The case of Tiffany Whitton’s mysterious 2 a.m. disappearance from a Marietta Walmart almost four years ago is technically a cold case.
But it isn’t really cold.
“This case has never been at a stalemate,” said Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans, who oversees Cobb County’s cold case unit, which is investigating the case with the Marietta Police Department. “It would be a surprise to go a full month without having some new tip or new development.”
It seems that every few weeks, he said, “there’s something else to look into” with regards to how a 26-year-old woman could vanish from the parking lot of a superstore after being caught shoplifting.
Despite those fresh leads, the case remains unsolved.
Investigators and Whitton’s family have no idea whether she is alive, or where she – or her body – may be. Next month will mark the four-year anniversary of her disappearance.
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“Here you have an individual who literally ran out of her life. She left her phone, she left her contact with the outside world, she left her personal belongings,” Evans said. “The circumstances immediately surrounding her disappearance are extremely suspect.”
The last time Whitton was seen publicly, she was parading through the aisles of a Walmart on Cobb Parkway in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, 2013. She was with her boyfriend, Ashley Caudle.
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As Whitton attempted to walk out of the store holding less than $20 worth of stolen clothes, a plain-clothes loss prevention officer intervened, grabbing her by the strap of her purse, surveillance video shows.
Another officer in plain clothes walked up.
Whitton wriggled out of her purse, stepped out of her flip flops, and ran — into the darkness and emptiness of a massive shopping center parking lot.
A distant lifestyle
Whitton’s mother and grandmother weren’t that surprised when they didn’t hear from her for a while after that night. She’d become wrapped up in drugs, and often went off the grid for long periods of time while dating Caudle.
“My mother started to get concerned, and said, ‘Something’s not right,’” Whitton’s mother, Lisa Daniels, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview. “I just kept trying to reassure my mom. I said, ‘This is Tiffany, she’s using again. She’s probably not going to reach out to us until she needs help.’”
So it wasn’t until months after Whitton’s disappearance that Daniels filed a Missing Persons report, dealing a major timing setback to investigators.
“There was nothing initially to raise alarm,” Daniels said. “We worried about her constantly. It was one of those things that if she got picked up for something and was in jail, I slept better at night because I knew where she was.”
Whitton was previously arrested on robbery and drug charges, and had been in and out of rehab. Since then, she navigated between serving and bartending jobs, her mother said.
A suspect boyfriend
Caudle, the boyfriend, has been considered a suspect and was interviewed, Evans said. Investigators even searched his home in July 2014, but it did not lead to any arrests.
He’s now in prison in Carroll County on drug trafficking charges from a 2014 incident in Cherokee County; his sentence could last until 2024.
Authorities said that on the night Whitton went missing, Caudle stayed inside the Walmart and briefly talked with the employees before heading outside.
He has said he looked for Whitton but was unable to find her. He went to an IHOP across the street, where Tiffany worked, Daniels said, and asked if anyone saw her.
Daniels doesn’t buy Caudle’s story, since he didn’t call police or his girlfriend’s family after she went missing.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me that he doesn’t know where she is or [that] he never saw her again,” she said. “He knows what happened to her and he knows where she is. Of that I have no doubt.”
She believes her daughter would have gone to Caudle’s car in the parking lot after running out of the store. Then, she thinks, “either they had a fight and he killed her, or she overdosed and he did nothing.”
The pair were seen in a Walmart surveillance video exhibiting a “kinetic energy” inside the store, according to Evans, the ADA. They appeared to be on drugs of some sort.
This case, however, doesn’t fit the normal mold of an overdose death, Evans said.
“People don’t typically OD and then disappear off the face of the Earth,” he said.
The lack of physical evidence makes it hard to press charges on anyone, according to Evans.
“There’s a whole lot of factors that go into your ability to charge somebody, and investigations such as this are always complicated when there are unknowns,” he said.
Daniels believes her daughter is most likely dead, but she still holds out hope that she’s not.
“I dream at night that she’s gone off somewhere, that she just decided to get away from here and start a new life,” she said. “Nothing would make me happier than to know that she’s somewhere happy and healthy, but do I believe that? No.”
A life left behind
Daniels was left to raise Whitton’s daughter, who is now 10 years old and similar to Tiffany in an “uncanny” way, she said.
“It’s really almost surreal, watching her grow up again and hoping and praying that this time, things turn out differently,” she said.
Daniels doesn’t hide the story of what happened to Whitton.
“She misses her mommy,” Daniels said of her granddaughter. “She knows — not in great detail – but she does know in general why her mommy’s not here.”
The girl participates in a balloon release every year, during which friends and loved ones release hundreds of purple balloons into the sky on every anniversary of Whitton’s disappearance. Handwritten notes or messages printed out from a Facebook page are attached to the balloons.
Daniels manages the Facebook page “Find Tiffany Whitton” on which she posts loving messages to her daughter, comments on other Missing Persons cases and — more than anything — pleads for help in finding out what happened to Whitton.
“There’s never a second that goes by that she’s out of my mind. There is just not a second that ticks by, and it’s torture. Not knowing is torture,” she said, breaking down in tears. “Somebody has the ability to give us answers, and I just pray that one day they’ll find it in their hearts to do that.”
There is no doubt Whitton lived a flawed life — estranging herself from her family and constantly teetering on the edge of the law. But that shouldn’t change anyone’s desire to help solve her case, her mother said.
“Regardless of what she may have done, what her lifestyle may have been, she is deserving of being found,” Daniels said. “She’s somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, and deserves to be found. She deserves justice.”
Anyone with information about what might have happened to Tiffany Whitton is asked to call the Cobb cold case tip line at 770-528-3032.