Netflix’s ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ episode deals with suspicious death of South Jersey teen Tiffany Valiante

[Philadelphia Inquirer] Netflix’s ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ episode deals with suspicious death of South Jersey teen Tiffany Valiante

Tiffany Valiante, 18, of Mays Landing, is pictured in her senior year at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing. Authorities said she committed suicide after a New Jersey Transit train struck her in July 2015. Her family disputes that ruling. Read more

On July 12, 2015, Mays Landing, N.J. resident Tiffany Valiante, 18, was struck by an NJ Transit train about four miles from her home. Investigators quickly determined her death a suicide.

Ever since then, her family has been fighting to have her death reexamined.

Now, Valiante’s story is featured in an episode of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries, which premiered on the streaming platform Tuesday. The episode, “Mystery at Mile Marker 45,” details the events leading up to Tiffany’s death, and the search for justice that her parents, Dianne and Stephen Valiante, have been on ever since.

“New Jersey Transit put it out there that my daughter committed suicide,” Dianne says in the show. “There’s absolutely no way. No way at all. I want to know what happened to my daughter.”

NJ Transit did not immediately return a request for comment.

At the time of her death, Valiante was preparing to graduate from Oakcrest High School, and had a scholarship to Mercy College in New York, where she planned to continue her volleyball career. Family, friends and supporters say that Tiffany was not suicidal or depressed.

As the Unsolved Mystery episode recounts, the official finding is that Valiante ditched her cell phone in front her family home, and walked about four miles to a set of train tracks, much of the journey without shoes. She was killed when NJ Transit train 4693, which was traveling from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, struck and killed her just after 11 p.m. at mile marker 45. A student engineer who was operating the train at the time changed his version of events a number of times, but said under oath that he saw Tiffany jump out of the surrounding woods onto the tracks.

But the Valiante family and their supporters believe that that version of events doesn’t add up. Tiffany, they say, was murdered, and her body was placed on the tracks to cover up the killing.

“It may very well be that Tiffany was the victim of foul play,” the Valiante family’s attorney, Paul D’Amato, says in the show. A bulk of the episode is dedicated to inconsistencies in the investigation of Tiffany’s death, including a lack of DNA testing on evidence found at the scene, which her family and supporters say was not properly secured, as well as no evidence that a rape kit was ever performed on Tiffany’s body. Toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Tiffany’s system.

“We hope to get an explanation of what happened,” D’Amato told the Daily News in 2016. “Because we’re not going to let this certificate of death be the final word for Tiffany Valiante’s life.”

In 2017, D’Amato filed a lawsuit against the state medical examiner’s office and other agencies to have Tiffany’s suicide ruling overturned. After less than a year of investigation, in March of 2018, the state declined to change the manner of her death, NJ.com reports.

“As the State Medical Examiner and a parent, please extend my condolences to the Valiante family for their tragic loss,” state medical examiner Andrew Falzon wrote in a letter to D’Amato, according to the Daily Beast.

D’Amato filed another lawsuit on behalf of the Valiante family in 2019 that enabled the family to have evidence collected by NJ Transit police tested for DNA, the Press of Atlantic City reports. That process concluded in March, and a report from the Ohio-based DNA Diagnostics Center found that NJ Transit police mishandled the evidence to such a degree that no conclusive results could be found. One item had been stored in a plastic bag and was “covered in mold,” and other pieces of evidence were “left outdoors, exposed to the elements for a few weeks, prior to being collected,” leaving them worthless for testing, according to a letter from the lab.

The Valiantes paid for the testing out of their own pockets, and have remortgaged their home and spent their life savings in pursuit of answers in Tiffany’s case, a press release from D’Amato’s office said.

Despite that financial hardship, the Valiante family earlier this month doubled the reward for information about Tiffany’s case to $40,000.

“We know every day Tiffany is looking down on us, giving us the strength to help find those who snatched her and were responsible for her death just before she was to start her incredibly promising college career,” her parents said in a statement. “We know so many others that also believe Tiffany’s death was not suicide, that there was a rush to judgement to close the case, and that the real story of how and why she died has yet to be told.”

The Unsolved Mysteries episodes encourage anyone with information to contact D’Amato’s office at 609-926-3300, or submit a tip at Unsolved.com. You can also contact the state’s Office of Attorney General at 800-277-2427.

How to find help

If you or anyone you know is thinking of suicide, help is available 24/7:

The National Suicide Prevention Talk Lineoffers help in over 150 languages. Call 1-800-273-8255or text HELLO to 741741. En Español, marca al 1-888-628-9454. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-800-799-4889. The Philadelphia Suicide and Crisis Center offers guidance and assessment about depression, self harm, hopelessness, anger, addiction, and relationship problems, at 215-686-4420. Veterans Crisis Chat is available at 1-800-273-8255 or by text at 838255. The Trevor Project offers crisis support to LGBTQ+ youth 25 and under. Call 1-866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or start a chat.