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Five years after her death, Tiffany Valiante's family continues fight for justice

MAYS LANDING — Every year on July 12, Tiffany Valiante’s family and friends gather at her childhood home on the anniversary of what they argue was her murder in 2015.

Valiante, 18, had just graduated from Oakcrest High School and was headed to college on a full volleyball scholarship. She attended a graduation party for her cousin across the street from her house earlier in the evening but was back home when she stepped outside at around 9:30 p.m. That was the last time anyone in her family saw her.

At 11:16 p.m., she was struck by a train near Prague Avenue in Galloway Township. NJ Transit conducted the investigation and determined it was a suicide. A list of irregularities have led the family, lawyers and outside investigators to question that conclusion.

Paul D’Amato, an Egg Harbor Township lawyer, has been representing the family pro bono for the last five years. He’s filed numerous suits on behalf of the family as they fight for a better investigation. On Monday, he’s filing a motion to have NJ Transit explain why it won’t let the family pay for private DNA testing of evidence it refuses to test.

“There is no way a person of average intelligence could conclude this was suicide,” D’Amato said. “I have had probably eight retired law enforcement officials read the file and conclude there isn’t enough evidence to conclude this was suicide. It was a clear rush to judgment.”

D’Amato said that five years ago the state medical examiner’s office was in total disarray. The system wasn’t organized and clearly understaffed.

Because investigators concluded suicide so quickly, much of the evidence they collected was never tested. A toxicology report showed that Valiante had no alcohol or drugs in her system but otherwise it appears little other testing was done. DNA swabs were left untested and contradictory statements from the engineers and the train’s black box were left unexplained. Additionally, Valiante wasn’t examined for rape despite being found wearing few clothes.

NJ Transit told the family last year they could pay to test those samples after confirming it wouldn’t do the testing itself, but just last week the agency informed the family it wouldn’t let any of the evidence go out for private testing, hence Monday’s motion.

Valiante was missing her shorts, shirt, shoes and a headband when she was struck. Her shorts have never been found and her shirt was near the tracks, but her shoes and headband were discovered a week later by her mother, Dianne Valiante, a mile from where she was struck. They were next to the road away from the route investigators determined Valiante had traveled.

Dianne Valiante said investigators told her the shoes must have flown there from the impact.

“People deserve to know what we’ve gone through, what we’re still going through,” Dianne Valiante said. “We just want them to do what they were supposed to do. You’re supposed to do an investigation and a proper investigation.”

The family thinks NJ Transit’s reluctance to cooperate stems from not wanting to acknowledge a questionable investigation.

“The proof’s there, but they don’t want to face that they screwed up,” Dianne Valiante said. “They failed my daughter. They failed my family.”

Tiffany’s father, Stephen Valiante, planted a pink dogwood tree in the backyard last year and everyone at the 2019 remembrance painted stones to put around it.

They continued that tradition this year. Tiffany’s parents were joined by her two older sisters, Jessica Vallauri, 36, and Krystal Summerville, 34, their five kids, Tiffany’s 7-year old dog, Tucker, and several cousins, aunts and uncles.

“It’s for all of us to get through the day,” Vallauri said.

Her sister said people being there helps.

“It shows us that we do have support,” Summerville said. “That they’re here to help us fight.”

The family is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information can call 609-927-0001.

PHOTOS from our coverage of the death of Tiffany Valiante

‘It feels like the only place you can be normal:’ COVID-19 changed everything, but the beach remains the same

VENTNOR — Kids dug into the wet sand searching for sand crabs, while a few others went over to Joe, the ice cream man, to get a sweet treat to cool down.

A woman sat in her chair by the water reading a book. A small group of teenagers spread its towels out and checked its phones.

It looked like any other day at the beach. It was as if COVID-19 didn’t exist.

In a new normal, almost everything is different. For the foreseeable future, at least in New Jersey, masks are required indoors — and for the most part, outside — indoor dining is prohibited, temperature checks are required to enter a casino or hair salon, people have to social distance at all times, and handshakes and hugs are virtually a thing of the past.

The virus changed everything, except for a day at the beach.

Christine Sagnis was walking along the water’s edge with her friends Thursday, enjoying a perfect beach day. The 52-year-old veterinary technician from Ventnor loves everything about the beach, from the sand to the sun.

“I’m an essential worker, so I’ve worked straight through this, with the masks and the gloves and everything, so it’s nice to come down here and get a break from it all,” she said. “It feels like the only place you can be normal.”

But she’s still being safe by sitting 6 feet away from her friends.

“There’s really nothing else you can do,” she said of going to the beach. “Some things have opened up, like the (boardwalk) rides. ... But you’re still in crowds. Here, you can really set your own boundaries.”

And sitting away from others on the beach is unofficial beach etiquette. Don’t sit on top of each other. There’s a whole beach to spread out.

Ventnor lifeguard, Jerry Roche, 23, said people are trying their best to keep their distance.

“It is the beach, so we have space to spread out,” he said. “It hasn’t been too much overlapping of people, which is nice. This is really one of the only places, especially to take kids or hang out with your family, that is nice and open, so you’re not really concerned about being in close quarters.”

