Tonee Turner was her usual friendly self when she stopped by Dobra Tea in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania around 6:00 pm on Monday, December 30, 2019. The 22-year-old then got on a city bus headed for Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood where she lived. The bus driver noted that she got off at her normal stop on Giddings Street, but what happened to her after that is a mystery. She never made it home and was never seen again.
Monday night, a Pittsburgh firefighter riding his bike on the Homestead Grays Bridge found a purse on the pedestrian walkway of the bridge. Oddly, sitting next to the purse was a pair of shoes and a ceramic pot. Not seeing anyone on the bridge at the time, the cyclist took the purse home with him; he left the shoes and vase behind. He checked the contents of the purse for anything that might identify the owner and found a cell phone, keys, a water bottle, and a journal.
The following morning, the man called one of the phone numbers he found on the cell phone and reached Tonee’s aunt. He explained that he had found the phone and other belongings on the bridge and was trying to reunite them with their owner. Tonee’s aunt identified the phone as belonging to her niece, and the man returned all of the items to Tonee’s family Tuesday morning.
The firefighter told Tonee’s family that he had seen a pair of shoes and a ceramic vase next to the purse but had been unable to carry them back on his bicycle and assumed they were still on the bridge. Oddly, when family members went to retrieve these items, they were gone. It’s unknown who removed them from the bridge; repeated public appeals for this person to come forward have gone unanswered. Since the items have never been recovered, no one can say for certain if they actually belonged to Tonee or not.
Tonee’s family members were confused by the fact that Tonee’s belongings had been found on the Homestead Grays Bridge, which was not in a part of town where she would normally be walking around. Tonee was known for losing her phone, however, so it was possible she had left her purse on the bus and someone else had picked it up.
Tonee’s mother, Darlene Johnson, tried to reach Tonee at her Hazelwood home Tuesday morning but got no answer. She then started calling friends and other family members to see if any of them knew where Tonee was.
Tonee and her sister, Sydnee, had been texting back and forth Monday night around the time Tonee left Dobra Tea, but Sydnee didn’t hear from her the rest of the night. At the time, she wasn’t particularly concerned; she knew that Tonee had to get up early for work and assumed that she would talk to her the following day.
Tonee worked full-time as a metal fabricator at Studebaker Metals, a jewelry shop in Braddock, Pennsylvania. She was scheduled to work at 8:00 am Tuesday morning but failed to show up for her shift. This was completely out of character for Tonee, who was known as a competent and dependable employee; she never missed work without calling her supervisor first. When they learned that Tonee wasn’t at work, the fact that her purse had been found on a bridge suddenly seemed much more ominous. They called the Pittsburgh Police Department and reported Tonee missing.
No one can say for certain if Tonee made it back to her house Monday night; her roommate was out of town for the holidays and none of her neighbors recalled seeing her. The red coat she was believed to have been wearing earlier that day was found at her house, however, so it seems likely that she arrived there safely. At some point, she may have gone back out; whether this was voluntary or not remains a mystery.
Hoping to find some clues to her disappearance, her family members paged through Tonee’s journal. Although there were some entries where she wrote about feeling sad, she certainly didn’t seem despondent and there was nothing to suggest that she might have been considering suicide. Because of where her belongings had been found, however, it was something that couldn’t be completely ruled out; friends and family decided to search the area underneath the Homestead Grays Bridge for any indication that Tonee had jumped off of it.
The bridge, which spans the Monongahela River, connects the suburb of Homestead and the city of Pittsburgh. At its highest point, the bridge stands 108 feet above the river; it’s possible to survive a fall from this height but unlikely. The Homestead Grays Bridge has been the site of suicides in the past, most recently in June 2019 when a woman parked her car on the bridge and jumped over the side. Several people witnessed her do this, and her body was found in the river two hours later. This seems to always be the case when bodies end up in the Monongahela; if Tonee had jumped, her body should have been recovered. Despite an extensive search by both family and the police, no trace of her was found.
No one who knew Tonee believed that she would have taken her own life. Sydnee noted, “She was going through the very normal ups and downs of being a young adult, finding her place in the world…she was at a high point.”
On Wednesday, 36 hours after Tonee was last seen, the Pittsburgh Police posted a picture of Tonee on their Facebook page and asked for help in locating her. The post was shared 867 times, but failed to help police find the missing woman. On her own Facebook page, Sydnee wrote that the family believed Tonee might be traveling on Interstate 80, though she didn’t say why. She noted “We do not trust anyone she is traveling with” and asked for anyone living along the I-80 corridor to be particularly vigilant.
