Who would have thought that TikTok could be so useful? The new platform (that only those under 30 even use) has actually been a major factor in getting a man committed for taking the life of his own stepdaughter. A young woman by the name of Sarah Turney has used TikTok, as well as her own podcast, to advocate for her stepsister’s unsolved murder 20 years ago.
In 2001, 17-year-old Alissa Turney disappeared – just like that: vanished, gone, nowhere to be found. The high school junior was living with her stepsister Sarah and Sarah’s father – her stepfather – Michael Turney. Where was the mom? Well, Alissa’s mother had passed away, so the girls were living with Michael.
Two Very Different Relationships
Michael had three sons, too, but they were older and had already moved out of the house. The girls had very different relationships with Michael, who was a cool, laid-back kind of dad with Sarah, but an uptight and strict disciplinarian with Alissa. He would always monitor her whereabouts and doings.
Why was he like that? Well, he told Sarah, who was five years younger than her stepsister, that Alissa needed more guidance and direction in her life. It’s no surprise then that tensions between Alissa and Michael were always high. When she was with her friends, outside of the house, Alissa was a completely different person.
Two Very Different Alissas
Around her friends, Alissa was radiant and full of energy. Nothing was holding her back when she was out and about with the people who liked her. Back home, though… Back home, she was miserable, and all her energy was sucked back in with a stepdad who didn’t let her do anything and was constantly on her back.
Alissa was an average student with a steady boyfriend, a part-time job at the local Jack in the Box, and a fantasy of running away from home. With a stepdad like Michael, home was the last place she wanted to be. So, when Sarah’s dad told her that her sister left on her own good will, she believed him.
A Goodbye Note
Michael assured Sarah that the brave teenager who loved animals, sketching, and rock music, left their home in Phoenix, Arizona, on her own. In fact, there was even a note that was apparently written by Alissa. The note read:
“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.”
From the looks of it, Alissa chose to leave her sister and father behind, with a bit of cash and some dignity. But I think you know that didn’t actually happen…
Honey, Alissa’s Gone
May 17, 2001, was 17-year-old Alissa’s last day of school at Paradise Valley High School before summer break. It was also 12-year-old Sarah’s end-of-the-year retreat at Water World. Michael was supposed to pick up Sarah at 3 p.m., but he never showed up. Instead, Sarah walked over to a friend’s house and waited for him there.
A few hours later, at some point in the evening, her dad finally arrived to pick her up. That was when he told her that Alissa was missing. On the way home, Sarah used her dad’s cellphone to try to call Alissa. She couldn’t reach her. Back at the house, Michael told Sarah to check Alissa’s bedroom…
It Made Sense… At First
Michael wanted Sarah to find the note, which she did. There, on top of her dresser, were all the contents of Alissa’s backpack scattered over her bed, including her cellphone. Next to the phone lay the note, the one claiming she was on her way to California.
At first, Sarah wasn’t surprised. For one, she knew that Alissa had an aunt who was living in California at the time. Second, Alissa had recently told her that she was thinking of going to live with her aunt. And third, she knew very well that her sister simply did not get along with her dad.
He Used to Be a Cop
Now, something you may find interesting is that Michael Turney used to be a police officer. In fact, he was a former sheriff’s deputy. As a former cop, who was now working as an electrician, he knew pretty well what to do in these sorts of situations.
That night, after Alissa “went missing,” he called the police department to report a runaway. The police then opened a missing person’s file, but for some reason, there was absolutely no investigation or follow-up. Since Michael claimed his stepdaughter as a runaway and that her location was going to be in California, the authorities looked no further.
Alissa “Called” Him a Week Later
A week later, Michael told the police that he got a call from Alissa early in the morning – at some time between 4 and 5 a.m. from Riverside, California. On the “call,” Alissa told Michael that she was unhappy with her life and blamed him for pushing her to leave.
He told the authorities that she then hung up on him. Apparently, the police were never able to verify this call nor receive a copy of the recording. Michael, who had a home recording system, told them it wasn’t on at the time because of the early hour.
