May 17, 2001 was 12-year-old Phoenix resident Sarah Turney’s last day of school.
She spent the afternoon cooling off at a water park with friends to begin the hot Arizona summer. Her 17-year-old sister, Alissa Turney, had made plans to attend a friend’s graduation on her last day of junior year.
However, Alissa Turney disappeared from her Phoenix home that day. Eighteen years have passed, and her body has never been found.
Now 30, Turney spends every free moment digging for answers about what happened to her sister.
“It started with just begging people to cover her story, sending out email after email,” Turney said. “I probably sent over 100 emails to podcasts and TV shows, YouTube channels, anybody I could.”
Turney began advocating for closure for her sister’s unsolved case in 2017, when Phoenix police informed her they were unable to prosecute any people of interest for Alissa’s disappearance, namely the girls’ father, Michael Turney.
Turney said this news was devastating, and it was around this time she sought help from the media. She began working with various content creators and participated in several podcasts, including Missing Alissa, hosted and produced by freelance writer Ottavia Zappala.
The podcast features Detective Stuart Somershoe of the Phoenix Police Department, who said that as police investigated Alissa’s disappearance over the years, information about the girl’s relationship with her father shifted police attention from Alissa being a teenage runaway to possible foul play.
“We began to get some disturbing information that Alissa had told her boyfriend and told other friends,” said Somershoe on the Missing Alissa podcast. “Some of the information about Michael’s surveillance of Alissa, his need for control of her.”
Despite police suspicion of Michael Turney’s involvement in the disappearance of Alissa, he was never charged. According to the Missing Alissa podcast, in 2008 Phoenix police searched his home and discovered explosives and a manifesto detailing plans for an arson attack.
While Michael Turney served 10 years in prison for bomb possession, police did not resume questioning him about Alissa’s disappearance, which prompted her sister to spread word of her sister’s case via the internet.
“Now I feel like as an adult, I can go back and help her in the only way I can. I feel terrible because I don’t think I realized when I was younger what she was doing for me,” Turney said.
Justin Rimmel of Fort Wayne, Indiana is the host of Mysterious Circumstances, one such podcast that Turney initially contacted.
“She had contacted me about her sister’s case, and that it was possibly a murder case,” Rimmel said. “I told her that I usually do not work with family members … when you’re reporting on crimes that are still unsolved, where a case is still ongoing, you have to be very careful about the information put out. You could jeopardize the case.”
Rimmel said he was apprehensive to tell Alissa’s story because of the possible legal repercussions, but allowed her eventually to speak on the show with Turney filling in the blanks of the case. He also said that he informed Turney that if he did not see wrongdoing, he would tell her, but Turney did not care and wanted to proceed with the podcast to get her sister’s story out.
“I immediately had respect for her,” Rimmel said. “I was like, ‘If you’re willing to say something like that, you’re either confident or just crazy’, and she’s far from crazy, but she knows so much about the case.”
Turney said that this year has been her most productive in terms of working for her sister. She is employed at a local Phoenix company and handles marketing and events. When she gets home from work, the rest of her day is dedicated to Alissa. She sorted through a 2,000 page stack of public records, using them as material for her own podcast, titled Voices For Justice. The podcast is episodic in nature and gives an intimate look into Turney’s family history.
“Of course I work a normal job, 9-to-5, but outside of that, it’s pretty much all Alissa,” Turney said. “I get home and I do research, I work on the podcast, and I interview people myself.”
Turney said she spent Labor Day weekend sorting through her sister’s public records, working from morning until midnight, when exhaustion would prevent her from researching any further.
Turney said this work has also impacted her relationships with family and friends.
“I virtually do not speak to my brothers anymore. I think it’s really painful for them to be involved,” Turney said. “I also think they don’t like the idea of me spending my whole life devoted to this.
“They worry it’s going to burn me out, or destroy me.”
However, Turney said that her online exploits have connected her with a community of people who have taken interest in the case. She regularly attends true crime events, which are conventions and gatherings concerned with the analyzation and discussion of crime, and has forged a support system through her interactions during events as well as social media.
“The online community gives me a lot of validation, like I’m doing the right thing,” Turney said. “They feel the same confusion, sadness and sometimes outrage over what’s happening in the case.”
Keith Murray is a childhood friend of Turney and has known her since seventh grade.
“She never stops,” said Murray about Turney’s work. “It’s an every-day thing for her. If she’s not doing interviews or podcasts, she’s getting her sister’s name and story out there.”
He said he has helped Turney in the past with her research, but that it is mostly Turney’s work alone.
“She has her good days, she has her bad days,” Murray said. “For the most part, she does her thing, and she’s relentless about it … she’s the strongest person I know.”
When she is not campaigning for her father to go to trial for Alissa’s disappearance, Turney does occasionally participate in activities that allow her to clear her head, such as hiking. She also cares for two poodle-mixes named Marley and Popcorn that provide comfort during particularly painful moments, she said. To relax at the end of the night, she engages with “mindless entertainment” such as reality TV, YouTube videos or Netflix.
Turney said her motivation to publicize Alissa’s case comes from a desire to “pay it forward” to her sister.
“I finally get to do something for her,” Turney said.
She described a childhood of Alissa protecting and shielding her from dysfunction in the home.
Turney said she has a favorite memory of her sister that she reflects upon often. Shortly after the family first got a trampoline, Alissa jumped off the roof onto it, bouncing into the family’s above-ground pool. Alissa dared Turney to do the same, and while Turney initially refused out of fear of her sister “double bouncing” her (an action in which one person’s jump on a trampoline affects the rebound of the other), she eventually conceded.
Right as Turney jumped off of the roof onto the trampoline where Alissa was standing, Alissa “double-bounced” her little sister anyway, and Turney rocketed off of the trampoline and crashed into the ladder the two used to climb onto the roof.
“I had never heard so much concern in her voice. I could hear the creak of the trampoline, and she’s like, ‘Sarah?’ She had never been that concerned over me my entire life,” Turney said.
Turney said that after she collected her breath, she started screaming, and her sister said to “shut up” so the two wouldn’t get in trouble.
“It’s just one of those moments that are indicative of childhood fun with siblings. I was in pain at the moment, but I look back now, and it’s definitely one of my favorite memories.”
Turney said she plans on continuing to sort through the stack of the case’s public records for Voices for Justice, has arranged to attend True Crime Podcast Festival next year, and is considering participating in CrimeCon.
Editor’s Note: Kaylin Dunnett is a student reporter at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.