Phoenix woman in search of justice in missing sister's 2001 disappearance uses TikTok videos in hope of solving case

Andrea Cavallier

It was the last day of school for students in Phoenix, Arizona – May 17, 2001. School was letting out just in time for another sweltering Arizona summer. It was the last day of classes for sisters Alissa and Sarah Turney.

Alissa Turney (Contributed photo by Turney family)

Alissa, 17, had just finished her junior year at Paradise Valley High School. Sarah, who was 12 years old at the time, was finishing her last day of 7th grade with a class field trip to a nearby water park.

Sarah Turney told Dateline she remembers her sister being excited for summer and planning to attend a graduation party later that evening.

Alissa never made it to that party and May 17, 2001 was the last time anyone saw her alive.

Nineteen years later, Sarah, now in her 30s, spends most of her time searching for answers about what happened to her sister and advocating for justice in her case.

“I’m never going to give up,” Sarah told Dateline. “Alissa is my whole life. Finding out what happened to her has become my life.”

But as Sarah played at the water park with her classmates on that hot Arizona day back in 2001, she had no idea that her family’s life was about to change forever.

Sarah and her older half-sister Alissa lived with Sarah’s father, Michael Turney, in Phoenix, Arizona. The girls’ mother, Barbara Strahm, died of cancer when Alissa was just eight years old and Michael legally adopted her. Michael Turney also had three sons, who were already out of the house by that time.

Alissa and her stepfather, Michael Turney. (Contributed photo by Turney family)

Sarah said they found Alissa’s usually tidy room a mess. When they tried to call her phone again, they heard it vibrate in the room. The phone was on the dresser, along with a note in Alissa’s loopy handwriting, Sarah said. The note stated that Alissa was running away to California.

Alissa Turney and her younger sister, Sarah. (Contributed photo by Turney family)

Sarah told Dateline that it wasn’t unusual for kids who lived in their area to want to head to California.

“California was this beautiful dream that many people here wanted,” Sarah said, including Alissa. “She even wanted a white Jeep to drive around --just like Cher in the movie ‘Clueless.’”

Sarah said they had an aunt in California and the girls had talked about going to see her. The family later learned that Alissa did not go to their aunt’s house.

Sarah told Dateline she remembers her father being frantic about finding Alissa. He went from house to house looking for her, he passed out fliers and traveled to California multiple times throughout the year, telling everyone he was looking for her. But Alissa was nowhere to be found.

“He was always frantic about her,” Sarah said. “Always had to know where she was and what she was doing. He was very overbearing. But he wasn’t like that with me.”

Michael Turney had reported Alissa missing on May 17 to the Phoenix Police Department. At the time, Phoenix police did not suspect foul play and classified Alissa as a runaway. At the time, her family also believed Alissa had run away. Sarah told Dateline that Alissa wanted her freedom from her father who she believed was too strict.

Alissa, Sarah and their mother, Barbara. (Contributed by the Turney family)

James Turney, one of Michael Turney’s sons, told Dateline he had hoped to give both Alissa and Sarah a place to stay after the death of their mother. He said he believed his father was not treating the girls right and was afraid for their safety.

“I did not like the way he was raising the girls. Something was not right with him,” James said. “I was prepped to take care of them.”

James, who is 10 years older than Alissa, spoke to her just a couple of months before she disappeared.

“She told me she was afraid of our father and wanted to leave,” James told Dateline. “I told her she could come stay with me. And then when I found out she was missing, we 100 percent believed she had run away. She got away from him and that’s what she wanted. But she never came to me. Or to her aunt’s house in California. She had so many options of places to go. But she just vanished.”

According to Sarah, Alissa was close to her family, her friends and her boyfriend, and although she dreamed of living a new life, she never mentioned running away.

Over the next year, the Turney siblings, each at different times, began to question their sister’s disappearance.

Alissa Turney (Contributed by the Turney family)

Sarah said there was $1,800 left untouched in her sister’s bank account. She also said Alissa left behind all her makeup, her Nokia cell phone and money, which Sarah believes she would have taken with her had she been running away.

Both Sarah and James told Dateline they believe Alissa would have contacted someone at some point after she left.

“My sister and I were very close,” Sarah said. “Of course, we fought like sisters, but she practically raised me. She dressed me and taught me so many things.”

Sarah said she remembers Alissa trying to give her a haircut, that was trendy at the time.

