “ran away,” though Dianne has since denied using that phrase. The last known photo of Tiffany was captured by a deer cam at the end of the family driveway, as she strode into the night. The events of the next hour-and-a-half or so are unknown, at least where Tiffany is concerned. She disappears until 11:07, when she is struck by a train traveling nearly 80 miles per hour.
On July 16, investigators sent out a K-9 unit to track Tiffany’s movements on the night of her death. “I advised all present,” the K-9 handler wrote in an operations report, “I wanted to conduct the track blind and let me K-9 partner lead the way and discuss the track when completed.” The trail led them from the Valientes’ home along a more than 3-mile route to the “general area” where the train struck Tiffany.
Yet, there is also evidence against the hypothesis that she walked that route herself, with the intention of stepping in front of the train. Tiffany’s mother found her new shoes and headband, which she had worn to the party, about a mile from their home, “neatly lined up” under a tree, nowhere near where Tiffany died. Similarly, her cell phone, which she supposedly never went anywhere without, was found lying in the grass at the end of the family driveway.
Compounding the mystery of what happened that night is that the investigation was routinely botched, at least according to Tiffany’s family members. Besides conflicting reports from the engineers on the train, the Valiantes cite poor evidence handling, including the loss of an ax with “red markings” on it that was found near the site of Tiffany’s demise, and other evidence that was stored improperly, making subsequent DNA testing impossible.
While the Valiantes claim that the suicide theory doesn’t add up—and have spent the intervening years, and several thousand dollars trying to prove it—however, there are reasons to believe that Tiffany may have taken her own life, besides just “confirmation bias” on the part of investigators. Besides the situation with the debit card and the subsequent confrontation with her mother, others who knew Tiffany outlined many difficulties surrounding her life.
In 2014, child protective services had made three visits to the Valiante home after one of Tiffany’s teachers noticed a bruise on her arm, inflicted by her mother during an argument. Tiffany and Dianne made one visit to see a counselor at the behest of their case worker, though Dianne considered their increasing squabbles “normal teenage stuff.”
Six months before her death, Tiffany came out as gay, which her mother initially dismissed as “just going through a phase,” though Dianne Valiante has since said that she and her husband were supportive of Tiffany’s sexuality. Meanwhile, friends and classmates suggested that Tiffany was more troubled than perhaps her parents realized, describing Tiffany as “lonely” and distant, with at least some friends claiming that Tiffany had engaged in self-harm in the past, a claim that her parents deny.
However, the summary from her one therapy visit suggests that Tiffany claimed to be neither depressed nor suicidal, and none of her friends ever reported her talking about taking her own life. “Not one person in this case has said, ‘Oh, there was a clear motive here on the part of this young woman,’” said Stephen Rosenfeld, a former assistant general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority working as a consultant for the Valiantes.
So, what really happened to Tiffany Valiante that night in 2015? We may never know, but her family hasn’t given up trying to find out, and the latest development is an episode of the newly-relaunched Unsolved Mysteries series on Netflix, which covers Tiffany’s disappearance and mysterious and tragic death.