The Suspicious Death of Ashley Turniak (Massachusetts)

16-year-old Ashley Turniak died on the side of the highway in Massachusetts during a busy weekday morning commute. Was it a terrible accident or an intentional act?

Despite the numerous drivers passing by who likely witnessed the final moments of her life, more than 25 years later investigators are still trying to determine what exactly happened to the teenage girl, and who, if anyone, is responsible.

If you have information that could help investigators continue their work on Ashley’s case, please call the Massachusetts State Police Detective Unit at (413) 505-5993.

The Scene on the Highway

It was just before 8 a.m. on Monday, November 9, 1998 and Interstate 91 in Western Massachusetts was busy as usual with commuters on their way to work. For one of the drivers on 91 that day, a trucker, he was already at work behind the wheel of his semi-truck. From where he sat up high in the cab in the center lane, he had a unique view of the other vehicles and their occupants around him. One passenger in particular caught the trucker’s attention, a girl in a black tank top sitting in the front seat of a car in the left lane.

The car disappeared from view seconds later but the trucker saw it pop up again beside his truck in the right lane, still speeding down the pavement towards Connecticut, except the girl in the black tank top was no longer in the car. The trucker must’ve checked his mirrors and tried to make sense of the vanishing act, but when he figured out what just happened, he was stunned.

At that same moment, Massachusetts State Trooper Alan Joubert was parked facing the northbound lane in a turnaround keeping an eye out for a report of a possible intoxicated driver. Behind him in the southbound lane he heard screeching tires and then when he turned around to see what the commotion was all about, he saw several vehicles swerve and then something come flying out of a car and onto the pavement below. The object landed in the breakdown lane just 30 feet from where his cruiser was parked. It was a person. A girl. The Trooper ran to her.

She was clinging to life as he checked her pulse. Several yards ahead, he looked up to see that a trucker had pulled over into the breakdown lane and was waving wildly and yelling that the car this girl had just fallen out of went that way, pointing towards Exit 49 into Enfield, Connecticut.

Trooper Joubert told Stephanie Barry of that jurisdiction would’ve prevented him from pursuing any vehicle across state lines unless it was for a felony, and he didn’t even know what he was dealing with at that point. What he knew for sure is that the girl in front of him shouldn’t be left alone. He was there as she took her final breath. The Trooper radioed for immediate help and covered the girl’s body with a rain jacket and angled his car to shield her from the eyes of passing motorists, unaware of what just unfolded during their morning commute.

The victim had long dark hair and was believed to be in her early to mid-teens. She was found wearing jeans and a black tank top but she didn’t have a coat or any shoes on. She also had a green and black beeper and a Mickey Mouse watch on her wrist, but she didn’t have any identification on her. The girl’s body was removed from the scene and transported for an autopsy as police tried to figure out who she was. They checked with area schools to see if any students hadn’t shown up that day. Agawam High School in Agawam, Massachusetts checked their attendance records and provided police with a photo of a student who never checked in for classes. The photo matched the victim. The girl on the side of Interstate 91 was later identified as 16-year old Ashley Turniak.

That Morning

Massachusetts State Police Detective Ronald Gibbons was on his way to work at the State Police barracks in Springfield, Massachusetts that morning when he heard the call come over the scanner. He pulled a U-turn and headed directly to the scene, making it there before the uniformed officers. He would lead the investigation into Ashley Turniak’s death, and her case is one that would stay with him throughout his career and even after he left State Police.

Although Ron has since retired from State Police, he jokes that he just couldn’t stay away, and he is now a deputy with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department doing internal affairs investigations. He’s also an adjunct professor at Our Lady of the Elms College as well as the emergency management director for the city of Westfield. Busy guy, but he’s also very generous with his time and his knowledge.

When a Dark Downeast listener brought Ashley’s case to my attention I was frustrated to find that there’s not a lot of coverage of her story throughout the years. What is out there repeats the same initial details over and over, and as I’ve learned, some of those details aren’t entirely accurate. Thankfully, Ron agreed to speak with me to clear things up, fill in the blanks, and share new details about the case.

As the lead detective, Ronald Gibbons was present at Ashley’s autopsy. She had a cracked skull and bruising on her back and shoulder blades, leading Ron to believe she hit her head first when coming out of the car. Her death was determined to be the result of injuries she sustained from hitting the pavement after exiting a vehicle going highway speeds. As the investigation into her death began, the question was how and why did Ashley come flying out of that car? Was it a fall, an accident of some kind, or was it an intentional act?

Detective Gibbons and other investigators began tracking down witnesses who saw what unfolded that morning. The trucker was reportedly the only person to pull over and give a statement after it happened. He described the girl in a black tank top and told police how one second she was in the car and then she wasn’t. The trucker also said that it looked like she was smoking a cigarette and her legs were crossed, apparently relaxed. Another witness, an older woman who called police after she got home that day, said she saw the same girl in a black tank top come out of the car.

