Case #1, Part 1: Alissa Turney

It almost took me longer to decide what case I wanted to write about than it did to actually write this piece. I went back and forth on what I thought should be the first case I share here—an infamous one? One no one had ever heard of? The goriest one I could find? Eventually, I started thinking about a case that would encapsulate the purpose behind this blog: to help. To inform, comfort, and raise awareness. To use our collective love of mystery and suspense to keep cases moving forward and possibly find justice.

With that in mind, I remembered a case I had heard about a few years ago, only to see it thrust back into the spotlight in recent months. I’m talking, of course, about the strange disappearance of Alissa Turney.

…………………………………………………………………………………

Let’s start with some basics.

  • Alissa Turney went missing from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, on May 17th, 2001.
  • She was 17 years old.
  • She was reported missing by her stepfather, Michael Turney.
  • It was her last day of school before summer vacation.
  • To this day, she has never been found or heard from.

Alissa and her 12-year-old half sister, Sarah, both lived in North Phoenix with Michael Turney (Alissa’s stepfather and Sarah’s biological father) ever since the girls’ mother had passed away when they were children. Michael’s three older sons from a previous marriage all lived outside of the home.

This little family of the 3 of them had a complicated dynamic. Michael and Sarah were, or at least appeared to be, a dream father-daughter duo. Michael was Sarah’s Cool Dad that bought beer for her and her friends to drink and encouraged her to stay home from school if she didn’t want to go. She had a significant level of freedom and trust, both within and outside the home. Alissa, in comparison, had a vastly different relationship with Michael. Michael frequently told Sarah that Alissa was a “bad kid”, and therefore needed extra supervision and guidance. As such, Alissa, who was 5 years older, lived by much stricter rules than her sister. Her daily schedule was monitored so much so that Michael would sometimes follow her to work and wait outside in his car. He kept track of her attendance and grades, had to know exactly who she was spending time with and where, and often punished her for drinking alcohol and smoking weed.

Over the years, this disparity fueled tensions between Alissa and Michael. Alissa would flaunt her father’s rules, and Michael would come down harder and harder. Fights and arguments were common. A home movie of the Turney’s from 1997 is often brought up when discussing the relationship these two had. In the clip, Michael and Sarah seem to be playing together, while Alissa is further in the distance. At one point, Alissa calls out Sarah’s name three times, and then announces, “Dad’s a pervert.” There is a pause, some quick walking, and then Michael’s voice, saying to turn the video camera off. The last dialogue in the clip is Michael addressing the camera, saying “Alissa is a stupid moron!”

Back to May 17th.

Once the school day came to an end, Sarah Turney waited for her father to come pick her up—but he never did. Since this wasn’t too unusual for Michael, Sarah wasn’t nervous or panicked. Instead, she followed the plan for when her father was late, making the trek to a friend’s house nearby. It wasn’t until Michael finally picked her up, around 4:30 or 5 PM, that she started to feel that something was wrong. “I can’t get in touch with Alissa, and I don’t know where she is”, he told her when she got in the car. “Try calling her cell phone.” It wouldn’t matter how many times Sarah dialed her sister’s number—she never picked up. Once they were home, Sarah went straight to Alissa’s room. The cell phone her and her father had been trying to get a hold of was on the dresser, and her backpack had been emptied all over the floor. And there was a note.

“Dad and Sarah, When you dropped me off at school today, I decided I really am going to California. Sarah, you said you wanted me gone – now you have it. Dad, I took $300 from you. That’s why I saved my money. -Alissa”

So… let’s break down this note.

Sarah later said that the note’s contents weren’t immediately a red flag for her. The mention of California was in reference to Alissa’s aunt, who she often spoke of going to live with, especially during her and Michael’s arguments. They had seemed to be fighting even more than usual lately. Maybe, Sarah thought, Alissa had just wanted to get away for the summer.

That night, Michael called the police to report Alissa missing. He told officers that he and his stepdaughter had had a fight and she had subsequently run away, assumedly to her aunt’s home in California. The correct, responsible thing to do, right?

Trick question, fellow true crime fans. In reality, this description actually hurt Alissa more than it helped her. Missing person reports are tricky, particularly if the person is not a child; often there are specific thresholds that have to be met in order for the police to open an investigation, such as the amount of time since a person’s been seen last. Precincts rarely want to devote time and energy to a case that might not even be real, so they tend to lean on the side of waiting it out. So when Michael Turney told police his 17-year-old daughter voluntarily ran away to stay with another family member…. it didn’t set off any alarms. No heads were turned, no case opened. To them, this was a simple domestic dispute with a rebellious teen daughter, and after a few days she’d come home safe and sound.

Now, interestingly enough, Michael Turney was actually a former cop himself. He had to have known from experience that his story about Alissa wasn’t going to get anyone’s attention; and he was right. No officers came by the Turney home to interview Michael or Sarah. No interviews were done at the girls’ school, with any of Alissa’s friends or teachers. They were completely hands-off, which gave Michael a good chunk of time to work, under the radar, very hands-on.

Michael Turney seemed to be operating under two different versions of reality. At the same time he was letting local police forget all about Alissa, he was insisting to family and friends that something horrible had happened to his stepdaughter and that law enforcement was purposefully refusing to help him. He frequently told family members that since the police weren’t doing anything, it was his responsibility to be Alissa’s “champion”. In the weeks following Alissa’s disappearance, Michael made several trips to California to look for Alissa: driving around the areas the family had been to together and where Alissa’s aunt lived. A week after May 17th, Michael claimed that Alissa had called him from a phone in California, staying on the line only long enough to curse at him and tell him she was never coming home. Police never verified or confirmed the call, so while AT&T records show one was made, whether or not it was Alissa remains a mystery.

Since that day, Alissa has never made contact with anyone from her life in Phoenix. Not Sarah, her sister, or any of her three older stepbrothers. Not her aunt in California, or her best friends from Paradise Valley High School, or even her boyfriend at the time of her disappearance. And, eventually, time seemed to leave Alissa behind. The Turney family and their friends believed that Michael was doing all he could to help her while being ignored by police, him the brave father in the face of adversity. And the police, without any follow up from the family, let Alissa’s file get pushed away and forgotten.

For years, Alissa’s case was seen as a bizarre tragedy. Most of the people from her life truly thought she had run away, choosing a new life over the one she had already had. Sarah Turney, her sister, was one of those people; on an ID 20/20 television special shortly after Alissa’s disappearance, she insisted that “Until I am shown evidence otherwise, she is on the beach, sipping margaritas, living a brand new life. That’s the way I want to think of her. I won’t let myself think negatively without evidence.”

There are far, far too many cases exactly like Alissa’s. Cases where the victim has no way of advocating for themselves, and no one to advocate for them. Cases that get lost in the shuffle and grind of an overworked and underfunded system, a system that is forced to prioritize and rank which victims are deserving of help and which ones have to wait for a miracle. Alissa was 17, still a minor, when she disappeared. There shouldn’t have been any hesitation in opening an investigation for her. But she was let down.

Luckily, though, this case was able to change. It went from a stone cold case with no leads and no hope to an active operation and conviction. It went from buried at the bottom of a police precinct basement to front-page headlines and trending on social networks.

How? Alissa got an advocate. She finally got the hard work, persistence, and passion that her case deserved from day 1. She got her sister, Sarah Turney, who dedicated herself to finding justice—whatever the cost.

(Read the rest of the story of Alissa Turney in Case #1, Part 2!)

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