On May 17, 2001, Alissa Turney should have been spending time with her family and friends in celebration of a successful end to her junior year of high school. Instead, she vanished, a note and a disrupted bedroom all that remained in her wake. It took years for explosive evidence of malicious intent to turn what at first appeared to be a willful escape into a murder investigation.
Initially, there was little reason for unreasonable alarm at Alissa Turney’s disappearance. There was evidence that the teen’s living situation had made her unhappy for some time. She had previously spoken of visiting California. As the police investigated those closest to Turney, it began as a search for a missing 17-year-old. The investigation later morphed into the discovery of a covert and terrifying scheme that had the potential to add additional victims.
May of 2001 found Paradise Valley High School, located in Phoenix, Arizona, buzzing with excitement over the conclusion of yet another academic school year. To onlookers, 17-year-old Alissa Turney appeared to be no exception. According to Andrea Cavallier of NBC News, Turney’s sister, Sarah, who was in 7th grade at the time, said that her sister was looking forward to summer and had plans to go to a graduation celebration on the 17th.
This wasn’t to say that Turney was altogether content with her life.
It would seem that being legally adopted after a mother’s passing would be ideal for a child. Unfortunately, Turney’s gaining of a father was far from a dream come true.
A teen’s occasional discontent with the authority of her stepfather is not in and of itself alarming. However, it wasn’t only Turney who had issues with her living arrangements. James Turney, Michael Turney’s grown son, divulged to NCB News that it had been his desire to bring Sarah and Alissa to live with him after their mother’s death.
In fact, Turney had even confided to her half-brother that she was scared of her step-father and wanted to leave.
Turney’s expressed concern was a red flag, certainly. Still, no one could say for sure if James Turney was onto something about his father being an unsuitable guardian. Only time would tell.
What teen doesn’t threaten to run away at some point? “California was this beautiful dream that many people here wanted…She [Turney] even wanted a white Jeep to drive around –just like Cher in the movie ‘Clueless,’” Sarah Turney is reported by NBC News to have said. Furthermore, Turney had an aunt in California, making the prospect of relocation realistic.
According to Sara Edwards of the Phoenix New Times, when Turney vanished on May 17th, 2001, everyone figured she’d run off just as she’d threatened to.
The note found in Turney’s bedroom supported this theory:
“Dad and Sarah, When you dropped me off at school today, I decided I really am going to California. Sarah, you said you really wanted me gone – now you have it. Dad, I took $300 from you. That’s why I saved my money.”
At first glance, this scenario seems straight forward. However, it was the uncharacteristic mess Turney’s belongings were found in that cast doubt. Sarah Turney told NBC News that her sister had left $1800 in her bank account. She also mentioned that Alissa’s make-up and cell phone were left in her room. However, most teenage girls would take all the money they could get their hands on and their beauty resources with them if they were running away, right?
Sarah Turney described her relationship with her sister to be a close one and, though Turney did exhibit a bit of a wild streak, she surely would have contacted her after leaving. She didn’t. Something wasn’t right.
Michael Turney, a former deputy sheriff for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, did what appeared to be the responsible thing, notifying the authorities the evening of his step-daughter’s disappearance. According to Phoenix New Times, Sarah Turney set up a website for her sister, prepared to do whatever was necessary to locate her. Through the platform, she implored anyone who had any knowledge about Alissa to speak.
This would appear consistent with the idea of an unhappy teen running from her step-father. However, the call was never traced or verified, creating a crack in the clue’s integrity.
A few years of devastating silence passed. By this time, everyone had begun to stop believing that Turney was off living her best life in California.
Sarah Turney never stopped lobbying for justice, eventually going beyond her website and establishing a voice across various social media platforms in her tireless pursuit of her sister.
A man named Thomas Hymer, who was already serving a life sentence behind bars, suddenly came out of the woodwork. Apparently, he divulged having murdered Turney back in Georgia, a mere three months after her disappearance. Just before Hymer’s proclaimed murder of Turney, he was caught with a car stolen from Sandra Goodman, who he’d choked and stabbed before stashing her beneath the bed in a hotel room.
