Lost in fear, uncertainty and questions unanswered
MARIETTA, Ga. – Tiffany Whitton had her demons and was known to go off the grid for weeks at a time. But when Sept. 19 rolled around every year, no matter the arguments between them, she would always call her mom, Lisa Daniels, to wish her a happy birthday.
She's blown out candles on four birthday cakes, opened countless gifts, fielded a slew of happy phone calls from friends and family, but Daniels has turned one year older for four years without a word from her eldest.
In fact, no one has heard from Whitton since Sept. 13, 2013.
“Even if we were on the outs, on my birthday, she would always call me. Always. And it didn't matter how bad things were, she would always call me. The fact that she hasn't reached out to anyone... she's either not out there or she is not able to reach out to anyone,” Daniels said.
“Have I given up 100 percent of my hope? Absolutely, not. And never will, until there's a positive ID that she's been found."
The last time Daniels talked to her 26-year-old daughter was on Aug. 31, 2013. They were exchanging witty banter-filled text messages over a college football game.
“We're Clemson fans and Clemson was playing Georgia, and she was calling me because she knew I was going to the game. She was excited and she was talking smack. That was a good day. She was happy and I was happy.”
A week later, Whitton reached out to her grandmother, Daniels’ mother. According to her, Whitton showed up, claiming that she had no food and no clean clothes. Her grandmother took her to the laundromat and met Whitton’s boyfriend when she dropped her off with bags of food.
Daniels said that her mother begged Whitton to come home with her, but she refused.
And for the next four years, Daniels’ phone has remained silent—no voicemails, no calls, no texts from her daughter. Today, she searches every face she comes across looking for her daughter and mother to her 10-year-old granddaughter.
She clings to hope that new leads will reveal the truth once and for all, and put a fire under this cold missing persons case.
A summer without a trace
A blonde Whitton wriggled out of her purse and bolted from a pair of sliding glass doors, running out of her flip flops and leaving her phone behind. Once outside, she darted underneath a sign that warned: cameras installed. And they were—catching her every footstep.
Whitton, a young mother to a then-6-year-old, seemingly vanished from the Walmart Supercenter on Cobb Parkway in Marietta, Ga., on Sept. 13, 2013 around 2 a.m. She had been detained for shoplifting with her then-boyfriend, Ashley Caudle.
She was on parole for another crime.
“On the night that she disappeared, she was up to no good that night as well. She was high. She was in Walmart. She bought some things and she also lifted some things. She was with her boyfriend at the time and was caught, initially, by their security at Walmart, and got away,” Daniels said of her daughter who has struggled with addiction.
Daniels attempted to retrace her daughter's last-known footsteps.
“I actually went to that Walmart and stood there in front and could picture her running out those doors. So, that was hard,” Daniels said, tearing up and fighting back the tears that raced down her cheek. “I couldn't walk back in there again—but I did that one time.”
Following her illegal and abrupt disappearance, no one reported her missing.
It wasn’t necessarily alarming or unlike her to ignore her family or stop calling her friends, Daniels admitted. But after the lack of phone call on her birthday and her absence during the holidays, a few months after that footage was captured inside Walmart, her mom knew something wasn’t right.
“We did not realize that anything was wrong until a couple of months later—because she was participating in a lifestyle that she would be off the grid for weeks at a time, because when she was using and things were really bad, the last thing she wanted was for us to know that she was using.”
But, usually, Daniels said, Whitton would contact someone in the family—cousins, her grandmother, friends or co-workers at IHOP... someone.
It wasn’t until Daniels mother, who Whitton had listed as her residence, received a letter from Walmart about the shoplifting incident. It was the first that they knew about it.
“So, then we're thinking, 'OK, she's on the run. She's high.' She was already on probation, so we just figured she's high now,” Daniels said of her drug-addicted daughter.
“I said, 'She's laying low; she doesn't want to get caught; she knows she's going to be in trouble.’”
But when the family started to call and inquire with Caudle what happened to Whitton, he claimed that the night at Walmart caught on surveillance video was the last time he laid eyes on her as well.
Daniels took to Facebook, surfing, searching, wading through messages, alerts and friend requests on her daughter’s page. And what she found took her aback.
Friends reached out:
"Hey, where are you?"
"I haven't heard from you, call me."
"I'm worried about you."
“That was when I truly knew something was extremely wrong, because she had hundreds of notifications, unread messages, friend requests... hundreds. She was an avid Facebook user. She was on it a lot. All her activity of Facebook ceased that day. I knew then that she was in real trouble—and not just legal trouble.”
“I waited until after the holidays because she's not a child, she's an adult. She has a right to hide out, a right to be missing if that's what she wants. I really didn't know how to handle it.”
