A woman who used TikTok to publicly pressure authorities to charge her father after her sister’s disappearance and presumed death went unsolved for years is finally getting her day in court.
Michael Turney has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his 17-year-old stepdaughter, Alissa Turney, who disappeared on May 17, 2001, in Phoenix. Last week, his trial began, and testimony continued Monday from his daughter, Sarah Turney, who in April 2020 started posting about the case on TikTok after being frustrated that police were not investigating her father.
She’d already posted about her sister’s case on several social platforms and launched a podcast, but it was her massively viral TikToks that caught the attention of major media outlets. On Aug. 20, 2020, the Maricopa County attorney announced that Michael, then 72, had been indicted in Alissa’s death. Her body has not been found.
On the witness stand, Sarah told jurors her sister took on a maternal role after their mother died of cancer.
“She got me dressed in the morning when she was there and picked out my clothes and taught me how to do makeup and did my nails and cooked dinner and cleaned my room,” she said.
Alissa was last seen on the final day of her junior year at Paradise Valley High School, when Michael said he’d picked her up from school, taken her to lunch, dropped her off at home and then gone to pick up Sarah, then 12 years old, after she returned from a school field trip. When they returned home, Alissa was gone.
On a table in her bedroom, they found a handwritten note from Alissa saying she’d gone to California.
Sarah recited the note during her testimony, her voice breaking when she got to two lines addressed to her: “Sarah you wanted me gone. Now you have it.”
But Alissa left behind her cellphone, makeup and house keys. She had $1,800 in her bank account that was never touched after her disappearance.
Early on, police believed that the teen had run away. Michael reported her missing the day she disappeared and seemed to be actively searching for her. Sarah testified that she accompanied her father at least once to California and handed out fliers at a mall.
In one of her most famous TikToks, Sarah says that in 2008, police told her that they were investigating her father for her sister’s murder and that he had been molesting Alissa all her life. One investigator later told Dateline that they zeroed in on Michael after several of Alissa’s friends told them in 2008 that he had sexually abused her.
Based on these claims, police obtained a search warrant for his home and made a stunning find.
They discovered 26 pipe bombs, 19 assault rifles, 2 handmade silencers, and cans of gasoline in a van.
They also found a 98-page manifesto, titled “Diary of a Madman Martyr,” allegedly written by Michael Turney, accusing a labor union of retaliating against him for complaining about workplace conditions and kidnapping and killing Alissa. He also allegedly said that he had killed two “assassins” from the Brotherhood, who had killed Alissa and buried her remains in Desert Center, California, and that he planned to bomb the union hall and then kill himself. He later pleaded guilty to possessing the pipe bombs and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released in 2017.
The girls were treated very differently by their father, according to Sarah: He was lenient with her but strict and overbearing with Alissa, she said, and had recorded all phone calls and installed surveillance cameras inside the house. Once, she said, her father showed her a hidden camera in a vent.
At one point after Alissa disappeared, Sarah told detectives that her sister had “behavioral issues.” Under cross-examination Monday, she said she had been “brainwashed” to believe things her father had told her about her sister.
Sarah shared some of the home surveillance footage, from March 1997, in a TikTok viewed more than 13 million times, Elle reported. (The TikTok is no longer available.) Police said they found no video footage from the day Alissa went missing. Her father has said that the videos were for home protection.
In a jailhouse interview with ABC in 2009, he said, “They have no proof whatsoever of anything other than rumors and innuendos and lies. 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.”
But in a June 2020 TikTok, Sarah said her father had suggested he knew more about her sister’s disappearance than he had previously claimed. In a recording she said she’d made of a 2017 meeting with her father, a man’s voice can be heard saying, “Be there at the deathbed, Sarah, and I will give you all the honest answers you want to her,” which she interpreted as a confession.
She testified Monday that he had also said he would confess “in 10 days” if the state were to give him a lethal injection.
Allister Adel, the Maricopa County prosecutor, thanked her for keeping the spotlight on her sister when she announced her father’s arrest. “Your perseverance and commitment to finding justice for your sister Alissa is a testament to the love of a sister,” she said. “Because of that love, Alissa’s light has never gone out.”
The trial is expected to last two weeks.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Michael Turney pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty.