A grainy home video dated March 29, 1997 shows crooked footage of a man in a hat and plaid shirt in the woods.
“Hit the red button now,” the man says to his daughter, who turns the camera to her sister, Alissa, in the distance.
“Sarah! Sarah!” Alissa hollers, and the little girl turns the camera around to show her own face. Her big brown eyes shine into the camera.
“Sarah!” Alissa yells one more time as the camera redirects toward her. “Dad’s a pervert.”
“Give me the camera now,” the man commands. He takes the camera and zooms in on Alissa. “Alissa is a stupid moron!”“ he sings. “Alissa’s a stupid moron!”
The camera then cuts to a view out the windshield of a car before immediately shutting off.
Thursday, May 17, 2001 was the last day of school for Alissa and Sarah Turney. Sarah was excited to go to Water World with her seventh grade class, and excitedly packed her Delia’s swimsuit in her backpack. She had a fun-filled time with her friends and was bussed back to school at the end of the day.
Sarah walked to a friend’s house and called her dad to pick her up. She and her friends – only twelve at the time – snuck into their father’s cigarettes while he was asleep. Before her dad, Michael Turney, could pick her up, Sarah was sprayed with perfume to cover the smell so she wouldn’t get in trouble.
“My dad picked me up and asked me to immediately call Alissa because she wasn’t answering her phone,” Sarah says.
Alissa never answered. Michael and Sarah arrived at the house around 5:00 p.m., and Sarah went into Alissa’s room to find her backpack and papers dumped all over the floor, along with her phone on the dresser and a note explaining she’d run away to California.
Alissa had a history of rebellious behavior due to her stepfather’s strict household rules. Michael regularly searched his stepdaughter’s things, recorded all phone conversations, and even made her sign contracts – in addition to standard rule such as a curfew. He had surveillance cameras all over the house, both outside and in.
According to Michael Turney, he had picked up Alissa from Paradise Valley High School around 11:00 a.m. and had taken her to lunch. An argument ensued regarding Alissa’s freedom, and she stormed off to her room when they arrived home. At approximately 1:00 p.m., Michael left her alone to run errands, and claimed he picked up Sarah from school.
This, of course was untrue.
In reality, as Sarah mentioned, he picked her up from a friend’s house several hours later at approximately 7:00 p.m.
“I didn’t think much of it,” Sarah remembers after returning home and finding the note. “I thought she was just mad and would be back. But my father went into full panic mode that night.”
Michael Turney reported his stepdaughter as a runaway at 11:00 p.m. that evening. Due to Alissa’s age and the note left behind, the police considered her a runaway and essentially dismissed the case. It wasn’t until years later that they would revisit Alissa’s disappearance to find out what truly happened.
The relationship between the girls and their father was a peculiar one. Michael treated his daughter and stepdaughter one hundred percent differently, according to many accounts.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” Sarah says about her childhood. “My dad was my best friend and gave me whatever I wanted for the most part. We were quite poor for much of my childhood but I could stay up as late as I wanted, eat whatever I wanted for dinner, and pretty much do whatever I wanted. Alissa’s relationship was the opposite. She wasn’t allowed to do a whole lot due to her ‘behavioral problems’ – which were nonexistent. They fought all the time.”
Michael Turney had married Alissa’s mother, Barbara Strahm, in 1987 when Alissa was only three years old. Michael also had children from another marriage, and the couple completed their family with a little girl, Sarah, in 1988.
Tragically, Barbara was diagnosed with cancer and died when Sarah was only four years old. Michael went on to raise the two girls by himself.
“I’m told she was a lot like Alissa and me,” Sarah says about her mother. “Strong and compassionate, cared for others, but also didn’t take any crap. Her death impacted everything. I know Alissa would still be here today had she not passed from cancer.”
Alissa took on the role of a mother for her younger sister, spending half her time as the annoying older sister and half the time as a nurturing figure.
“She was the only mother I ever had so in addition to picking on me, she also made sure I looked decent when leaving the house and scared away my bullies,” Sarah remembers. “She was a great blend of strength and compassion.”
