(This is the second half of our coverage on the disappearance of Alissa Turney. To read part one, click here).
For the Turney family, life changed forever on the afternoon of May 17th, 2001, the last day that anyone saw or heard from 17-year-old Alissa. For years, her case faded into obscurity while her loved ones eventually starting learning to move on. Some chose to imagine Alissa happy and carefree, with a new identity and life she had chosen for herself. Others suspected foul play but, without any evidence, leads, or police help, were forced to pretend those thoughts away. Were it not for a random coincidence, the name “Alissa Turney” may never have been discussed again.
2006—5 years since Alissa disappeared
In 2006, the Phoenix police department received a letter they weren’t expecting. It was from a man named Thomas Heimer, who was serving time for a murder charge in a prison in Florida. Heimer had admitted to and been charged with the murder of Sandra Lee Goodman, a 30-year-old video store clerk, after a seemingly normal road trip the two had taken across the state. In this letter he sent to Phoenix police, he claimed he was going to make them “famous” with the confessions he had to tell them. Specifically, he mentioned, he had a confession relating to the case of Alissa Turney.
Now, let me get this out of the way: Thomas Heimer was not involved with the disappearance of Alissa. Honestly, people to this day have trouble explaining how Heimer could have even learned Alissa’s name and the details of her case. His story to Phoenix police went as follows: Alissa ran away, he met her by chance in California, and the pair spent several weeks together, having sex and doing heroin, until he accidentally killed her during a sex act. Law enforcement’s first efforts at confirming this, however, poked holes in this confession quickly. Alissa’s friends and family overwhelmingly insisted she had never done heroin, much less struggled with an addiction to it (and, they added, something like that wouldn’t have been possible for a teenager to hide). Heimer’s descriptions of their sexual activity also was disproved by Alissa’s former boyfriend, who clarified that Alissa wouldn’t have been interested in or consented to any of what Heimer said. It quickly became clear that Heimer was simply looking for privileges or a lesser sentence, not justice. And as depraved and strange as this false confession was, it actually was what saved Alissa’s case from being forgotten forever. Once Phoenix police received Heimer’s letter, they had no choice but to open an investigation to confirm it. And when Heimer was ruled out as a suspect, they were forced to keep looking.
That catches us up to 2008. Police quickly realized that in the seven years Alissa had been missing, she hadn’t reached out or made contact with any of her loved ones, family or friends. They also established that even though Alissa had had a bank account balance of $1800 the day she went missing, none of that had been touched or moved since May 17, 2001. That fact was made even weirder when it was remembered that Alissa had taken $300 from her stepfather, Michael Turney, before she went missing—why risk taking such a small amount when she had much more in her own account? Her social security number had no record of being used, which meant she wouldn’t have been able to get a job or any kind of house or apartment, or continue any kind of education. It became clear to investigators, albeit several years too late, that this case was much more than an instance of a simple teen runaway. Someone or something had done something to her.
Still, with seven years since Alissa was seen, police had to start this case completely from scratch. They started with the people Alissa had been closest to, her family and friends, and then worked their way down through people who had gone to school with her, or had her as a coworker. As soon as an actual investigation is underway, some seemingly new facts come to the surface that puts the case in a new light right from the get-go. In 2008, Michael Turney, Alissa’s stepfather, tells police that on May 17th, 2001, he picked his stepdaughter up from her high school early: around 11 AM or 12 PM. While the school’s attendance records from that year were no longer existent, Alissa’s former boyfriend and several other friends confirmed that they remembered Alissa telling them that morning at school that she was leaving early, and that she would see them later that night for an end-of-school party.
Why wasn’t Alissa leaving early disclosed to police until seven years later? Why would Alissa be making plans if she was indeed planning on running away to California? And why was she picked up in the first place? These were all questions that let police know they were on the right track with their hunch of foul play. Michael Turney in particular was already looking suspicious. Not only had he never mentioned him picking Alissa up that day to police, but in the past seven years he hadn’t even ever told this information to his and Alissa’s own family. In fact, horrifyingly enough, the rest of the Turney’s didn’t even find out this event had happened until it was mentioned on an ABC 20/20 special episode about Alissa’s case. The family watched the episode in real time and found out, along with the rest of America, that Michael had lied to them.