Social distancing is almost universal when it to comes to the beach, said Patrick Rosenello, mayor of North Wildwood. That, combined with the healing elements, it’s believed the beach is a perfect place to escape every other aspect of our daily lives that the virus has touched.

“People have been, for eons, going to the beach for relaxation and health reasons,” Rosenello said. “Being at the beach and in the salty air is a healthy environment. ... a return to natural medicine. Going to the beach is both mental and physical medicine.”

Brigantine, which has some of the widest beaches in South Jersey — aside from perhaps Wildwood — has implemented even more measures to help beachgoers practice social distancing.

Vince Sera, deputy mayor for the beach town, said the city has come up with “stretch beaches,” which allow swimmers to spread out throughout a three-block span.

Typically, beachgoers only are permitted to swim in front of lifeguard stands.

With stretch beaches, lifeguard stands are set up every two blocks and swimming is allowed between those stands to better disperse crowds.

After doing some of his own research on COVID-19, Patrick Youmans found that the beach is one of the best and safest places to be.

The 36-year-old from Nixa, Missouri, came to the Jersey Shore with his wife for a little beach getaway.

“It’s peaceful,” Youmans said. “There’s something about staring at water all day that makes it relaxing.”

In her trips to the beach, Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman, noticed more people seated back farther away from the shoreline, giving more space for people to practice social distancing.

“Being outside in the open air I think is needed now more than ever,” she said.

Holtzman, Sera and Rosenello all agree that the beach is a great escape from COVID-19.

“The biggest thing people really need is a sense to return to normalcy,” Sera said. “The beach is where you go with your family and friends. It helps people get back to normal life.”

“Going to the beach really hasn’t changed that much,” Rosenello added. “It is one of the only normal things left in the new normal.”

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that masks are now required outside if social distancing can’t be done, but Holtzman believes she won’t see more people on the beach in masks.

People would rather just not go to the beach than have to wear a mask, she said. “That’s my personal opinion.”

And even though she has seen some people wearing masks on the beach, she said the majority of people who aren’t wearing masks feel comfortable enough because they’re sitting at least 6 feet away from others.

“The beach equals happy, and that’s why people are always going to go to the beach,” Holtzman said. “Now more than ever people need somewhere to go to be happy.”

The beach isn’t a necessity, like a grocery store, she said. The beach is a place where people want to go to relax and have peace of mind.

“Going to the food store, even though you have a mask on, you keep your hands clean and stay away from people, you’re still indoors,” she said. “You know you’re at a risk, you just are. But that’s a necessity and you have to do it.

“What are you touching on the beach that everyone else has touched?” she asked. “The ocean?”

Atlantic County eyeing Hamilton Township for a bird sanctuary

Local officials hope plans to relocate an aviary will not only better protect endangered birds and enhance safety at Atlantic City’s airport but also boost the economy by creating jobs.

Atlantic County is attempting to relocate a bird sanctuary from Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township to land it wants to buy within Hamilton Township.

The county is considering buying 223 acres adjacent to the eastbound Atlantic City Expressway in the township, county Executive Dennis Levinson said in a statement.

The parcel is near expressway milepost 18 and less than a half-mile west of the Egg Harbor Toll Plaza, Levinson said.

“Municipalities do not directly participate in the county’s acquisition efforts, however, the county’s policy is to seek a resolution of support from municipalities in which preservation efforts will be targeted,” Levinson said.

Hamilton Township Mayor Art Schenker sent a letter to Levinson in support of the county’s purchase of the land for a bird sanctuary, said Arch Liston, the township administrator.

The project has multiple benefits, Levinson said.

“First, it will provide habitat to relocate a sanctuary for endangered birds now situated adjacent to the main runway at Atlantic City International Airport,” Levinson said. “Second, it will enhance safety at the airport, where birds can’t collide with planes and pose a serious threat to aircraft and wildlife.”

Third, if the habitat is relocated, the runway-side land now home to the bird sanctuary can be used in support of the county’s plan to create high-quality jobs around the airport and continue to diversify our regional economy, Levinson said.

Lauren H. Moore, executive director of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance, said space at the airport could be used for a maintenance and repair facility, an aircraft warehouse and cargo storage.

“We are in a prime position to really grow and expand,” said Moore, who added Philadelphia International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport do not have the room to expand.

Freeholders approve county buying land for airport birds

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Atlantic County freeholders on Tuesday approved an agreement to purchase at least 65 acres for the South Jersey Transportation Authority to replace habitat for grassland birds at Atlantic City International Airport.

For 15 years, two state-protected bird species have called the Atlantic City airport home — the endangered upland sandpiper and the threatened grasshopper sparrow. There were only five pairs of the former in the state last year, and few spots in South Jersey where they can be reintroduced.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority wanted to mow the tall 290-acre grassland area that’s been maintained for them inside the airport’s boundaries and establish a new conservation site for the birds elsewhere in the Pinelands.

In April 2019, an amendment was made to the memorandum of agreement between the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and the South Jersey Transportation Authority.