But the anxious mother eventually filed a missing persons report with the Marietta Police Department in January 2014.
The following summer, police searched Whitton's boyfriend’s house, but could not find any evidence pointing to her whereabouts.
Caudle’s mother, Peggy Bailey, told 11Alive three years ago, that she did not believe her son had anything to do with Whitton’s disappearance. But she did say he had a drug problem.
“My son's a good guy if he's not using drugs. You couldn't ask for a better young man,” Bailey said about her son who is currently behind bars for separate charges in Cherokee County. "If he's using drugs he wasn't allowed in my home, around my grandchildren or around me.”
Raising Tiffany: Inside a young mother’s addiction
Memories are strewn across her dining room table. One by one she plucks each photo and remembers a tiny anecdote share. It's all she has left.
Daniels calls her daughter a “green-eyed beauty with a troubled soul.”
Tiffany Michelle Whitton was never one to wait around.
In fact, on a mild Georgian winter's day, she decided to enter the world seven days early, although her mom was scheduled for a C-section on Feb. 6, 1987. Whitton was born on Jan. 30, 1987 around 9 p.m.—only an hour after getting to the hospital.
And from that moment on, mother and daughter were inseparable.
“She was a good baby. She was a normal baby, beautiful baby,” Daniels remembered. “As a toddler, she was a ham. She was funny. She liked making people laugh.”
While her parents divorced while she was an infant, she was still a happy-go-lucky little kid, not to mention a rambunctious handful.
“But, she just really seemed to love life. [She had] two speeds: on and off. That's it. There's no in between. From the time, she'd wake up in the morning, until she went to bed at night, it was just full force, all day long.”
The little girl, who dressed up in ruffles and lace for photos, loved exploring the outdoors, playing basketball, cheerleading and watching cooking shows. In fact, her Saturday morning ritual wasn’t cartoon-watching like her friends, rather, it was pouring herself a bowl of cereal and flipping on the TV to cooking shows and infomercials.
But she didn't dream of becoming a chef. She wanted to be a veterinarian. However, when she dropped out of high school during her sophomore year, her reality would set in—for Daniels as well.
Checkered past leads to uncertain future
The daughter who was once a “mama’s girl” had turned to a new comfort: drugs.
“Unfortunately, her choices in life led to bigger trouble. She eventually found herself addicted to OxyContin, then heroin and meth,” Daniels said. “'Tough love' became my mantra. Although it hurt me deeply to be apart from her.”
And the young mother started on her rap sheet early on, getting caught shoplifting a $3 pair of flip flops from Walmart. Drugs took over in her early 20s.
She spent a short time in prison in 2012, and was released right before Thanksgiving. She was starting to move to the right path, it seemed. In fact, Daniels said, they took her to a rehabilitation facility.
“She was determined to get her life back on track. And unfortunately, the thing about rehab facilities, is you're around a lot of people who have the same problems you do. She just, just was not strong enough to stay off drugs,” she said. “It broke my heart—because I had my doubts that she would ever be able to do it. I prayed that she would, but I had my doubts that she ever would.”
The daughter she described as a good-hearted person, had an increasingly volatile relationship with her.
“I loved her. I mean, obviously, she's my first-born. Loved her and only wanted to see her be happy, healthy and successful. And she had so much potential to be all of those things. Funny. Pretty. Sweet. Charming. Smart. Just, total package, but troubled, for whatever reason, troubled.”
The older she got, the rockier their relationship grew.
“[Drugs] definitely hurt our relationship a lot. It got to the point, no matter how much I wanted to help her, I couldn't have her under my roof. And that was heartbreaking.”
Their relationship soon began to feel like a never-ending roller coaster that Daniels couldn't get off of.
“It's like getting cut. And you start to heal and before you can completely heal, you get cut again. And before you can get completely healed, you get cut again. And after a while that wound doesn't heal. And so, no matter how much you love that person, that wound is do deep, and now, the wound is even deeper. There are so many things left unsaid.”
Regardless of her lifestyle or any issues that they had, Daniels said, “She's my baby. She's a person; she's a beautiful person who was troubled. But, she's not any less-deserving of being found than anyone else.”
And now, Daniels’ granddaughter, Whitton’s daughter, is the spitting image of her mom, right down to the southern drawl in her words.
“[She's] very much like her mom—similar personality traits, both good and bad. She's silly and fun-loving; she's athletic. She's beautiful—fearless. She's a lot of the things that her mommy was and she looks exactly like her. Exactly like her.”