Now, eighteen years later, all Sarah has are memories of her fun-loving sister who would fight with her and then sit down to play Barbies; a teenager who loved kids’ shows, eating Ranch corn nuts, and “rocking out to Marilyn Manson.”
“She had her ups and downs but was more kind than she ever had to be considering what she was going through,” Sarah says.
What was Alissa going through? Typical teenage hormones or something much worse?
A week after his step-daughter went missing, Michael claimed to have received a telephone call from a convenience store in California in the middle of the night. He heard a scrambled voice and Alissa cursing, then saying, “Leave me alone.”
While it’s been reported that Michael recorded all phone calls in the house, this one was not.
Later, he loaded Sarah into his car and drove to California to search for Alissa.
“We handed out flyers at a mall for about an hour,” Sarah remembers. “Other than that, we just went to the beach. It felt more like a vacation than a trip to look for Alissa.”
Despite his seemingly genuine attempts to search for his stepdaughter, he was not as cooperative with the police. Michael Turney admitted in an interview with ABC News that he refused to let investigators search the house, citing Constitutional rights. Throughout the interview, he laughs inappropriately and often trails off with his answers to discuss the government or accusations against the police and other people. In other reports, he declined giving the police access to his surveillance videos on the day Alissa disappeared.
In the interview, Michael also talked heavily about Alissa’s developmental problems and how he did her homework for her, while others have reported Alissa did relatively well in school.
“[Her boyfriend] would yell at her and call her stupid, which was a phrase I would not allow in my home. No one was allowed to degrade Alissa,” he said.
Sparked by a false confession from a serial killer, detectives arrived at Michael’s house to search for clues – seven years after Alissa went missing. They unwittingly discovered a horror movie in the making: a mass collection of bombs, guns, and other explosives, along with a lengthy manifesto titled “Diary of a Madman Martyr.” He swore revenge on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers by planning to blow up the union hall and shooting the fleeing survivors. He’d claimed the IBEW were the ones who had kidnapped and killed Alissa.
Sarah found out about her father’s despicable plans not through a friend or family member, but by watching the news one afternoon.
“I didn’t think it was true,” she says. “I couldn’t believe he was capable of something like that.”
Police immediately evacuated the neighborhood and arrested Michael, who was later sentenced to ten years in prison for the horrific plan that fortunately did not come to fruition. The day the bombs were discovered, they sat down with Sarah and told her that her father was a pedophile and a killer.
Multiple people had come forward in the years following Alissa’s disappearance to say that Michael Turney had been sexually abusing Alissa for years – an allegation substantiated by letters written by Alissa herself. A week before her disappearance, Michael Turney had called Child Protective Services to inform them that if Alissa called to report him for abuse, it was a false accusation.
“I think my father killed her so she wouldn’t tell anyone else about the sexual abuse she had endured her entire life,” Sarah theorizes.
Since she went missing, there hasn’t been any activity on Alissa’s bank account nor has there been any confirmed sightings of the teenager – who would be thirty-five this year. She hasn’t been seen since the last day of school when her father picked her up for lunch.
According to Sarah’s blog, a witness was reported to have seen Michael purchasing lye in the days around May 17. She also states that her father’s two trucks were sold immediately after. Despite the circumstantial evidence, motive, and the eight hour window between picking up Alissa from school to getting Sarah from her friend’s house, police have not made any arrests in the case, and Alissa has yet to be found.
Yet Sarah remains determined to get justice for her sister, regardless of what it takes.
“I need help,” she says. “I can’t do this alone. My voice isn’t loud enough.”
“Be there at my deathbed, Sarah, and I’ll give you all the honest answers you want to hear,” Michael Turney says to his daughter in a quiet recording.
Sarah had gone to see her father after he was released from prison. They’d met at a local Starbucks, and Sarah immediately pulled out her phone and placed it on the table to record their conversation – an intense, chilling encounter.
“We didn’t hug,” she says, “and got straight to business.”
“Why don’t you give it to me now?” Sarah inquires in the recording.
“‘Cause you’ve got ‘em now,” he responds. The sounds of the coffeeshop filled the voids in their conversation.
“Then why are you making this offer to go to your deathbed?”
Michael laughs. “I don’t know, Sarah. What are you looking for?”