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New Kensington 5-year-old girl's slaying in 1979 still unsolved

| Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, 3:08 p.m.
William Butler, father of Tiffany Miller, who was murdered in 1979, holds a collage of photos of her that he keeps in his Penn Hills home, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
William Butler, father of Tiffany Miller, who was murdered in 1979, holds a collage of photos of her that he keeps in his Penn Hills home, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Emergency officials gather as they recover the body of Tiffany Miller in the Allegheny River on Sept. 29, 1979.
Emergency officials gather as they recover the body of Tiffany Miller in the Allegheny River on Sept. 29, 1979.
William Butler, father of Tiffany Miller, who was murdered in 1979, credits his religious faith with getting through difficult times through the years without her in his Penn Hills home, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
William Butler, father of Tiffany Miller, who was murdered in 1979, credits his religious faith with getting through difficult times through the years without her in his Penn Hills home, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Emergency officials gather as they recover the body of Tiffany Miller in the Allegheny River on Sept. 29, 1979.
Emergency officials gather as they recover the body of Tiffany Miller in the Allegheny River on Sept. 29, 1979.
William Butler, father of Tiffany Miller, who was murdered in 1979, holds a weathered angel statue that originally was on her grave in Arnold. He bought a new one for the cemetary and brought the old statue to sit in his garden pond at his Penn Hills home, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
William Butler, father of Tiffany Miller, who was murdered in 1979, holds a weathered angel statue that originally was on her grave in Arnold. He bought a new one for the cemetary and brought the old statue to sit in his garden pond at his Penn Hills home, as shown on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Emergency officials gather as they recover the body of Tiffany Miller in the Allegheny River on Sept. 29, 1979.
Emergency officials gather as they recover the body of Tiffany Miller in the Allegheny River on Sept. 29, 1979.

She would be in her 40s now, William Butler says. He wonders what she would be doing with her life.

What would his daughter, Tiffany Miller, be if her life had not been taken from her at such a young age?

Tiffany was only 5 when her body was found in 1979 in the Allegheny River.

The startling discovery was the end of a weeklong search that gripped the region.

But it was only the start of a bigger mystery.

Tiffany's death is one of the oldest unsolved murders in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

“I think about her all the time,” said Butler, now 62 and living in Penn Hills, wiping away tears that four decades can't dry. “I just want justice for her. She deserves that.”

New Kensington police still list the case as “active.”

Current Chief James Klein could not be reached for comment.

Former Chief Tom Klawinski declined to release details about the case because of its active status.

When asked about Tiffany's murder, Westmoreland County detectives said to contact New Kensington police.

Butler, who was 25 when his daughter went missing, was living separately from Tiffany's mother, Gail Miller, now Gail Rivera.

Rivera reported Tiffany missing from her Peach Court, New Kensington, home on the morning of Sept. 21, 1979.

She told police that she put her daughter to bed about 10 the night before.

When she went to check on her daughter about 5 a.m., the girl was gone.

She said she was watching TV downstairs and her mother was downstairs washing clothes, while Tiffany slept upstairs.

Rivera said no one came in the house that night that she could tell.

“At first, I thought someone from my family had come and taken her, but no one had,” said Rivera, now 58 and living in Pittsburgh. “I honestly don't know what happened. It's been 40-some years, and no one knows what happened.”

Butler no longer was involved with Tiffany's mother when the girl disappeared. But he said his daughter was not the type to leave with someone she didn't know or to wander the streets alone.

“They came to my work and told me she was missing,” he said. “I suspected foul play right away.”

Police did not know what to make of the case, and shocked residents started a search for the girl.

The day after her disappearance, the Valley News Dispatch reported that more than 200 people went out looking for Tiffany.

For almost a week, search parties looked in parks, playgrounds — even garbage containers — with no luck.

That changed at 10 p.m. Sept. 29, when a lock worker reported seeing a body in the Allegheny River.

When police arrived, the little girl's body was pulled out of the river near Lock and Dam No. 3 in Plum, 5 miles from her New Kensington home and almost a week after she went missing.

The yellow pajamas that Tiffany was said to be wearing the night she vanished were never found.

Police, too, quickly suspected foul play.

“She didn't commit suicide, and you can bet she didn't walk to the river to take a swim,” one official speaking anonymously said at the time.

Then-Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht ruled Tiffany's death a homicide.

Even though Tiffany lived less than a quarter-mile from the riverbank, Butler says he knows in his heart his daughter would not have gone to the river on her own.

“She was afraid of water,” Butler remembers about his eldest daughter. “She wouldn't go anywhere near the water.

“I just ... it's just not fair.”

If Tiffany didn't go to the river by herself, how did she end up there?

That question has baffled local officials for decades.

A week after her death, then-New Kensington police Chief Dan Joseph told the media that his department's investigation led them to believe Tiffany had been murdered.

The department got hundreds of tips, but none panned out.

Jim Chambers is a retired New Kensington police chief who was a young patrolman at the time of Tiffany's disappearance. He has stayed connected to the case through the years.

“She's buried near my grandfather's grave,” said Chambers, who retired 22 years ago. “Every year, when we go to take care of the graves, I clean up Tiffany's, too. I always tell my wife I wish I could find out who did this to her so I could get her justice.”

Chambers said he and the other officers working the case at the time were almost certain about what happened.

“There just wasn't any evidence,” he said. “You can drag someone into court without evidence, but then what do you say when you get there? We have to go on facts, and that's why the case is unsolved.”

Still in pain

After Tiffany's death, Rivera struggled with drug abuse, she said.

“I really went downhill after that,” said Rivera, who said she has been clean for 25 years.

Her brother Vincent Miller said he still holds memories of the joyous little girl deep in his heart.

“I don't want to forget about her,” said Miller, who now lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “She deserves closure.

“I was a senior at Valley (High School),” he recalled. “I remember it as if were yesterday.”

Miller was asleep in his family's home, next door to where Tiffany and her mother were living, the night the girl disappeared.

“It had an impact with how I raised my children, how defensive I am with my children and how I'd give my life for my children,” he said.

Theories but few facts

Theories have been thrown around over the years about what happened to Tiffany, but police have never been able to lock down the facts.

Butler, Tiffany's father, said he originally was a suspect but police ruled him out.

“It's unbelievable that they would have even suspected that,” Butler said. “It was just devastating to have an officer question you about the worst thing in the world.

“Who could hurt a little child like that?”

Rivera said she absolutely had nothing to do with her daughter's death.

“I think they're crazy,” Rivera said about those who speculate that she played some role in Tiffany's death. “She's my daughter. How could I hurt my own daughter?

“I want some justice. Whoever did this can't be able sleep at night.”

They say time heals all wounds, but for Tiffany's family, there may never be enough time.

“I still remember coming home from football practice the night she died,” Vincent Miller said. “She asked me (that night) to play Lite-Brite with her the next day.

“The next day never came for us.”

Rivera said the death of her daughter has strengthened the bond with her only other child, 35-year-old daughter Brittany Craighead.

“If something happened to her, they'd have to put me away,” Rivera said.

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter.

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