“I look at her and imagine her being Tiffany, sometimes. It's hard not to,” she said, choking up on her emotion. “But, we love her and she's like our own; we raise her like our own. But she knows that we are biologically her grandparents. She's our baby; she's our daughter as far as we're concerned. And that's how we raise her.
“It's just a life incomplete because, at least if she was here, she would have a chance--that somebody would be able to help her, whether it was me or somebody else. And now I just feel like that chance has been taken away. She'll never have the chance to be a mommy to her to her little girl, and get clean like she wanted to.”
Cold case may be warming up
After two years, the Cobb County Cold Case Unit picked up Whitton’s missing persons case in 2015.
"It's a case, I will tell you, that is way, way up on our priority list. We want to find Tiffany—for a number of reasons. One, and the primary reason, as is with any cold case, is that you want to get some closure to folks. They need to know what happened, the family does," Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said.
"She's a mother. She's a daughter. And everyone has their own demons that they wrestle with, and I'm sure Tiffany was no different. She had certain demons that she was dealing with in her life, day in and day out. But the bottom line is that this was a beautiful young lady; she's someone who's loved by family members. She is somebody, who people care about, wonder, literally every waking moment of the day, 'Where is my child? Where is my mother? Where's this person, my friend who've we lost and can't find?'"
“I feel really good that eventually this matter will be dissolved,” he continued.
And he warns that the cold case unit is not the group of bloodhounds you want on your trail if you did something you shouldn’t have.
“We've committed to Tiffany's mother that we are going to do everything humanly possible to find out what happened to her. If she's been killed. The case turns from 'finding Tiffany, to finding out what happened to Tiffany.' And if something happened to Tiffany, that involved a criminal activity, every bit of the effort, every bit of the energy involved in finding her goes to making sure that person is held responsible."
A mother's plea
“The not knowing is torture. It is pure torture,” Daniels said, her pitch elevated and her tears dropping. “It is every day, just waking up, and wondering, is this going to be the day? And then going to bed and saying, no this wasn't it. And praying, to get through one more. Just get me through one more.”
Sometimes, she said, Whitton comes to her in her dreams. And, even momentarily, it comforts her.
“I see her and I just say, 'I love you. I miss you. I just want you to come home. I just wish you were here.'”
It's what gives her the strength to hold out a glimmer of hope that she will, one day, walk through the door again.
“Even though all the evidence points to something else, I'm always going to have that hope, until there's no reason to have hope anymore.”
More questions, few answers
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions. A lot of unanswered questions,” Daniels said. “I'm driven and determined. And I'll remain determined until we have answers. Whoever does have the information, I'm not going to let it rest.”
But she is optimistic, especially in light of Chase Massner’s case.
Massner was from the same area, around the same age and disappeared just a few months after as Whitton.
“It gives me hope that we're on the right track, and that we're going to find her. I do believe that.
We're going to find her; it's only a matter of time.”
What keeps her moving forward these days is that steadfast belief and her family.
“I pray a lot and I love my family and I'm not going to abandon them. I have a lot of people who love me and care about me. And I think that the last thing that Tiffany would want is, just for me to just give up. If I gave up on life, I'd be giving up on her, so I can't do that.”
Whitton is 5’3 tall and 105 lbs., with blonde hair and green eyes. She has several tattoos, including Chinese letters on her lower back and wrist, as well as a butterfly on her right hip.
Anyone who knows anything about her disappearance should call the Cobb County Cold Case Unit or the Marietta Police at (770) 794-2366, or call their tip line at (770) 794-6990; or visit the Facebook page "Find Tiffany Whitton," that Daniels created. She hopes the next Facebook follower will be that one person who knows the answer to her questions.
“We still believe there is at least one person who either knows where Tiffany is or whether something may have happened to her," her mother said in a recent post. "Not knowing where she is or whether she's alive is agonizing."
For more of Georgia's cold cases, visit 11Alive's Cold Case page.
HOW WE DID THE STORY |
Gone Cold is an ongoing series, where 11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll investigates some of the most infamous and lesser-known cold cases in Georgia. She's digging for answers for the still-grieving families who long for them, and for the victims who have never found their justice.
11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll spent several days interviewing law enforcement and family to journalistically gather every aspect of the story possible. She investigated the cases, sifting through public records, court documents, police reports and photos.
This story is written in a narrative-style, long-form and was methodically reported in order to obtain each detail of the Kuria case—revealing what happened to Jane Kuria, her two daughter, son and nephew on Aug. 1, 2007.
CONTACT THE REPORTER |
Jessica Noll is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth, investigative crime/justice reports for 11Alive's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @JNJournalist and like her on Facebook to keep up with her latest work. If you have a tip or story idea, email her at jnoll@11Alive.com or call, text at (404) 664-3634.