He “Searched” for Her
Alissa was gone and no one was looking for he. Over the years, Michael would tell his family and Alissa’s friends that he was starting to think that “something terrible” had happened to her. He told them that he thought someone might have been following her, or worse – that she was in harm’s way.
He also told people that since the police weren’t doing anything about it, he would take matters into his own hands and search for her himself. Michael allegedly made several trips to California to “search” for her and pass out missing person flyers.
The Focus Shifted With a Fake Confession Letter
“I wasn’t worried,” Sarah, now in her early 30s, told PEOPLE. “I was under the impression she was going to be back. I don’t think her being gone forever was anything that ever crossed my mind.” But in 2006, the focus of Alissa’s case shifted.
Five years after Alissa disappeared, the police received a call – a lead from a man named Thomas Hymer. The man was a convicted serial killer who wrote a “confession” letter, saying he was the one who killed Alissa. Hymer was serving time in a Florida prison time for another murder.
A New Investigation Began
It didn’t take long for the police to realize the letter was actually a hoax. But the silver lining in this scenario was that it brought more important matters to light. During their investigation, investigators noticed how certain things didn’t add up.
It was remarkable that in the now seven years since she had gone missing, she didn’t contact a single one of her friends or family members. Oh, and that aunt she was supposed to be living with? She never heard from Alissa, either. There were other red flags…
Her Bank Account Was Untouched
Alissa also had $1,800 in her bank when she “left” town, but that money was still in her account, untouched. Her social security number was never used, either, meaning she never got a job or went to school. All signs were pointing in one direction: Something happened to Alissa.
Finally, the police were certain that this was not a runaway case. Now, for the first time since the disappearance, detectives were conducting interviews with Alissa’s closest friends. Jon Laakman, her boyfriend, was one of them. According to Michael, Jon was verbally abusive.
The Last Day She Was Seen
Michael had told the police that her boyfriend would call her “stupid” and a “moron.” The investigators also noticed that things weren’t adding up with Michael’s initial story. Police learned that on the day Alissa went missing, she hadn’t been in school the entire day.
Police records reveal that Alissa poked her head into Jon’s workshop class around 11 a.m. to tell him she was leaving early. She told him that Michael was picking her up at lunchtime. Alissa then told Jon that she would see him later that night for the end-of-year party.
The Creepy Stepdad
Other friends of Alissa’s reported that she was planning to see them at the party. “He always made me uncomfortable, from the moment I met him,” confessed Charity Behrend, 38, one of Alissa’s longtime friends. With the things Alissa had told them, it’s a wonder Michael was never investigated earlier.
It was a few hours later that Michael made that initial call to the Phoenix Police, telling them Alissa had run away, leaving behind her clothes, cell phone, and even her car. He then gave the authorities his version of the story…
Michael’s Version of the Story
According to Michael, he had picked her up to get lunch. But once they got home, they started arguing about house rules, resulting in Alissa storming off to her bedroom. She then, allegedly, left the house “to run errands.”
The police also discovered that Michael was a particularly fussy and paranoid man. He had a tendency to document everything, including every incoming and outgoing call from the house. He also placed cameras outside of his property, one of them a hidden camera in the vent of the living room.
“Nothing to See” Here
Sure, it could have something to do with being a former cop, but it’s still quite suspicious. This wasn’t normal behavior. When police asked Michael for the videotapes from the day of Alissa’s disappearance, Michael said he reviewed them already and there was “nothing to see.”
As for the audiotapes of his calls that day, he told them that the recorder was turned off. And so, nothing was recorded. How convenient… Michael was acting very suspicious now. All this fishy behavior led the police to get enough probable cause to search his house.
What They Found Was Shocking
Investigators requested Alissa’s “note” as evidence, but Michael wouldn’t let them into his house. Instead, he gave them a photocopy of it. In 2008, about two years after the hoax confession letter and seven years after the disappearance, investigators decided to enter Michael’s home.
