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3 moms forge bond after losing daughters

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Monroe – When the death of a daughter split her family, Kim Turnquist found solace in two outsiders who shared a similar nightmare.

Debi Kamin and Leannda Bruck also lost daughters. One disappeared and one was shot.

"We're all moms," said Kamin of Gibraltar. "We lost daughters and we lost part of us. That's a tight bond."

In a sad coincidence within the past two years, tragedy struck three young women living 15 miles apart in rural patches of Downriver and Monroe County. No arrests have been made in the cases.

The victims' three mothers united during the darkest periods of their lives to help each other deal with loss and doubt.

The string of heartbreak began in 2012 when Turnquist's daughter, Julia Niswender, 23, a student at Eastern Michigan University, drowned in the bathtub of her off-campus apartment after police say she was choked unconscious.

When she heard the news, Julia's twin sister, Jennifer, immediately called one of her closest friends, Kassie Bruck.

Bruck drove to Ypsilanti, where she went with Jennifer to the police station, asking and answering questions from detectives.

The twins had grown up with Bruck, attending the same schools and hanging out at each other's homes.

Watching her friend's anguish over losing a sister broke Bruck's heart.

And then the same thing happened to her.

"I didn't know how much evil there was in the world," Bruck said.

Bruck's sister Chelsea, 22, went to a raucous Halloween party at a Newport farmhouse in October, leaving around 3 a.m. with an unidentified man, witnesses said.

She hasn't been seen since.

The party was attended by 600 people, but many were too drunk or high to help police, whose investigation has been stymied, authorities have said.

Police searched a state game area five miles from the farmhouse Thursday but didn't find anything.

Given the close ties between Bruck and Niswender, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office checked to see if the cases were related but said they weren't.

"It's a big, bad world out there," Leannda Bruck said.

Series of sad coincidences

In November, Debi Kamin was playing darts at a Monroe bar when she heard people were raising money for the Bruck family.

Kamin said she wanted to donate on behalf of her daughter.

Who was your daughter, someone asked.

Kamin explained how Chelsea Small, 30, was fatally shot during a 2013 robbery of the Taylor payday loan store where she worked.

The person raising money at Clamdiggers Lounge turned out to be Kim Turnquist.

"Do you know who I am?" Kamin asked her.

"Do you know who I am?" Turnquist replied.

Turnquist had been hoping to contact Kamin to ask her to attend a memorial service she was planning for the second anniversary of Julia Niswender's death.

Leannda Bruck was going to be there and, by bringing the three mothers together, Turnquist hoped it would generate publicity that might lead to more tips about the three cases.

But Turnquist didn't know Kamin or how to reach her. And she definitely didn't know Kamin was a fellow member of the Monroe Dart League.

All three women spoke at the remembrance service in December at Redeemer Fellowship Church in Monroe.

They described how their lives had turned into roller coasters, one day up and the next down. The one constant was the dull pain in their hearts.

Bruck can't even grieve because she doesn't know whether her daughter is dead or alive.

"We have absolutely no idea where she is, so that's a whole different ballgame," she said.

'Love and support'

The memorial service prompted several stories in local newspapers and on TV stations, and raised money through the sale of T-shirts with pictures of the three victims.

But it didn't help police get any closer to resolving the cases.

The three mothers have stayed in touch, exchanging phone calls and going out to dinner with their husbands.

They talk about the importance of not neglecting their other children while dealing with the deaths and disappearance.

Kamin has another daughter, Turnquist has two other girls, and Bruck has three other daughters and a son.

Each retains a keepsake from their missing child — Julia Niswender's zebra-striped robe, Chelsea Bruck's bridesmaid dress for her sister's wedding in January, and Chelsea Small's posthumously awarded degree from Wayne County Community College District.

Small attended school while working full-time and raising two children, ages 6 and 9.

"I couldn't be prouder," Kamin said. "I wish I was half the mom she is."

Mostly the three moms just try to be there for each other.

They understand better than most what the others are feeling. They share a bond no one would ever seek.

The bond was tested earlier this month when several relatives of Turnquist raised questions about her husband, Jim.

Turnquist's mother, Rose Niswender, said she believes Jim Turnquist is involved in the death of his stepdaughter. She said it's suspicious that he has stopped talking to Ypsilanti police.

"Why don't you cooperate?" Rose Niswender told reporters last week. "This is your beloved stepdaughter. Why can't you cooperate and give them a statement so they can clear you and move on?"

Police said Turnquist is a person of interest in the death and charged him with possession of child pornography after searching his laptop in connection with the death.

But Kim Turnquist said her husband has talked to police several times, giving his whereabouts at the time of the death.

"It doesn't help when your own family is attacking you," she said. "I have really seen what my family is all about, and it's disgusting."

As she deals with a nightmare upon a nightmare, she draws strength from at least two friends.

"As moms we do what we do best: We love and we support," Kamin said.

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

The cases

■Julia Niswender, 23, a student at Eastern Michigan University, was found drowned in the bathtub of her off-campus apartment in December 2012.

■Chelsea Small, 30, of Rockwood, was fatally shot during a robbery of the Taylor payday loan store where she worked in November 2013.

■Chelsea Bruck, 22, of Maybee, was last seen leaving a Halloween party at a Newport farmhouse with an unidentified man in October 2014.