The Pinelands Commission and the Transportation Authority agreed that the Authority may mow the Grassland Conservation and Management Area, where the birds are, to a Federal Aviation Administration-recommended height of 5-to-10 inches and maintain the grasses within the Grassland Conservation and Management Area at this height year-round going forward.

The grass has been mowed in the Grassland Conservation and Management Area, said Mark Amorosi, communications manager, South Jersey Transportation Authority.

Rhyan Grech, the policy advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said she doesn’t know whether the upland sandpiper and the grasshopper sparrow made their migratory stops at the airport this year.

“With their habitat destroyed, presumably, they are no longer there,” said Grech about the upland sandpiper and grasshopper sparrow. “It was gone about the wrong way. ... The idea is to establish habitat elsewhere first.”

Eric Stiles, president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon, said the breeding and migratory habits of the birds would dictate that they would be at the airport from April to October with the core time being May to July.

“We want to be part of the solution. ... We have the expertise,” said Stiles, who added his organization has not been invited to be a part of the discussion of where the new Grassland Conservation and Management Area should be. “There is a grassland expert who lives in Atlantic County.”

How the FAA Tech Center is trying to make flying in winter weather safer

While the summer heat reaches its peak, the Federal Aviation Administration is keeping cool with the In-Cloud Icing and Large-drop Experiment (ICICLE), led by a meteorologist at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township.

The ICICLE campaign will update decades-old data. The goal is to provide weather information to distinguish among different types of icing environments so aircraft personnel that have limitations know where the icing is and when it will happen. This will increase pilot and passenger safety.

“There was aircraft certified for icing conditions and that was it. It was generic. But from advances that have been done in meteorology and, unfortunately, from accidents, we know that all icing environments are not the same. ... Whenever you ask somebody what their concerns are while flying, they usually think of thunderstorms or turbulence, but when you’re in those smaller aircraft, icing environments really create a hazard.” said Danny Sims, a physical scientist in the Aviation Weather Research Program and co-lead of the ICICLE program.

Icing environments are based largely upon the size of pure, supercooled water droplets in the atmosphere. When a plane flies through an icing environment, the supercooled droplets can attach to the aircraft and quickly turn to ice.

This, in turn, reduces the aerodynamic ability of the plane, causing anywhere from a rough flight experience to even crashes. This depends on the size of the droplets.

“If you think of cloud drops, which are very small in an environment (below freezing), it can immediately freeze upon impact of the wing. In large drops, it won’t freeze immediately. It’ll hit the wing and then freeze elsewhere on the aircraft. These drops can disrupt the flow. Even though you were certified for icing, it may have been for small drops. We’re now able to break certification out into drop size,” Sims said.

Previous datasets were used in developing the certifications. However, technology has since shown meteorological improvements that prevent those flight datasets from being used in current analyses.

Stephanie DiVito, FAA research meteorologist for the Aviation Research Division, is the ICICLE and Terminal Area Icing lead, based out of the Technical Center. DiVito said that much of the old data was before the tremendous leaps made in meteorological technology.

DiVito specially mentioned dual polarization radar, which can detect aircraft icing conditions, the over-900 automated surface observation stations, most of which are located at airports, and the new GOES satellites, GOES-17 and GOES-18, which provide three times more data, four times better resolution and more than five times faster coverage than previously before.

DiVito, says the FAA’s icing research program is based out of the EHT facility and was largely why she was chosen to be the lead on this $3 million project.

“I was the one doing a lot of the early leg work to put it all together.” DiVito said.

ICICLE involved flying through conditions prime for icing out of Chicago Rockford International Airport, about halfway between Chicago and the Illinois-Iowa border.

Between Jan. 27 and March 8, researchers, including DiVito, would hop aboard a Convair-580 twin-engine research aircraft.

Scientists spanned government agencies and even countries. Environment and Climate Change Canada and the National Research Council of Canada were onboard with American organizations to collect extensive environmental measurements using a wide variety of instrumentation.

“The aircraft was heavily instrumented, measuring things like drop size, ice accretion, concentrations of liquid and ice. We also called information on aerosols. … We also had other instruments to give us a 3D perspective,” DiVito said.

The crew would leave as early as possible, well before sunrise, to make sure there was the potential for two flights in the same day, allowing double the data collection. DiVito said the plane ride was not for the weak stomach.

“I was a bit nervous for some turbulence depending on the icing environment that you’re in. You’re reading (for research on the plane). ... You get that carsick feeling. Thankfully, for my particular flight, it was tolerable, and I was fine,” DiVito said.

After collecting the tremendous amount of data, the next steps are to boil it down and use it to improve safety through available icing weather information.

“We have a roadway where we’re laying out enhancements for those in-flight icing conditions. We’re adding in new technology. ... But we need ICICLE data to tell us how good we are. ... Meteorologists can say it ‘works well’, but ICICLE is giving us a tremendously rich data source that will truly enhance and make our weather forecasting products better. This is world-class research. That’s something the FAA Tech Center in South Jersey can take pride in,” Sims said.

Contact: 609-272-7247 Twitter @ACPressMartucci