A Forensic Failure

(Photo Source: Netflix Tudum)

(Photo Source: Netflix Tudum)

Jessica Brann, Writer

As depicted in the Netflix series Unsolved Mysteries, Tiffany Valiante was struck by a train in New Jersey. Her death was quickly deemed a suicide, but mystery surrounds the event. 

Tiffany Valiante was an 18 year old New Jersey resident. She was a talented volleyball player and had plans for continuing her education. Her family described her as cheerful and content with her life, she was the last person they thought would commit suicide.

What Happened

The accident occurred at approximately 11:07 PM on July 12, 2015. Valiante was about to be confronted by her father for stealing money from a friend when she disappeared. A picture was retrieved from the father’s hunting camera (see cover photo) that showed Valiante walking off, looking to her left. She is seen to be wearing white shoes, shorts, a t-shirt, and a white headband. Her phone was quickly found near her driveway.

After a while of searching, her uncle came across an active police scene by the nearby New Jersey transit train. Officers told him a woman had been hit by the train, and he identified the body as being Tiffany Valiante. The location of impact was about 3.5 miles from where she was last seen. 

Investigators hastily labeled the event as a suicide, missing mountains of potential evidence that would prove otherwise. Valiante’s body was recovered wearing only underwear and a sports bra. One of the first things that seemed off were her missing shoes. None of her other belongings were found near the impact site besides a piece of jewelry. 

The theory was she walked there with the intent of getting struck: if this was true, she would have been walking on road, forest, and gravel barefoot for who knows how long. Her shoes and headband were later found 1.5 miles away from the impact site. Her shorts have yet to be recovered. 

Speculation Grows

Valiante’s feet showed no lacerations or other injuries that would be consistent with walking barefoot on rough terrain for an extended amount of time. Her parents were also adamant she would not have wanted to commit suicide: she loved her life. She was successful, had friends, and loved her family. 

Foul play was suspected, but not proven. One theory proposed that she had been in a car with another person. In fact, blood was found on the shirt she had worn, yet the shirt was not on her when she got struck. Was that evidence of a premortem injury? Why would she leave her shoes a mile and a half away? Why would she undress to get struck by a train? The story did not make sense. 

Another red flag was the eyewitness report. Two engineers had been working the train that night: the engineer and a student. The student reportedly stated a woman “ran in front of the train,” but later stated he had seen a figure when he was around a quarter mile away. It was speculated that if she had been dead on the tracks, the dismembering body parts could have looked like someone “jumping” toward the train.

A Messy Investigation

So, how was this never corrected? The main reason is that there was no viable evidence collected from any of the scenes. Both a knife and an ax were found near the scene, yet not treated as possible murder weapons. The ax actually went missing while in storage. Valiante’s shoes were collected but never tested for any trace evidence. 

From the beginning, the scene was never treated as a crime scene. The general rule for deaths is “treat it like an active crime scene until you can prove otherwise”. This rule was not observed. Not even all of Valiante’s remains were collected- a few days after the accident a family member went out and collected pieces of her body scattered around the tracks. 

In addition to messy evidence, thorough reports were never completed. The only examination done on Valiante’s body was a toxicology report, which ruled out drugs or alcohol. Nothing else was checked. Even her heart was never examined for cardiac disease or failure.

The only organs reportedly unable to be examined in the autopsy report were the brain and the eyes. It would have been understandably difficult to locate any premortem injuries due to the extent of crushing done by the train.

If proper steps had been taken to secure the scene and collect potential evidence, the mystery around Tiffany Valiante’s death could have been solved years ago. Unfortunately, the truth is still unclear. Hopefully future examinations and advances in forensic science can bring solace to her family.