Once a search warrant was issued, police raided Michael’s home and recovered multiple items, most of them utterly shocking. They recovered 26 homemade pipe bombs as well as a 97-page manifesto written by Michael, detailing his plot to commit mass murder at the headquarters of the local electrical workers union – where he worked.
Michael Turney’s Manifesto
In the manifesto, Michael wrote that Alissa ran away, but he noted that he believed she was followed by two men from the electrical union. From the manifesto, police learned that when Michael was working at the electrical union, he was a whistleblower.
Michael wrote that he thought that the two men took revenge on him by murdering Alissa. The letter then detailed how he avenged her death by killing them both (the two men he was referring to were found to have died of natural causes).
A Sick Fantasy
The police recovered loads of paperwork, including hundreds of hours of audio and video, yet they were unable to find anything from the day Alissa vanished. One thing they did learn, though, was that the money from Alissa’s bank account was transferred to Michael’s account within the first six months after her disappearance.
Letters were also found in the home where Alissa claimed that Michael molested her. Even more disturbing were the parent-child contracts they found, which Alissa was forced to sign. One contract, dated 1999, declares Michael never molested her.
Allegations of Assault
The poor girl had to not only suffer the abuse from her stepdad but sign off that she had never been sexually assaulted. Investigators later got confirmation from Alissa’s friends, boyfriend, and teacher, that she did indeed make such allegations.
One friend told the police that Alissa had confided in him that her stepdad had tried sexually abusing her when she was younger. She told this friend that Michael had picked her up early from school one day, drove her to a secluded area, and aggressively tried to fool around with her.
He Was the Only One Who Didn’t Cooperate
Another friend told investigators that Alissa once said she woke up to her father trying to gag her with a sock. What did Michael have to say about all of this? Well, he denied all these allegations, of course.
It was noted in police documents that “Michael Turney has refused to cooperate with the investigation.” It further notes that he “is the only member of the Turney family not to cooperate” in the case. To date, Michael has yet to sit down for a “formal” interview with authorities.
A Display of “Inordinate Attention”
Something else was written in the police report after the 2008 raid, and it’s a lot more disturbing. It became apparent in the search that “Michael Turney has exhibited an apparent obsession with his stepdaughter, Alissa,” as was written in the report.
“He admitted to conducting surveillance on her at work, using binoculars to spy on her.” Relatives of the Turney family also told detectives that Michael treated Alissa differently than his other kids. The words they used to describe his relationship with her was that he gave her “inordinate attention.”
Deny, Deny, Deny
Although Michael is clearly the culprit, as of the 2008 raid, authorities only had the pipe bombs and weapons to use against him. In 2009, he held an interview with ABC News, saying that he planned to take his own life in order to bring attention to Alissa’s case.
He claimed that the bombs were planted in his house by the police and denied any connection with Alissa’s disappearance. “They have no proof whatsoever of anything other than rumors and innuendos and lies,” he told ABC.
Seven Years in Prison
Michael further said: “There are only two people that can confirm whether I did it, and one is me, and the other is Alissa. Alissa’s not here, and I’m sitting here and all I can say until hell freezes over, I didn’t do a damned thing to my daughter.”
A year later, in 2010, Michael pleaded guilty to possession of unregistered destructive devices. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and was diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder. Thus, he was required to participate in mental health treatments. After seven years, he was released.
Sarah Defended Her Dad at First
For years, even when Michael was suspected of being involved in her sister’s disappearance, Sarah always defended her dad. But something inside Sarah told her that something wasn’t right. Convinced that the investigation had stalled, she decided to launch a website seeking help on Alissa’s whereabouts.
She appeared on local and national TV news shows to discuss the case and searched through thousands of pages of police records. The more Sarah looked for answers, the more she was convinced that her own father did have something to do with it.
It Was Like a Switch
“For me, it was kind of like a switch,” Sarah explained. The former events and marketing specialist was only four when her stepmother, Barbara Strahm – Alissa’s mom, died from lung cancer. Sarah was the last person to believe that her dad was responsible for taking Alissa’s life, but she grew intent on holding him accountable.