“It was supposed to be the ‘Rachel’ haircut. You know, the one from ‘Friends,’” Sarah laughed. “But I turned out looking like Carol Brady.”

Sarah remembers Alissa being a good student, but a spirited teenager with a rebellious streak.

One of Sarah’s favorite memories is when Alissa jumped off the roof of their house onto their new trampoline, causing her to bounce into the family’s above-ground pool. Alissa then dared the much-younger Sarah to jump off the roof while she was still on the trampoline. That kind of jump, known as double-bouncing, usually results in the person already on the trampoline getting bounced off of it. Sarah said she was scared to jump off the roof at first, but eventually jumped. But when she did the jump, instead of Alissa bouncing off, she did. Sarah said she crashed full-force into the ladder they’d used to climb up to the roof.

"I've never heard so much concern in her voice,” Sarah said. “She was so worried and wanted to make sure I was OK.”

Sarah said as soon as she started screaming, though, her sister told her to be quiet so they wouldn’t get in trouble.

“It was just one of those moments I’ll always remember,” Sarah said. “We were being reckless, but she was also always looking after me. It’s one of my favorite memories.”

Sarah told Dateline as Alissa entered her teenage years, her stepfather father became stricter with her.

Sarah said that her father had security cameras set up at the family home and also recorded phone conversations. But this information would not be included in the investigation until years later.

Alissa Turney (Contributed by Turney family)

About a week after Alissa disappeared, Michael Turney told the Phoenix Police he got a call from a pay phone in California. He said the conversation was scrambled, but he realized it was Alissa and said that she told him, “Leave me alone,” before hanging up. Alissa’s case remained classified as a runaway and police said the call was never traced or verified.

But as each year passed with no sightings, Alissa just leaving to start a new life seemed less likely.

In 2006, a Florida man’s confession brought Alissa’s case back into the spotlight. According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, Thomas Hymer told a prison guard he had killed Alissa Turney. He had been arrested in 2001 in Gary, Georgia, a few months after Alissa’s disappearance. At the time of his arrest, Hymer had been driving a vehicle belonging to a woman named Sandra Goodman. Goodman had been found the day before, strangled, stabbed and wedged under a bed in a Fort Lauderdale hotel. Hymer was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for her murder.

According to the Phoenix Police, detectives with the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit questioned Hymer, but it was determined that Hymer’s description of Alissa was not viable and his story was false. He later admitted that he might have been mistaken.

Hymer’s story, and the attention it got, did bring renewed heat to Alissa’s case. Friends and family who had allegedly never been initially contacted by police in 2001 began to make disturbing allegations to authorities concerning Turney’s relationship with his stepdaughter.

“It finally forced them to look at my sister’s case,” Sarah said. “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.”

In 2008, investigators from the Phoenix Police Department Missing Persons Unit opened Alissa’s case and declared that foul play was indeed a factor in her disappearance, according to Sergeant Maggie Cox.

“At the time, there were no signs of foul play or exigency based on the fact Alissa was 17 years old and had no mental/physical health issues,” Sgt. Cox told Dateline. “Alissa was entered into NCIC as soon as the report was taken. In 2008, the Missing Persons Unit Detectives began to investigate further information obtained in the case.”

Sergeant Cox told Dateline that allegations of sexual abuse by Michael Turney prompted investigators to focus on him after speaking to several people in 2008.

“The totality of circumstances known to police prompted the focus on Michael Turney as the suspect,” Sgt. Cox said.

Michael Turney (Phoenix Police Department)

In December 2008, police executed search warrants at the house where Alissa had lived with her half-sister and stepfather, according to Sgt. Cox. They found multiple videotapes, dating back to the 1980s, including surveillance footage from around the house. The did not find any videos from the day she disappeared.

During the search, investigators also found 19 high-caliber assault rifles, two handmade silencers, a van filled with gasoline cans and 26 handmade explosive devices filled with gunpowder and roofing nails. It was the largest stockpile of explosives discovered in Phoenix Police Department history, according to The Arizona Republic.

Sergeant Cox told Dateline that during the search at Turney’s home authorities located a 98-page manifesto, titled "Diary of a Madman Martyr." According to the document, Turney, who worked as an electrician the 1980s and complained about workplace conditions, accused the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers of being involved in the alleged kidnapping and murder of Alissa.

The document goes on to state that Turney planned to blow up the union hall in revenge and kill himself in the process.