On Thursday, investigators went to Dobra Tea and spoke with employees who had been working on Monday. Marina Fec, the employee who had waited on Tonee that night, told police that the missing woman was a regular customer at the tea shop and had been chatting with another woman when she stopped by on Monday night. “She was pretty quiet, but she’s not usually super-talkative.” She bought her tea, said goodbye to the employees, and then walked out of the shop.
That Friday, family members received a tip that Tonee had been seen in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. This wasn’t a part of town that Tonee was known to frequent, but they considered the tip to be credible. Along with a Pittsburgh police officer, the family spent the day going door to door on Linton Street, passing out flyers and asking residents if they had seen the missing woman. Although they had been optimistic about the tip, they found no trace of Tonee. Sydnee noted to a reporter, “There would be nothing here for Tonee.”
Tonee was well-known in the Braddock community and word of her disappearance spread quickly. On Saturday, friends and family held a vigil for Tonee at Braddock’s Carnegie Library, where Tonee worked part-time as a ceramics teacher. More than 100 people crowded into the library’s art lending room for the vigil, many of them clutching white candles as they prayed for Tonee to come home.
Tonee was described as having a magnetic personality that drew people to her; she was best known for her artwork, her love of music, and the wonderful hugs she gave. Her friend Alexandra Aks noted, “She was able to meet a person and they’d instantly love her.”
Tonee’s mother attended the vigil; she was grateful to see how many people cared about her daughter but admitted, “I’m starting to fear the worst because of the time that’s gone by without hearing anything from her…I don’t know how I’m going to go on without her here.” Another friend, Malcolm Thomas, stated that he was trying to remain positive about the situation. “Personally, I just refuse to accept that she’s not somewhere around.”
Tonee was an artist, educator, and dancer who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. She had loved art from an early age and had gotten in trouble with her mother after drawing on the walls when she was little. She was very active with the Braddock Youth Project, first as a participant and then as a leader after she joined AmeriCorps. Shortly after she went missing, the moderator for the Braddock Youth Project Facebook page posted, “So many have grown accustomed to feeling her radiate love amongst different parts of the Braddock community.” Like everyone else in the area, they were praying for her safe return.
Sydnee tried to remain optimistic that her sister would be found safe. “Sleeplessness, not eating, anxiety, panic, hope…all throughout there has been this tangible hope and it’s getting stronger and stronger every day.” She did everything she could to spread the word about Tonee’s disappearance, giving several television and radio interviews about the case. As weeks went by, however, the news media appeared to lose interest in the disappearance and Tonee’s case faded from the headlines.
Two weeks after Tonee went missing, loved ones held a prayer circle and dance meditation session in her honor. Dozens attended the event, held at the Glitter Box Theater in Pittsburgh. Sydnee, who hosted the event, noted, “The thoughts and prayers are tangible and as a community, they’re the most powerful thing that we have to find Tonee.”
Nearly a year after Tonee was last seen, her friends and family held a silent march to remember Tonee. All of her loved ones still held out hope that she would be found safe, and they hoped that the march would remind the public that she was still missing. Sydnee told a reporter, “It’s just a very sad norm, not having your sister in your life.” She wanted the march to commemorate not only Tonee but all missing people.
Although the family was initially satisfied with the Pittsburgh Police Department and their efforts to find Tonee, in a June 2021 interview Sydnee admitted that she was not happy with them. “I feel as though they could have pushed more…I think they really leaned on this idea that she committed suicide.” She wondered if the investigation was lax because of the fact that her sister was a black woman.
According to the Pittsburgh Police Department, their investigation into Tonee’s disappearance is still active, but little progress has been made in the past two years. Tonee’s loved ones know no more now than they did on the night that Tonee’s belongings were found, but they continue to hope that Tonee is out there somewhere, safe and happy.
Tonee Turner was 22 years old when she went missing in December 2019. She has a vivacious personality and is an extremely talented artist, and she is very much missed by her Braddock, Pennsylvania, community. Tonee has brown eyes and black hair, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Tonee was last seen wearing gray cargo pants, a gray shirt with “Habla Español” written in orange on the back, and a black zip-up jacket. Her ears, nose, and bottom lip are pierced, and she has a spiral tattoo on her left shoulder. If you have any information about Tonee, please contact the Pittsburgh Police Department at 412–323–7800.