The misalignment sent Hymer’s credibility down the drain. Oops.
Being back at square one with Alissa’s case was frustrating. Yet, it brought Turney’s unsolved disappearance back to everyone’s attention which could hardly be seen as a disappointment. Those who’d failed to come forward previously were finally compelled to state everything they knew, everything that had previously seemed unimportant.
All eyes were on Michael Turney. Suddenly, it wasn’t a threat from the outside that appeared most daunting, but one that had lived side-by-side with Alissa Turney for years.
“It finally forced them to look at my sister’s case,” Sarah told NBC News in regards to those who came forward with information. “If you asked me then if I thought my father had any involvement, I would have said no. But over the years, he had so many renditions of what happened that day. Something wasn’t right.”
The statement from one of the Turneys’ neighbors supported Sarah’s conclusion. Justin Lum of Fox 10 records the corroborating words of Judy Wacker. “He still talks about her, talks about finding her,” Wacker reportedly said. She admitted to being “Just really uncomfortable with him, with the kids, and how friendly he would be with our girls. It was really strange.”
In an article by NBC News, Sarah explained that her father had security cameras installed throughout the whole house. He even recorded phone conversations.
No one had thought to suspect Michael Turney to this point. After all, he’d been the one to find his step-daughter’s room a wreck and had expended endless energy traveling numerous times to California to pass out fliers and raise awareness about her disappearance. As it was, Michael Turney’s fervor proved incriminating. According to Sarah Turney, he’d always been concerned with where Alissa was. Overly concerned. This over-the-top obsession mixed with sexual abuse allegations against Michael in 2008 brought him into the limelight.
According to NBC News, the Turney home was searched in late 2008. It was within the house’s walls that disturbing, truly concrete evidence that Michael Turney truly was unfit to raise children was found. Tapes documenting surveillance footage of the house were uncovered though videos from the day Alissa Turney vanished remained conspicuously absent.
Upon digging deeper, investigators came across something completely unexpected:
Michael Turney’s dangerous loot broke a record, coming in at the largest explosives collection the Phoenix Police Department had ever seen.
A lengthy manifesto entitled “Diary of a Madman Martyr” detailed Michael Turney’s destructive intentions. It seemed that he’d become fed up with his job as an electrician and had an ax to grind with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers over working conditions. His plan was to set off explosives in the union hall, killing many and making himself a martyr.
An Unsatisfying Confession
There was little chance of Michael Turney sneaking beneath the radar after a bomb collection was found in his home. He admitted to having 26 unregistered pipe bombs in his home, resulting in a 10 year prison sentence. Those who cared for Alissa Turney, especially Sarah, were understandably infuriated when he was released in 2017.
Once again, the burden of chasing justice fell on Sarah Turney’s shoulders. During a meeting with Michael Turney at Starbucks, Michael Turney agreed to divulge the details of Alissa’s disappearance under one condition: that the police agreed to administer a lethal injection to him within 10 days.
Once again, what masqueraded as closure proved only to be another maddening roadblock. Without a body or formal confession, the authorities could not charge Michael Turney with murder.
According to a statement from Sergeant Cox in an article by NBC News, Michael Turney remains the only suspect in Alissa’s disappearance case.
Sarah Turney clings determinedly both to the hope that one day justice will be served and to her precious memories of Alissa as well. Remembrance of the good times are a bittersweet comfort. Sarah Turney once recalled an instance when Alissa, who “practically raised” her, attempted to give her a stylish haircut. “It was supposed to be the ‘Rachel’ haircut. You know, the one from ‘Friends,’” she told NBC News. “But I turned out looking like Carol Brady.”
Their bond was undeniable and Sarah Turney’s persistence in ensuring Alissa is not forgotten is a clear testament to this truth.
Now in her 30’s, Sarah Turney has never given up lobbying for justice for her sister. Her influence continues to permeate multiple platforms as she works daily to ensure that one day her stepfather will be charged with murder and that the Turney family will at last be able to rest.