At that time, detectives encouraged her to create more publicity about the case, hoping that it could provoke some leads. So, Sarah did just that. She started posting on countless social media pages dedicated to Alissa’s disappearance.
She Went on a Mission
Sarah launched an online petition calling for her father’s arrest that has been signed by nearly 300,000 people. She also produced a successful podcast about the case called Voices for Justice. She hit Facebook, Instagram and created a blog called Justice for Alissa.
She interviewed with local and national news outlets, including Dateline. She detailed all the information on other true crime podcasts, investigating the role of her father. Sarah even went to CrimeCon, a weekend-long event for true-crime fans. And then, she created a series of videos on TikTok.
A Secretly Recorded Conversation
Sarah’s podcast helped renew public interest in the case gone cold. On her podcast, Sarah revealed a chilling audiotape from a 1997 home video, where you can hear Alissa calling her stepdad a “pervert.” Sarah also played audio clips from an October 2017 meeting with her dad after he was released from prison.
Sarah met up with Michael at a Phoenix-area Starbucks to talk about Alissa. Then 28 years old, Sarah secretly recorded their meeting, at which she confronted her dad and asked him to come clean about what happened.
Entering the World of TikTok
“Be there at the deathbed, Sarah,” Michael coldly told her. “I will give you all the honest answers you want to hear.” She later said that she felt “a lot of different emotions.” She was “sad that he still refused to give me any answers.”
That last conversation the brave woman had with her biological dad was exposed to the world on her podcast. Then, in April 2020, she entered the world of TikTok, and those clips helped make a strong case for his arrest.
Reaching a Younger Audience
Sarah told ELLE that she wanted to reach a younger audience – one that hadn’t heard about Alissa’s case before. She made a point to leave “as little of my own speculation as possible and just present the facts” in her videos.
“When haters talk smack about you joining TikTok, but it gets your sister’s case in the news,” Sarah said in one video, using the hashtag #justiceforalissa. In another clip, she said: “I am doing the right thing fighting for justice.” Her plan ultimately worked. After too many dead ends, the final TikTok turn proved effective.
Winning the TikTok Lottery
Luckily, the series of short video clips have been seen by tens of millions of people. “I never underestimated the power of social media, I just never thought I’d win the TikTok lottery,” Sarah proudly declared.
“I was hopeful that [putting those statements on TikTok would prompt the police to finally bring him to a grand jury for questioning.” By February 2019, the case was finally submitted to the County Attorney’s office. The file requested that homicide charges be made against Michael Turney. At the time, “no charging decision has been made by the County Attorney’s office.”
Finally Getting Him Indicted
It took another six months before he was indicted in Alissa’s death. On August 19, 2020, a grand jury indicted Michael Turney, a free man of the age 72, on a single count of second-degree murder. In large part, it was Sarah’s followers who helped close the case.
In one video which garnered 13.6 million views, for example, Sarah shared a home VHS video from March 29, 1997, which was four years before Alissa’s death. A press conference announcing the charge had Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel crediting Sarah with helping solve the case.
Job Well Done, Sarah
“Sarah Turney, your perseverance and commitment to finding justice for your sister Alissa is a testament to the love of a sister; because of that love, Alissa’s light has never gone out and she lives on in the stories and photos you’ve shared with the community,” Adel stated.
Sarah has more than 1 million followers on TikTok, which involves almost exclusively clips about Alissa. While this is a definite win for Alissa’s case, it’s a sad loss for Sarah, who has lost a father – or at least, the idea of having a father in her life.
It’s Her Calling
Michael has repeatedly asserted his innocence, even during a 20/20 interview with John Quiñones back in 2008, as well as the ABC one. He has been officially arrested for the disappearance of Alissa Turney and is standing trial in 2021.
“All I can hope for is a fair trial for Alissa and my father,” Sarah asserted. “That’s all I ever wanted, is for them both to have their day in court.” Sarah is “optimistic” about justice for Alissa. In the second season of her podcast, she highlights other cold cases. “I feel this is my calling now,” she said.