A former Atlantic County forensic pathologist says investigators already believed Tiffany Valiante, 18, committed suicide, skewing the results before they began investigating her 2015 death on the train tracks in Galloway Township.
“This bias negatively affected the way in which the scene was processed by all members of the team, both responding police and medical examiner’s staff,” forensic pathologist Donald Jason wrote in a report filed this month in the civil case attempting to amend the cause of Valiante’s death.
Jason, who worked in Atlantic County in the 1980s, submitted a written statement Feb. 6 to attorney Paul D’Amato. D’Amato represents Valiante’s parents, Dianne and Stephen, in the case filed against several unnamed defendants attempting to change the cause of death to “undetermined” and reopen the investigation into their daughter’s death.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the state Medical Examiner’s Office, did not respond to requests for comment.
Valiante died in July 2015. She was hit by an NJ Transit train traveling 80 mph near Prague Avenue in Galloway Township after she left a cousin’s graduation party, according to court documents. Her death was ruled a suicide by the Medical Examiner’s Office, but the Valiante family has since disputed that. They suspect foul play.
In July, Louise Houseman, a former investigator for the Atlantic County medical examiner, wrote an independent report claiming Valiante likely did not take her own life.
“It is highly unlikely this very accomplished, 18-year-old female athlete walked barefoot, alone in the woods, without her cell phone, over stones and brush, in the dark, along 1.5 miles of isolated railroad tracks, on a hot summer night, for a total of nearly 4 miles in order to commit suicide,” Houseman wrote in her report.
In his recent report, Jason said a basic tenet of death-scene investigations was violated: “Treat the location as a crime scene until assessed and determined to be otherwise.”
He wrote there was no attempt to make a clear identification of the deceased through scientific methods other than DNA evidence, although that was never tested. Jason also wrote that in his opinion, “within reasonable medical certainty,” Valiante’s cause of death was undetermined. He wrote there was no attempt made to uncover any other means of death by the medical examiner. He said that due to toxicology results, poisoning is highly improbable.
“The story that the victim jumped onto the tracks is suspect. The victim may have been sleeping or already dead when struck by the train,” Jason wrote.
He noted he had personally investigated a death that seemed like suicide by train but turned out to be strangulation. Police investigation resulted in an arrest and conviction in that case, he said.
The Valiantes first filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the state Attorney General’s Office, the state Medical Examiner’s Office and its southern regional branch.
The new lawsuit, filed July 10, alleges kidnapping, murder and destruction of evidence.
Since her death, Tiffany Valiante’s family has been pushing for Justice for Tiffany Valiante, a grass-roots campaign that includes a hotline to call with any information. Signs are posted around Atlantic County advertising the hotline, and Facebook and Twitter have accounts for the group.
Anyone with information on Tiffany Valiante is asked to call 609-318-4847.