In March 2010, Michael Turney pleaded guilty to possessing 26 unregistered pipe bombs. He was sentenced to the maximum term of 10 years in federal prison, but was released in 2017.

Sarah told Dateline she was hopeful an investigation into her father’s alleged involvement with her sister’s unsolved case would escalate.

But Sarah told Dateline she was informed by the Phoenix Police that they were unable to prosecute any person of interest in Alissa’s case at that time. Again, the case stalled.

“It was like she disappeared all over again,” Sarah said. “It was devastating and frustrating.”

Sarah said she was told the next best step to take was to seek help from the media. She reached out to local and national news outlets, started a Facebook Page and a blog, both named “Justice for Alissa.”

She participated in several podcasts, including one called “Missing Alissa,” hosted by freelance writer Ottavia Zappala.

In the podcast, Detective Stuart Somershoe of the Phoenix Police Department, who worked Alissa’s case for years, said it was the relationship between Aissa and her stepfather that shifted police attention to the possibility of foul play.

“We began to get some disturbing information that Alissa had told her boyfriend and told other friends,” Somershoe said on the Missing Alissa podcast. “Some of the information about Michael’s surveillance of Alissa, his need for control of her.”

In October of 2017, Sarah sat down with her father for the first time in years. It was a few months after his release from prison.

“We met at a neutral place - Starbucks,” she told Dateline. “We spoke for over an hour. But after he realized I wasn’t there to reconnect, he got angry.

But after I pushed him for answers about Alissa, he finally told me that he would give me all the honest answers on his deathbed. He said, ‘Be at the deathbed, Sarah, and I will give you all the honest answers you want to hear.’ He also said he would confess to everything if the state agreed to give him a lethal injection within 10 days.”

Sarah told Dateline she went to authorities with the information, but they told her without an official confession from him to police, or a body, there was nothing they could do.

Dateline NBC attempted to reach Michael Turney for comment, but was unsuccessful.

Sergeant Cox told Dateline that on February 22, 2019, “the case was formally submitted to County Attorney requesting homicide charges against Michael Roy Turney” but that “no charging decision has been made at this time.”

Sergeant Cox confirms Michael Turney remains the only person of interest in Alissa’s case.

“It is possible that someone has information that would help investigators solve this case,” Sgt. Cox said. “We encourage anyone with information to come forward.”

Alissa’s brother, James, who now lives Oregon with his family, told Dateline he just wants his sister back.

“Just give us our sister back,” James said. “I realize it’s not the ending we want, but we just want her body back. So we can sleep at night. To us, this is a family tragedy that tore us apart. We’ve been working on this for years. And living with it every day. We’re exhausted. It’s time for everyone to have some peace.”

Sarah Turney (Contributed by Sarah Turney)

Alissa’s little sister, Sarah, who is now in her 30s, works a full-time job in marketing in Phoenix, but her day doesn’t end there. In her free time, Sarah continues her search for justice in her sister’s case.

“Now as an adult, and with all the technology available to us, I feel I can do something for her,” Sarah said. “I feel terrible I wasn’t able to do more when I was younger.”

In 2019, she started her own podcast, titled Voices For Justice. The podcast gives an intimate look at Sarah and Alissa’s family history, events leading up to Alissa’s disappearance and a timeline of what has happened in the years since.

Alissa's public record case files

“I get home after work and I do research - like reading 2,000 pages of public record documents and I conduct interviews for the podcast,” Sarah said. “It’s all about Alissa. And it’ll never stop.”

Sarah told Dateline she finds support in the online true-crime community and has attended events like CrimeCon, which she said has helped her forge ahead with Alissa’s case.

Last month, Sarah began making videos on the popular video app “TikTok.”

“Believe it or not, it has become an important outlet for Alissa’s story. I’ve received more interest in this case from that app in the past month than the last 10 years,” Sarah said. “This is not going away and I’m going to make sure it never does. I still think of her as my tough older sister who taught me to be tough. Now, I need to continue to be tough and use that to fight for the justice she deserves. She deserves her day in court. And I’m determined to give her that.”

Alissa Turney at age 17, Alissa Turney age progressed to 32 (The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)

At the time of Alissa’s disappearance, she was 5’4” tall and 145 pounds. She had blonde highlights in her brown hair. She has a small scar on her chin. She would be 36 years old today.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Phoenix Police Department Missing Persons Unit at (602) 262-6141, Silent Witness at 480-WITNESS or email phoenix.tips.ppd@phoenix.gov.