For years, media reports repeated one particular detail over and over – that Ashley exited the moving vehicle “feet first” through the window. However, Ronald Gibbons said that’s not entirely accurate. The report was actually that Ashley was leaning up and out of the window first, waving her arms.

“Because that’s how the older woman describes it,” Ronald explained, “Says the girl came out the window, put her arm up in the air, and next thing you know, the car was flying fast and she came out of the car right down to the ground.”

Based on those details, Ron believes Ashley had leaned out of the window and was possibly trying to get the attention of the trooper in the turnaround – the one who would ultimately run to her aid – when she was either pulled out of the car by force of the speed they were traveling or pushed out by someone inside the car.

So if that theory is accurate, why would Ashley be trying to get the trooper’s attention? Who was driving the car? And related to all of it, why wasn’t Ashley in school that Monday morning? That last piece could hold many of the answers the investigation was seeking, so investigators also started talking to Ashley’s friends and fellow classmates at Agawam High School.

I found the witness accounts from students that have been made public throughout the years to be foggy, at best. Some students have said that while everyone else was funneling into the front doors of the building in time for the bell, Ashley was lingering outside and it seemed to the other kids like she was waiting for someone. At least one account said Ashley was seen at school in the parking lot as late as 7:40 that morning, 15 minutes after classes would have started.

Other witnesses said they saw Ashley inside the building at some point that morning and she may have been standing in the “tardy line” but she reportedly left the line to make a call at one of the payphones near the front entrance of the school. There was a school policy in place at the time for students with repeated tardiness. After six tardies in a given school year, the student would either be sent home or receive a three-hour detention after school. If that was the case, it’s possible Ashley was in the “tardy line” that morning because this would be her seventh late arrival and she may have gone to use the payphones to call for a ride from someone.

However, Ron told me there was a different reason why Ashley may have been waiting in a line and then possibly making a phone call that morning. Just after the first bell, the principal caught Ashley and some other students smoking in the bathroom when they should’ve been in class. He brought all the students to his office so they could call home and tell their parents why they were late to class that morning. Ashley didn’t want to call home. She didn’t want her mother to know she was late to class a seventh time. So, according to interviews with other students who were standing in line with Ashley, she left the line before it was her turn to make a call and headed outside to the parking lot and possibly to the payphones.

According to reporting by Jordyn Jagolinzer and Kaylee Pugliese for Western Mass News, Agawam High School had cameras that faced the parking lots and investigators were able to obtain some security footage from the school’s cameras, but Ron said the footage didn’t show anything helpful. Actually, to his knowledge, the cameras that would’ve been the most help weren’t working that day. Because of course they weren’t.

There’s one other version of why Ashley wasn’t in school that morning that’s been reported over the years. Ashley’s mother, Annette Turniak, believed she could’ve been planning to cut class that day to hang out with a friend who was moving out of state soon. But that friend showed up for class. Even if that was the plan, before the friend ever arrived on school grounds, Ashley had already left with someone else.

Early Investigation

During the first few days of the investigation, Hampden County District Attorney at the time, William Bennett, said that investigators were looking at Ashley’s death from many angles: either Ashley was pushed out the window and this was a homicide or she went out of the window for some other reason and it was a terrible, fatal accident. The DA said they were also considering the possibility that Ashley was abducted and had jumped from the vehicle to escape, but until they had more information about her movements that morning and who was driving that car, none of the possibilities could be confirmed.

Now, Interstate 91 where Ashley was found is a busy highway that runs between Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Ashley’s school in Agawam was about three miles from the I-91 on ramp in Longmeadow and the location where she came out of the car just before the Enfield, Connecticut exit was roughly eight miles total from the high school, so if there were no stops between when Ashley was picked up and when she came out of the car window, and they were driving at or around the speed limit for those roads, she was likely only in the car for about 10 or 15 minutes.

Investigators seemed to be most interested in a narrow window of time between 7:30 and 8 a.m. They appealed to the public in search of anyone else who witnessed the incident on the Interstate or who saw Ashley alive in that period of time on November 9th to report it to State Police. Someone had to have seen what happened and who Ashley was with, or at the very least, remember what kind of car she came out of. The few they initially spoke to couldn’t seem to recall the make and model of the suspect vehicle. At first, there were conflicting reports that the car was either dark blue or maybe tan…Two very different colors.

While the search for the vehicle and driver was ongoing, later that day, a man called Enfield Police to report something suspicious on some vacant land he owned in Enfield. He discovered a backpack and its contents scattered across the partially wooded lot at the end of Woodlawn Avenue, which was a dead end street. But the man actually had no idea what had played out on the interstate earlier that day. According to Ron, Enfield Police weren’t up to speed on the incident either.

Enfield PD collected the backpack and determined that it belonged to someone named Ashley Turniak. They tried calling Ashley at home to let her know they’d found her backpack, but her mother Annette picked up. Annette was already worried because Ashley wasn’t at the apartment when Annette got home from work. Annette told Enfield PD she’d be over to pick up Ashley’s stuff…But the next time Annette spoke to a member of law enforcement, it was Massachusetts State Police delivering the news no mother should ever have to hear.

