Shock find after sister vanished
Although some of her memories are fuzzy, time has a tendency to do that, Sarah Turney still remembers the day her 17-year-old sister Alissa mysteriously disappeared.
It was May 17, 2001, and Sarah, then 12, recalls her dad was meant to pick her up from Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, Arizona, but he was a no show, which she says wasn't unusual.
"I had no supervision compared to Alissa," says Sarah. "So I walked to my friend's house."
When her dad Michael Turney eventually came to fetch her, he said Alissa wasn't answering her phone. Sarah tried to call but there was no answer, so when they got home she went straight to Alissa's bedroom.
"To the left of her dresser was the runaway note and her cell phone. The contents of her backpack was strewn all over the floor," remembers Sarah.
The note, written in bubbly teenage handwriting, said Alissa had run away to California.
"I wasn't concerned but my father seemed to be very concerned," remembers Sarah.
At 11pm that night, Michael called the police and reported Alissa missing, telling them she used drugs and had gone to live with her aunt in California.
Sarah never saw or heard from her sister again. What compounds the tragedy is that Alissa was like a second mum to Sarah after their mum had died when she was four and Alissa was nine.
"We were extremely close," she says. "Alissa was the only mum I knew - she made all my meals, dressed me and made sure I didn't look stupid going to school."
Although they had different fathers and were technically half sisters, they didn't use the term "half" for their relationship. Besides Alissa called Michael "Dad" and he'd raised her. Although things were difficult between them.
"They fought all the time," says Sarah. "It seemed like Alissa wanted more freedom and he wouldn't allow it."
Their quarrels could be put down to a normal father-daughter relationship but Michael's behaviour was far from normal. There was a camera in the living room vent from which he'd record Alissa making out with her boyfriend on the couch. He also got Alissa to sign contracts stating that he'd never molested or abused her.
After she disappeared, Michael Turney told ABC's 2020 that the camera was for security surveillance and he made contracts with all of his kids as a parenting technique.
But Sarah says his obsession with Alissa was obvious. While Sarah was often left unsupervised, Michael would follow Alissa in his car and film her movements. There's even shaky footage of him filming her at her job in a fast food restaurant.
"Every day he was like, 'Where is Alissa? Is she with a boy? Is she being supervised?'," recalls Sarah.
The summer Alissa disappeared, Sarah slept in her sister's bed and started to act out.
"She had never left like that before. I didn't think she would leave me like that. When school started I realised it was very serious but I never gave up hope that she would still be alive."
Her dad also changed but in many ways it was for the better.
"He took down the cameras in the vents … He rested. On the other hand he had all these flyers of my sister made up but refused search parties that my neighbours offered to do," says Sarah. "He appeared to be looking everywhere for her."
Then in December 2008, Sarah's life was turned upside down again. Her dad, a former deputy sheriff, was arrested after police raided his house and found 26 homemade pipe bombs.
The Attorney-General's office said he planned to drive a van laden with explosives into a local union hall with which he had a dispute, then shoot survivors who came out of the front door.
The case made the news and media started to link Michael Turney with the case of missing Alissa Turney - could a guy who devised a bomb attack also be involved in the disappearance of his stepdaughter?
For Sarah, the plot seemed so at odds with the dad she knew and loved. "I believed he was innocent," she says. "He told me that the police planted the bombs. I didn't know what to think, I didn't in a million years think he was responsible for Alissa."
In 2010, Michael Turney, then 62, was convicted of the bomb plot and jailed for 10 years for the unlawful possession of unregistered destructive devices. Despite her growing reservations about her dad, Sarah felt torn.
"I felt very sorry for him … when he was in prison I tried to give him every luxury I could. When he acted out or wasn't kind I thought it was because of his circumstances," says Sarah.
Then came a turning point. When Sarah graduated top of her class from ASU and was so excited to tell her dad but all he said back was that her mum would be disappointed in her.
"That's when I realised this man does not care about me," says Sarah.
Alissa's disappearance began churning around in her mind. One thing that always bothered Sarah about the case was the realisation that her dad had taken Alissa out of school early the day she disappeared but hadn't told anyone.
"Why did he never tell us about that? It's so strange," says Sarah.
Police also got in touch with her and laid out information about the case.
"They told me straight out that they thought Alissa was forced to write the runaway note," says Sarah.
When her dad was released from prison in 2017, police rang Sarah with some unsettling news about Alissa's disappearance, Sarah was told, "We don't have a body, we can't move forward." They said the only way to draw attention to the case was for Sarah to talk to the media.
That's when it became Sarah's mission to tell Alissa's story and she started the podcast Voices For Justice, spending countless hours researching her sister's case.
"My mission is to present Alissa's case in full and present it truthfully," explains Sarah.
For the past five years Sarah, now 31, hasn't been in regular contact with her dad but for the first episode of the podcast she confronted him on the phone about whether he was involved in Alissa's disappearance, to which he said, "There's nothing to confess to because nothing happened."
Her sister has been gone for over 19 years and Sarah believes she was murdered. Although no one has ever been arrested or charged of anything in relation to her case, in February 2019 police submitted Alissa's case to the prosecutor's office for charges against Michael Turney.
Sarah is determined to find answers and ironically says her quest for justice comes from her dad who was a deputy sheriff for four years before she was born.
"He was my hero. He taught me so many good traits, my compassion for justice comes from him," says Sarah.
Although Michael's not her hero anymore, Sarah's tenacity will no doubt see whoever's responsible for Alissa's disappearance pay for their crime.
Originally published as Shock find after sister vanished