Here’s Michael’s updated story to police (as of 2008). He claims he picked his stepdaughter up to go to lunch, which they did, and then returned to their home, where he says they had an argument-turned-fight about following house rules. Then, he says, she stormed to her room, he went out to do errands, and he didn’t realize she was missing until he returned home with his daughter Sarah and found the note in Alissa’s room. A story that sounds plausible, sure, but one that has no way of being verified. Until, that is, Michael lets slip just what kind of a homeowner he is.
Michael, being clearly an incredibly paranoid individual, was someone who insisted on recording… everything. From a recording device on his landline that recorded every incoming and outgoing call, to security cameras surrounding the front and back yards, to even a tiny video camera hidden in the vent of his living room, he clearly wanted to be prepared to prove something (or everything) that had happened within his house. Which made the situation all the more suspicious when Michael, after being asked by police to provide any recordings from the day of May 17th, simply insisted that, on that particular day, the recorder was “turned off”.
This shifty behavior was enough to get Michael into police custody while a search of his home was conducted. And upon searching, police discover a bombshell—literally. Twenty-six homemade pipe bombs were found at Michael Turney’s residence, alongside a startling 90-page manifesto written by himself. Despite his claims to the public that the bombs were “planted” by law enforcement, Michael Turney did plead guilty to the possession of them and was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2010. It’s important to note: he only was charged with the possession of the bombs, not for anything having to do with Alissa.
And this is where Sarah Turney comes in.
Sarah’s story is a testament to sisterly love, dedication, and excruciatingly hard work. In the long years since the disappearance of her stepsister and the arrest of her father, Sarah let the trauma she’d gone through motivate her to keep her sister’s case alive. Her website, created just weeks after Alissa went missing, remains active to this day and was Sarah’s first attempt to gather leads and information in one centralized place. As the case got colder, Sarah went further, creating social media pages with the handle “Justice for Alissa” and reaching out to true crime enthusiasts and creators. She even managed to raise enough money for a billboard with Alissa’s name and photo on it.
Sarah’s podcast, Voices for Justice, was birthed as a seemingly last-chance attempt to get more media attention to her sister’s case. Before starting it in 2019, she decided to go straight to the Phoenix Police Department and requested any and all records having to do with Alissa’s case. To her great surprise, they sent her nearly 3,000 pages of notes and documents, many of which held information that even Sarah had never seen before.
All of that brings us here, to 2020, when Sarah created an account on the social media video app TikTok. Her account, @saraheturney, posted videos that focused on Alissa: clips from their childhood, interviews, information, etc. The most striking aspect of the account was its mission, stated by Sarah in the caption of one of her first videos: “When your Dad killed your sister and your family hates you for fighting for his prosecution.” It’s clear from all of her videos that the objective here was not only to get attention around Alissa’s case, but to call prosecutors to action to convict a specific suspect. It was wild, and it caught the Internet’s attention. Since starting the account at the end of April 2020, Sarah has amassed over 10 million liked across her account and has over 800,000 followers. She used popular audios and trends on the app to help get her content on more and more people’s For You Pages, which uses an algorithm to put videos with more engagement on your feed.
The full story from here is a little murky for legal reasons. While not many details have been released to the public yet, here’s what we know for sure. In June of 2020, Sarah succeeded in having the Phoenix police submit Alissa’s case to the prosecutor’s office for charges against her father (Michael Turney). On August 19th, 2020, he was indicted by a grand jury on one count of second-degree murder: Alissa’s. The murkiness comes from the lack of information we have about this indictment: as of now, it’s not public what evidence was used to indict. Turney was arrested the next day. Sarah celebrated the event with a message to her listeners on her podcast, tearfully saying “Thank you for being my family and thank you for caring about Alissa as much as I do. This process has been absolute hell. I never wanted to get on media, I never wanted to make my own podcast, but we did it, you guys.”
Michael Turney’s case is still ongoing, and likely will be for a while. Sarah and her family are still nowhere near the end of this nightmare. But because of Sarah’s hard work, they’re that much closer.