I Used TikTok to Catch My Sister's Killer

Rose Minutaglio
·6 mins read
Photo credit: Sarah Turney Instagram
Photo credit: Sarah Turney Instagram


Sarah Turney 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 details on true-crime podcasts, in addition to recording her own podcast, Voices For Justice, to investigate the role her father, Michael Turney, who legally adopted Alissa after their mother died, played in the case. Sarah even attended CrimeCon, the weekend-long event for true-crime fans, desperate for leads.

Then she started 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. She included "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 video using the hashtag #justiceforalissa. In another, she says: "I am doing the right thing fighting for justice."

Her plan worked. After years of dead ends, a Maricopa County grand jury charged Michael on Wednesday with one count of second degree murder thanks, in large part, to Sarah's unrelenting quest for justice.

Sarah has over 1 million followers on the video app and posts almost exclusively about Alissa. In one video, she recalls the day her sister vanished. It was her last day of junior year at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix. 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 Michael since their mother, Barbara Strahm, died of cancer. Detectives initially classified Alissa as a runaway.

Photo credit: Courtesy Sarah Turney
Photo credit: Courtesy Sarah Turney

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

In a 2009 ABC News interview, Michael said he planned to take his own life to bring attention to Alissa's case. He said the bombs were planted in his home by police and 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.

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 shared home VHS footage from March 29, 1997—four years before Alissa went missing.

In another TikTok, Sarah plays what she claims is a recorded conversation she had with him 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."

In February 2019, the case was submitted to the County Attorney's office requesting homicide charges be made against Michael, but Sgt. Maggie Cox of the Phoenix Police Department told ELLE.com at the time that "no charging decision has been made by the County Attorney’s office." It would take another six months before Michael was indicted in Alissa's death.

At Wednesday's press conference announcing the charge, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel credited Sarah with helping solve the case.

"Sarah Turney, your perseverance and commitment to finding justice for your sister Alissa is a testament to the love of a sister, because of that love, Alissa's light has never gone out and she lives on in the stories and photos you've shared with the community," Adel said. "This passion you have you have demonstrated to her during your journey is something that will keep Alissa's memory alive forever."

Sarah had said she would continue to make TikTok videos about Alissa's case until her alleged killer is brought to justice. Every evening after work, she scans all of her social media accounts—TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube—plus 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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