Tiffany Whitton was last seen on video surveillance footage from a Marietta, Georgia, Walmart one night in September 2013. The video shows the twenty-six-year-old woman intoxicated and shoplifting; with her is boyfriend Ashley Caudle. When they are approached by security guards while exiting the store, Tiffany escapes alone into the woods next to the Walmart and is never seen again. Gone.
Tiffany’s story is not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing on the news—it’s more complicated, less tailored for TV—but it is not uncommon. Last year in the U.S., more than 70,000 women over the age of eighteen were reported missing. Esquire writer at large Tom Junod reported Tiffany’s disappearance for a year and a half, interviewing both Caudle, the only “person of interest” in Tiffany’s presumed death (and who is currently in jail on drug charges), and Tiffany’s mother, Lisa Daniels, who won’t rest until her daughter, or her body, is found. The resulting story,”Missing,” is a chilling reminder that darkness is ever present in our lives.
Esquire Classic: How did this story first come to your attention?
Tom Junod: I came across the figure that, on average, 70,000 women are reported missing each year. The “missing” figures go across gender lines—a lot of men go missing, as well as a lot of children—but I was interested in the particular vulnerabilities of these women. [I live in Marietta and] I found out about Tiffany because it was a local story. There are missing persons all over the country, but I chose to do the story locally because I knew it would express itself over time.
And time was the silent character in the whole thing. In virtually every section of the piece, the number of days since Tiffany’s disappearance is noted. As the investigators say, time is not their friend—it’s their enemy. Generally, time leads you toward conclusions, but in missing-persons stories, time leads you away from conclusions. Every day is a bad day.
I also did this story because of the running away. Tiffany was fleeing. She’d been caught in the act of a crime—a petty crime—and she was running away, and she fled into the void. That completely hooked me on the story…. At one point, Lisa [Tiffany’s mother] and I went to the spot outside the Walmart where her daughter disappeared into the woods, and I asked her, “What do you see when you look at those woods?” That question came to haunt me during the year and a half it took me to put the story together. The few times I was in that part of the world, in West Cobb County, I couldn’t not think of Tiffany. I can only imagine what it’s like for Lisa.
EC: How is Tiffany’s story different from the missing-persons cases you’d see on, say, Nancy Grace?
TJ: It’s not like nobody covers the missing-women story—it’s a national tabloid obsession in certain ways—but I think the way we tend to know it is as a sort of ritual of innocence attacked and destroyed. Whereas what makes Tiffany’s story interesting is that she was, to a degree, lost before she ever disappeared. It was easy for Tiffany to slip into the void—it was only a few steps away, and she was sucked right into it. She was living house-to-house, she was addicted to both heroin and amphetamines, she was caught stealing, and she was with Ashley Caudle. Those are all forces that carry you away. I don’t think Nancy Grace is interested in that process. What she’s interested in doing is stoking outrage night after night.
What’s moved me tremendously about Lisa is she knows exactly who Tiffany is—and I say is because Lisa always uses the present tense when referring to Tiffany. But that doesn’t matter. Lisa’s vehement argument is that Tiffany needs to be loved. Her search has to reflect that.
EC: You write that “the great irony to Tiffany’s afterlife” is that the only person who insists she’s alive is the sole “person of interest” in her presumed death: Caudle. Doesn’t Lisa also believe Tiffany is alive?
TJ: Lisa will be devastated to find out that she’s dead, but she does not think that Tiffany is alive. She will not rest until Tiffany’s body is found. Her great fear is that they’re going to prosecute without finding the body, because she knows then the body will never be found.
Ashley’s insistence that she’s still alive can be read in many different ways. When he talked about Tiffany being alive, he pulled out all the emotional stops. He had all ten fingers pointing at his heart. You can read that at face value and say he loved her and she went away and he has no idea where she is and it haunts him at night in his prison bed. Or you can look at it like: Of course he says she’s alive, because if he says she’s dead he’s likely facing a murder rap.
EC: When you write a story like this, does part of you hope it will help lead to an actual resolution of the case?
TJ: Absolutely, 100 percent. The police believe that somebody out there knows where Tiffany is. They know it in their hearts. Somebody has to know where she is. Every day they are one phone call away from finding out where she is. And all that’s required is for someone to get on the tip line and say, She’s here, and hang up. That’s all they want. Jonnie Moeller, the original lead investigator on the case, told me she would walk away from a conviction in order to find Tiffany for Lisa, which is a remarkable thing for a detective to say.
EC: And Lisa has gotten tips—dead-end tips, but nevertheless—through a Facebook page she set up devoted to Tiffany’s disappearance.
TJ: She gets tips all the time. I once visited Lisa when she’d just gotten a tip—somebody had seen Tiffany panhandling on North Avenue in Atlanta. She’s there: Go. So what do you do if you’re Lisa? Of course you’ll go, eventually.
EC: And there’s the tip from Tiffany’s brother near the end of your story.
TJ: That was a shock to everybody. It had always been an anomaly in the case that Tiffany’s half-brother Blake Whitton got a birthday message [that appeared to be] from her in January 2014, almost four months after she went missing. He got a Facebook message saying “Happy Birthday.” It was always assumed that whoever had her cell phone sent the message in order to throw people off the trail. But nobody had ever talked to Blake. I had finished my work on the story when I decided to give him a call. And he said, “I talked to her. I remember she called me a couple of days past my birthday.” I said, “Excuse me? She called you? You remember talking to her?” He said, “Yeah, she talked to me.” I asked if he was sure that it was her and he said it was because she called him Mudbug [her nickname for him]. I don’t know how seriously to take it. He’s a kid. The reason I put it in there was to show the uncertainty that these kinds of cases produce. And the kind of uncertainty that Lisa has to live with.
EC: Your story reads almost like a documentary. How is writing about everyday people different from writing about celebrities?
TJ: You don’t generally start out writing celebrity profiles. You don’t start out writing about major political figures. Generally, you start out writing about stories that interest you close to home. This is kind of a return to that for me. All of this takes place within a few miles of my home. This story takes place among—for lack of a better word—civilians. They will tell you things that a public person would never tell you. And you respond to them much more emotionally than public people in general.
I mean, I really like George Clooney, he’s a great guy, but obviously you don’t have the same feeling for a person like him that you do for Lisa Daniels. These stories mean a lot to writers and readers because they mean a lot to people involved in the story. This story matters to Lisa. Maybe it will have something to do with the resolution of the central and most agonizing mystery of her life. You don’t take that lightly when you write it, and it’s the not taking it lightly that has its own risks and rewards.
EC: Doing a story like this, one that’s so close to home, do you ever get worried about your own safety?
TJ: Yeah, no question. I live within a few miles of a lot of the people who are mentioned in the story. I really resisted making those calls. I was thinking, Why am I not making these calls? Well, because I’m scared. Once I accepted that and once the deadline hit, I started making the calls and showing up at people’s houses.
EC: Do you still have a sense of trepidation now that the story has been published?
TJ: No, not so much. I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think that the story is going to inflame people. The story is not an investigative story that points fingers at Ashley; it’s an impressionistic story that makes suggestions in order to describe the experience of having a missing child.
Read the story “Missing” at Esquire Classic (payment required).