MAYS LANDING — All of her friends and family have moved on with their lives while Tiffany Valiante remains stuck in time: an 18-year-old recent Oakcrest graduate, a volleyball standout, an “always smiling” teen who loved turtles.

“You know she didn’t commit suicide, you know it,” said her father, Stephen Valiante, as he walked along the path investigators say his daughter took before they claim she jumped in front of a train the night of July 12, 2015.

The Valiantes recently won a small victory in their yearslong court battle with the state Attorney General’s Office to have the manner of death on Tiffany’s death certificate changed from “suicide” to “undetermined,” but more challenges lie ahead.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment for this story.

Dianne and Stephen Valiante don’t care much about the doubters. In their fight to have authorities investigate her death, they’ve uncovered what they believe is crucial evidence, and gained supporters along the way.

The night Tiffany Valiante died

A deer camera in the sprawling front yard of the wooded property on Mannheim Avenue captured what may be the last living image of Tiffany Valiante.

The black-and-white images show Tiffany wearing shorts and a short-sleeved T-shirt, a headband and a pair of canvas slide-on shoes walking down the driveway, phone in hand. A minute later, she is gone and Tiffany’s parents are standing in the driveway looking out in the distance. By 11:30 p.m., Tiffany was dead and what happened in between is still unknown.

Tiffany had disappeared from her home about 9:30 p.m. after her friend and her friend’s mom came over to question Tiffany’s unauthorized use of her friend’s credit card. Dianne went inside “for a minute,” she said, and came back out to find Tiffany gone.

Those who believe Tiffany died by suicide point to the fight and Tiffany’s only recently disclosed sexuality — she had come out as a lesbian, although Dianne said her daughter’s sexuality was a nonissue.

The Valiantes’ attorney, Paul D’Amato, who is handling the case pro bono, said he met with 20 friends and relatives of Tiffany two weeks after her death who were all adamant Tiffany would not take her own life. They said she was making plans for the future, coordinating decor with her roommate at Mercy College, picking out a kitten to surprise her mom with for her upcoming birthday, and planning to pursue criminal justice as a career.

Evidence, oddities and inconsistencies

“I’ve never seen another case mishandled like this,” Dr. Donald Jason said recently during a phone interview.

Jason, a retired forensic pathologist and former Atlantic County medical examiner, and Louise Houseman, a former medical investigator for the Atlantic County Medical Examiner’s Office, reviewed the case for the family and agree the manner of death should be changed to “undetermined.”

“Within 36 hours, the medical examiner determined this to be a suicide without any information on her medical history, without anybody talking to the family,” said Houseman, who offered to review the case for free. “There was no investigation done on this.”

She and Jason both wondered how no X-rays were taken of the body to determine there was no foul play, and questioned using Tiffany’s uncle to make a visual identification of the body but never testing fingerprints or dental records.

“Even if you see someone with a gun in their hand, it doesn’t mean that they actually pulled the trigger,” Houseman said.

In his investigation, D’Amato has amassed a collection of evidence he’d like a jury to consider. Some of it includes oddities no one has been able to make sense of yet, like the fact Tiffany had no shoes on and barely any clothes when she died. Her shoes were later found a mile away from the scene on Tilton Road, and her shorts were never located. Or that Tiffany’s cellphone registered data usage and an answered phone call during the time she was missing, despite it being found in the brush near the home during the search.

Also curious is the proximity of Tiffany’s death to an outdoor party area about 100 feet from the tracks with furniture, a fire pit and marijuana plants. The party area is at the end of the driveway that goes up to a rental property on the White Horse Pike known locally as the Pi Kappa Phi house, the same unsanctioned fraternity involved in several civil lawsuits with Stockton University related to sexual assault claims. Another curiosity is an ax found near the scene of the accident that was never tested for DNA.

Others seemed to be intrigued by the case, too.

Recently, D’Amato received two packets of paper describing an independent investigation into Tiffany’s death by an organization that calls itself “Phoenix Research Group” but gave no contact information. D’Amato said he has no idea who the group is or how to contact them. Stephen Valiante said he wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“I think it’s other people believe she didn’t do this,” he said.

Atlantic County Surrogate Jim Carney, who now works as a private advocate, heard D’Amato on the radio recently talking about the Valiantes and volunteered his services to get more information.

“What I had known about it and subsequently what I learned about the matter is there’s so many irregularities,” Carney said. “We feel very confident that she did not commit suicide.”

Still in mourning

In the 2.2 miles from Pomona Road to the spot where Tiffany was hit, the tree-lined gravel service road along the tracks is covered in sharp black rocks, sticks and leaves, littered with pieces of trash and metal rail spikes. To the south, the tall brush is dense and prickly. To the north are woods and a small stream that line commercial property fronting the White Horse Pike.

Those who believe Tiffany didn’t take her own life say the teen who feared the dark could never have walked it alone at night, let alone barefoot. They invite nonbelievers to take the path themselves to understand.

Dianne Valiante has traced the path many times since that night, and with friends and family has scoured the areas in between.

“We’d walk up and down here just trying to look for anything,” she said.

Every day, the Valiantes come out to tend to the memorial they have created for their daughter just off the tracks.

Each night, Stephen changes the battery on a small radio that plays continuously inside the shrine covered in pictures and mementos. On this day, the memorial is decorated for the holidays, including a Christmas tree adorned with pink and blue sparkling ornaments.

“There’s not a second of the day we don’t think of her,” Dianne Valiante said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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