Ashley’s family, friends and the entire Agawam High School community was in shock. Ashley was a popular student and was even nominated for “Who’s Who Among High School Students”. She loved to dance and practice karate and do gymnastics. She dreamed of becoming a nurse, especially after working as a dietary aid at the Heritage Hall nursing home that summer. Ashley had started to think about college, and Annette was looking forward to touring campuses with her daughter the following year. But Ashley’s sudden death put an unexpected end to those dreams and future plans, and everyone was grasping for answers in this unexplainable tragedy.

Jack Farrell reports for the Union-News that Ashley’s memorial service was held just across the street from her high school that same week. Students and teachers were permitted to leave school early to attend and the funeral home was packed with hundreds of people wearing purple ribbons in Ashley’s honor. Teachers and fellow classmates shared their memories of her, remembering Ashley as a “really good person” and “an extremely likable girl” who could make friends with anyone.

But almost as loud as their memories of Ashley was their sheer disbelief that this could happen seemingly without at least one eye witness who could give a clear description of the car and the other person inside it.

A week into the investigation, police hadn’t identified the driver or made any arrests in Ashley’s suspicious death, but the case was progressing. Through some old fashioned police work and the few witnesses they’d been able to drum up so far, investigators now had a more specific description of the car they believed was involved in her death. They were searching for a tan or light-brown midsize car, possibly a late 1980s model Ford Tempo or a vehicle similar in appearance.

So with that, investigators across two states planned an unusual step to drum up new information in Ashley Turniak’s case.

Vanessa Hua reports for the Hartford Courant that a week after Ashley’s death, state police from both Massachusetts and Connecticut alongside the local Enfield Police Department were handing out flyers to passing motorists along the route Ashley was presumed to travel on the morning of November 9. They aimed to reach anyone on their same morning commute who may have seen the vehicle Ashley was in and who was driving it.

The rush hour traffic slowed down as Detective Gibbons and other law enforcement officials funneled cars into one lane at the Exit 49 on and off-ramps in order to distribute the fliers with a description of the suspect vehicle. The fliers also noted that the car was likely driving at a high rate of speed or erratically as it traveled south on I-91 and onto Route 5 and then Woodlawn Avenue in Enfield.

At least 1000 fliers were distributed that morning and though investigators received several calls, they had nothing new to report from the canvassing efforts almost two weeks later. But they were working other leads behind the scenes, and it led them to a possible suspect. Police had a few questions for an older guy Ashley starting hanging around in the weeks before her death.

Ashley Turniak’s story continues on Dark Downeast. Press play to hear the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode Source Material

  • Interview with Ret. Det. Ronald Gibbons, Massachusetts State Police
  • Hampden District Attorney: Turniak, Ashley
  • Police perplexed by girl’s fatal leap by Trudy Tynan, The Standard-Times, 10 Nov 1998
  • Police seek answers in teen’s auto death by Trudy Tynan, AP/The Daily Evening Item, 11 Nov 1998
  • Mystery cloaks teenager’s death by Stephen Ohlemacher, Vanessa Hua, and Vanessa E. Jones, Hartford Courant, 11 Nov 1998
  • Ashley A. Turniak Obituary by Union-News Staff, Union-News, 11 Nov 1998
  • Agawam girl’s death inquiry focuses on school lot by Vanessa Hua, Hartford Courant, 12 Nov 1998
  • Family, friends mourn by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 13 Nov 1998
  • Mourners pay solemn tribute to Agawam girl by Vanessa Hua, Hartford-Courant, 14 Nov 1998
  • Police still searching for clues, News-Press, 17 Nov 1998
  • State police seeking help in I-91 death by Vanessa Hua, Hartford Courant, 17 Nov 1998
  • Police press hunt for car in death by Buffy Spencer, Union-News, 17 Nov 1998
  • Police seek clues in highway deaths by Stephanie Brenowitz, Hartford Courant, 21 Nov 1998
  • Teen death on I-91 still a mystery by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 24 Nov 1998
  • Kin of dead girl to offer thanks to supporters by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 26 Nov 1998
  • Highway death still poses a mystery by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 03 Dec 1998
  • Year later, a mother looks back by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 09 Nov 1999
  • On birthday, teen again is mourned by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 18 May 1999
  • Unanswered death brings mom’s plea by Jack Farrell, Union-News, 11 May 2000
  • Victim’s birthday marked by Ezra K. Fieser, Union-News, 18 May 2001
  • Dead daughter’s birthday passes quietly by Ken Ross, Union-News, 18 May 2002
  • Highway death still a mystery by Ken Ross, The Republican, 10 Nov 2003
  • 24 years on, death of Agawam’s Ashley Turniak still haunts investigators by Stephanie Barry,, 03 Jul 2022