October 27, 2020

I’m Using TikTok to Catch My Sister’s Killer

5 min read

Sarah Turney has tried everything over the years to find out what happened to her older sister, Alissa Turney, who disappeared without a trace in 2001.

She started a Facebook group, an Instagram account, and a blog called “Justice for Alissa.” She sat for interviews with local and national media outlets, including Dateline. She dissected case details on true-crime podcasts, in addition to recording her own investigative podcast, Voices For Justice. Sarah even attended CrimeCon, the weekend-long event for true-crime fans, desperate for leads.

Now she’s looking for answers on TikTok. Sarah tells ELLE.com she wanted to reach a young audience that hadn’t heard about Alissa’s case before and tries to include “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 says in this one using the hashtag #justiceforalissa. In another, she says: “I am doing the right thing fighting for justice.”

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Sarah has over 614,000 followers on the video app and posts almost exclusively about Alissa. In one video, she recalls the day Alissa vanished. It was her last day of junior year at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Sarah, who was 12 at the time, says she found her sister’s usually meticulous bedroom in total disarray. Alissa’s Nokia cell phone was left on the dresser, along with a note saying she’d gone to California to try and make it on her own.

The girls were living with Sarah’s father, Michael Turney, who had legally adopted Alissa after their mother, Barbara Strahm, died of cancer. Detectives initially classified Alissa as a runaway, according to The Arizona Republic.

alissa turney

Alissa Turney

Courtesy Sarah Turney


Seven years later, Phoenix police made a shocking discovery in Michael’s house while investigating Alissa’s disappearance: a stash of homemade pipe bombs, three incendiary devices, and two silencers.

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In a 2009 ABC News segment, Michael admitted his plans to take his own life to bring attention to Alissa’s case. He said the bombs were planted in his home by police and he denied having anything to do with her disappearance.

“They have no proof whatsoever of anything other than rumors and innuendos and lies,” he told ABC. “There’s 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.”

In March 2010, Michael pleaded guilty to possession of the 26 unregistered pipe bombs, according to court documents obtained by ELLE.com. He was released from federal prison seven years later, according to Dateline. ELLE.com’s request for comment went unreturned by the time of publication.

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Since April, Sarah has been uploading TikToks about her father’s alleged role in Alissa’s disappearance. In the above video that’s garnered 13.6 million views, she shares home VHS footage from March 29, 1997—four years before Alissa went missing.

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In another TikTok, Sarah plays what she claims is a recorded conversation she had with her father a few months after he got out of prison in 2017. She says the purported meeting took place at a Starbucks and lasted for over an hour.

“I felt a lot of different emotions [afterward],” Sarah says. “I was sad that he still refused to give me any answers… I was hopeful that [putting those statements on TikTok] would prompt the police to finally bring him to a grand jury for questioning.”

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Alissa’s case is an open missing person investigation, according to a bulletin from the Phoenix Police Department Missing Persons Unit. When reached via email, Sgt. Maggie Cox of the Phoenix Police Department told ELLE.com that Michael is “the unit’s only person of interest in Alissa’s case right now.” In February 2019, the case was submitted to the County Attorney’s office requesting homicide charges be made against Michael, but Cox tells ELLE.com that “no charging decision has been made by the County Attorney’s office,” and there are “no further updates in the case.”

Phoenix Police are now asking anyone who “might have known Alissa Turney in the time prior to her disappearance, or whom have had contact with her since May 17, 2001… even if you only knew Alissa and have no knowledge of her disappearance,” to contact the Phoenix Police Department Missing Persons Unit at 602-534-2121 or email phoenix.tips.ppd@phoenix.gov.

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Sarah hopes her TikToks will lead to further investigation into her sister’s unsolved case. Every evening after work, she looks at all of her social media accounts—TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube—and her blog to see whether anyone has come forward with new information or tips.

Then, she sits down with the thousands of documents she’s acquired that relate to Alissa’s case.

“[I read through] approximately 3,000 pages of case documents that were released to the public by the police, [go through] a few hundred hours of home video footage and interviews that I’ve conducted with Alissa’s friends and family,” she says. “And no, I won’t ever stop.”

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