Police: Stepdad person of interest in EMU student death

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

After more than two years, Julia Niswender's relatives remain without answers about who killed the Eastern Michigan University student in her off-campus apartment.

Niswender

The case is back in the spotlight again for a surprising development: Her stepfather has been arrested on charges of possessing child pornography and is considered a person of interest in her death, according to Ypsilanti police.

But Julia's family is defending James Turnquist, saying he was at his home the night of her death, and still question who is responsible for her slaying.

"I had lunch with Julia that day and later that night talked to her on the phone," Jennifer Niswender, Julia's twin sister, told The Detroit News on Wednesday. "She wasn't planning on having anyone over and said she planned to stay in and do some studying. Could she have opened the door and let someone in that she knew? I don't know."

James Turnquist of Monroe was arrested Feb. 26 and remains in the Monroe County Jail on a $100,000 bond, according to jail officials.

According to First District Court records in Monroe County, he's been charged with possessing sexually abusive material involving a child. His probable cause hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. March 12.

Turnquist's stepdaughter was found Dec. 11, 2012, in the bathtub of her off-campus Ypsilanti residence, the Peninsular Place Apartments across the street from the campus police station.

Her death is among three unsolved cases involving young women missing or slain that span three counties in southeast Michigan.

Turnquist

"The investigators, as well as some family members of Julia, have concerns that Mr. Turnquist has knowledge pertaining to her death," police said in a news release Wednesday. "This is due to the fact that he has not provided detectives with a formal statement as to his whereabouts the days prior to Julia's death, thus making him a person of interest."

Geoffrey Larcom, spokesman for EMU, said the school is aware of the development in the case and it is " following the situation closely."

Jennifer Niswender said it's still difficult discussing and even thinking about her sister's murder, but to consider a relative may be concealing information about it makes it even worse. Niswender said she and other family members have been questioning police "all the time about different things and they always say 'we can't answer that.' "

"They are trying to say my dad had something to do with my sister's case and I don't know why," Niswender told The Detroit News on Wednesday night. "I don't know why they are trying to bring him into this, but I stand behind him 100 percent."

Niswender said her stepfather has taken two polygraph examinations administered by police that have shown he has no knowledge of what happened to her sister. "I really think they (police) are wasting their time focusing on him as a person of interest rather than trying to find the real killer. All we want is justice for Julia."

Jennifer Niswender said she was at home with her father, mother and another sister the night police believe Julia was killed in her apartment.

Julia Niswender was last seen around 5 p.m. Dec. 9, 2012, as she left work at Wal-Mart in Saline. Her roommates called police after not hearing from her for two days. She had two female roommates, and one had gone home for the weekend and the other was "in and out," Jennifer Niswender said.

Julia Niswender’s family, from left, sister Madison Turnquist, twin Jennifer Niswender, mother Kim Turnquist and stepdad James Turnquist, gathers at a December 2012 vigil.

Niswender said if her sister was bothered by anything or at any time felt she was in jeopardy or danger, she would have confided in her family.

"We all know that Ypsilanti isn't the safest place and you have to be careful — and she was," said Niswender, who graduated the year before her sister's death and had moved home.

Niswender family members have said Julia's apartment door was locked and there were no signs of struggle, but the apartment was in disarray.

The cause of death was ruled asphyxiation associated with drowning. Police believe she was choked to the point of losing consciousness and then thrown into the tub.

She was a communications major at Eastern Michigan with hopes of becoming a news reporter or news producer in New York City.

Niswender's death also preceded the disappearance in October of Chelsea Bruck, who was last seen at a raucous Halloween party in Newport.

Chelsea Small, 30, a Gibraltar mother of two, was shot and killed in November 2013, at the Advance America store on Telegraph in Taylor.

At a candlelight vigil late last year, Small's mother said the parents of each of the three women have become close. Bruck's older sister, Kassie, is friends with Jennifer Niswender, according to the Monroe News.

Bruck remains missing and police have released a description of a suspect in the Small killing.

Niswender's slaying was followed by another slaying near EMU that further rattled the campus community, leading to more officers on campus.

After Demarius Reed, a student and football player, was shot to death in October 2013 at an off-campus apartment, EMU added four police officers to the campus force. One man was charged in the death, and another was acquitted.

Kim Turnquist, Niswender's mother, said she had interviewed Reed for a job he applied for at the Meijer store where she worked in the weeks before his death.

hfournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.