YPSILANTI, MI – Five years ago this week, with Christmas approaching, Julia Niswender hurried home, excited to help decorate the family’s first real Christmas tree.
The 23-year-old Eastern Michigan University student’s selection of Justin Bieber Christmas music played as she and her siblings hung their personal ornaments – some handmade in childhood, some gifted – and sipped on hot chocolate. Those are the memories held by her twin, Jennifer, and her mother, Kim Turnquist.
Julia Niswender was happy and excited for the holiday, the two said. Days later, she was gone.
The family would later unwrap the Ugg boots, clothes and laptop she’d wrapped as gifts without her.
Five years ago, on Dec. 11, 2012, Niswender was found dead at her off-campus Peninsular Place apartment in Ypsilanti. The room was left in disarray – a pillowcase and keys missing, bloody latex gloves on the floor. Niswender’s body was discovered in the bathtub. Her clothes had been cut off and there was seminal fluid present. Police believe she’d been bound.
Her death was ruled asphyxiation associated with drowning, though police said the oxygen deprivation occurred prior to her being placed in her tub.
No one has been charged in her homicide, though the case remains under investigation.
Every day is hard without her twin, Jennifer Niswender said Tuesday, Dec. 5, noting she’s been lucky to find a support group for “twinless twins.” Still, facing the five-year anniversary with no one charged is hard.
“A part of me, as more time goes on, is starting to lose some hope and I really don’t like feeling like that,” Jennifer Niswender said. “And I’ve tried to stay hopeful as much as I can, but the more time that passes and we don’t receive any news or any updates from the police department, it’s very tough to handle.”
“You know whenever they do catch this person or whatever they do in the end, it still doesn’t bring my sister back.”
In an emailed statement, Ypsilanti police Lt. Deric Gress said his department remains in contact with the Michigan State Police forensic laboratory, which continues to test evidence from the case.
“Once we get another detective into the bureau, we plan to review what has been completed (which has been a lot), and where this investigation leads us,” he said.
Gress said “(Be) assured that we have not forgotten Julia, and continue to work on this case.”
Kim Turnquist expressed anger as she reflected on the approaching anniversary of her daughter’s death and everything that’s happened since.
Two years ago, the Ypsilanti Police Department named her husband, James Turnquist, a person of interest in his stepdaughter’s death.
The announcement came after he was charged with possessing child pornography in Monroe County – charges which stemmed from the homicide investigation itself. He was found not guilty.
Following the acquittal and the release of documents detailing police suspicions of James Turnquist, Ypsilanti Police Chief Tony DeGiusti released a statement indicating that any assumption that Turnquist was the only focus in his department’s investigation was inaccurate.
“This is a very complicated case and has taken us in many different directions and although Mr. Turnquist is a person of interest in the case we have not regarded him as a suspect,” he said in the statement.
The implication caused a fissure between the police department and Julia Niswender’s immediate family, and Turnquist this week reiterated her belief that her daughter’s death investigation is “tainted.”
DeGiusti could not be reached for comment for this report.
Kim Turnquist said the last five years have been incredibly painful, not only because of the death of her daughter and lack of arrests, but because the accusations against her husband created distance with other family members.
She and Jennifer also have been yelled at and threatened because they continue to defend James Turnquist, Kim Turnquist said.
The immediate family feel they can’t talk about Julia, Jennifer Niswender and Kim Turnquist said. But after five years, they still want to.
Kim Turnquist said she’s frustrated strangers assume they know what happened – and Julia’s story – because they’ve read media coverage of the case.
“The story should be about Julia and her life and the path that she was taking and the joy that she brought to our lives and the smiles and the laughter and even some not so good moments,” she said. “… I should never have been made to not want to scream at the top of my lungs about my daughter’s case.”
No matter how long it’s been, this time of year remains difficult for Julia Niswender’s family between the anniversary of her death and the holiday season, the family said.
This year, the family decorated their artificial Christmas tree – they haven’t had a real one since 2012 – while chatting and bickering somewhat over where to place various ornaments. Jennifer once again hung Julia’s ornaments in her place.
It’s tough to hear other people’s holiday traditions and be asked to recount theirs, Kim Turnquist said. In response, she tells the story of decorating the Christmas tree five years ago.
“I cry and then everyone is sad for me,” she said. “(But) I enjoy telling the story because they get to see me light up about Julia’s laughter and her smile … she was always cheesing it up.”
It’s that Julia they choose to remember – one who still called her parents “mommy and daddy,” who bought her mom lunch on occasion, and who stocked her sister’s refrigerator when she ran short on meal plans at EMU.
“She was just fun-loving and loved her friends and family very much,” she said.
The family hopes to reminisce about the Julia Niswender they knew and loved at two vigils planned this weekend.
The public is invited to join either of the vigils, one at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9 at the Ypsilanti Eagles No. 2250, 2935 Holmes Road in Ypsilanti Township, and one at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10 at the Erie Union Cemetery in Monroe County’s Erie Township.