Sadie Turpen had a dream that her brother came back from the dead.
In the dream, it was her wedding and John Turpen walked his sister down the aisle just as they planned.
“He said, ‘I came back to give you away but I can’t stay,”’ Sadie Turpen says.
Then he was gone.
In real life, she postponed her wedding when her brother died Nov. 16, 1994, after choking on his own vomit at a Coeur d’Alene party. The 22-year-old was found naked from the waist down, obscenities and pictures scrawled on his body in ink.
Two years later, Sadie Turpen, 26, still hopes someone will come forward with more information about her brother’s death.
“If someone could just give us a straight answer about what took place that night,” she says. “We just need to know what happened so we can go on.”
The tragedy of John Turpen’s death still plagues family and friends of the Spokane man.
Questions about what happened during Turpen’s last night alive fuel his family’s belief that his death was more than just an accident. Those who were with the popular North Idaho College wrestler before he died still live with the pang of guilt and shadow of finger-pointing.
Now, Turpen’s mother has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against two of the people she blames - the son of an NIC wrestling coach, and a former NIC wrestler.
For Val Turpen, the death has been devastating. She has attempted suicide twice. She has turned to psychics and one of Spokane’s most controversial lawyers for help.
“Everybody says, ‘Get over it, he’s dead, get on with your life,”’ she says. “But I can’t. Johnny’s dead and I have to find out the reason.”
For others, the lawsuit has opened wounds many felt were better left to heal.
“I don’t think John would blame anyone if he were here,” said Don Owen, Turpen’s high school wrestling coach and mentor. “He’d say, ‘Hey, this was my fault.”’
Still, those who knew Turpen have one thing in common. “I just fell in love with the kid,” Owen says. “There was something almost magical about the Turp.”
To friends, John Turpen was “Turbocharge,” “Turpentine” or “the Turpenator.”
He was the clown, the jokester, the kid who’d do anything for his friends. He was a soft-hearted guy who stood up for the underdog, the first to befriend a disabled girl at school.
Born and raised in Spokane, John was a child of divorce at age 6.
Val Turpen worked two jobs to raise her children. She sold jewelry and mobile homes. She ran a day care, waitressed and tended bar. She saved money to send John to Disneyland and the White House, where his drum band played.
The children had to fill a void left by their absent father and working mother. Sister and brother became best friends and parents to each other. John latched on to neighbors and later to his coaches, endearing himself with his self-effacing nature. He turned to wrestling and stole his way into the hearts of Owen and his coaching brother.
“You wanted to give him a hug - or a Dutch rub,” said Don Owen, head wrestling coach at University High School in Spokane.
Turpen was not a great wrestler but he tackled the sport with an unrivaled enthusiasm, said John Owen, head NIC wrestling coach. He was a fixture at their wrestling camps and preferred watching a double match with his coach to partying with kids his age.
To the Owens, Turpen embodied the spirit of the sport.
“John had so many difficult situations, everything from his home life to the fact he wasn’t any academic genius,” Don Owen said. “Yet, through all of it, he was a guy who made it. He had the kind of hopes you couldn’t squelch.”
At NIC, John Owen became a father figure to the young man who was always hanging around his office.
The coach taught Turpen to fish with his own young son. He chewed Turpen out if he was late for work, didn’t study or forgot to pay his bills. He groomed Turpen to be a coach one day.
“I didn’t even know how attached I was to him,” John Owen says.
“I don’t think either one of us knew it until he went away.”
At 12:15 p.m. on Nov. 16, 1994, Coeur d’Alene police found Turpen face-down on a pillow stained with vomit at a house on Lincoln Way. The Kootenai County coroner cannot say how long Turpen had been dead before his fellow wrestlers noticed.
But police do know there was a party the night before at the home owned and rented out by Douglas Pecha. His father, Bill Pecha, is an NIC assistant wrestling coach.
Many wrestlers attended the party. They told police that Turpen tossed back at least 12 shots of tequila and other hard liquor during a drinking game.
When he passed out, some of the wrestlers pulled his pants off as a joke. Led by Steve Granieri, a top-notch wrestler facing an unrelated battery charge at the time, they used a pen to write on John’s face and buttocks.
When partygoers noticed liquid coming from Turpen’s nose and mouth, they put a pillow under his head and threw a blanket on top of him.
According to Coroner Robert West, Turpen died because he was nearly face-down in a pillow when he threw up. He then inhaled his own vomit. If Turpen had been lying in a different position, he may have survived, West said.
The night before the funeral, Val Turpen also had a dream.
In this nightmare, she was her son and she could not breathe because her head was being forced down into a pillow. She was awakened by her daughter, who heard her screaming, “Johnny was suffocated.”
Val Turpen believes the dream was a message from her son, saying his death was more than an accident and begging her to get to the bottom of it. She has taken his request to heart, despite evidence to the contrary and criticism from some who knew John Turpen.
“I know in my heart there is something more to this,” she says, her composure collapsing in grief.
It is the unanswered questions that puzzle his family.
Why was he at the party when he rarely drank and never had been seen drinking to such excess? Why did it take so long for anyone to notice he was dead or dying?
According to Coeur d’Alene Police reports, investigators suspected the students cleaned up the house before reporting the death. Although they knew there had been a party, officers found no liquor bottles.
Granieri admitted he disposed of some marijuana seeds but denied cleaning the place to hide the party, according to police reports.
Val Turpen says some of her son’s belongings from that night are still missing.
She wants to know why her son ended up face-down in a pillow. Police reports show that at least three of the partygoers claimed they were the one who covered Turpen up and put a pillow under his head - but only with the intention of helping him.
Val Turpen suspects the wrestlers may have accidentally suffocated him by pushing his face in the pillow when they wrote on his buttocks.
Spokane attorney Russell Van Camp, sometimes criticized for his sensationalistic lawyering, has taken up Val Turpen’s cause and filed the wrongful-death suit last November against Granieri and Douglas Pecha.
“It’s a cancerous wound in beautiful North Idaho what happened here,” he says.
Pecha, who owned the home but did not live there, should have known the house was a reputed party den, Van Camp contends. Pecha and the coaches condoned the wild behavior by not stopping it, he says.
Attempts to contact Granieri and Pecha were unsuccessful.
Val Turpen also has consulted three psychics who have told some bizarre stories about how her son died - alcohol being forced down him, alcohol being injected with a needle into his kneecaps.
“Unfortunately, in these cases, sometimes people tell you what they think you want to hear rather than helping you deal with the facts and the truth,” said Coeur d’Alene Police Capt. Carl Bergh.
“I think she’s trying to take a bit here and a bit there and develop a scenario she can accept.”
All evidence, investigated by police, the coroner and the county prosecutor, indicates Turpen’s death was an accident brought on by his own decision to drink too much, Bergh said. The autopsy showed no signs he was forced to drink and no signs of violence, West said.
Sadie Turpen doesn’t blame the coaches, the men she knows her brother loved. She doesn’t believe he was forced to drink. But she wonders how those at the party could let her brother lie there and die.
“I think they could have done something,” she says. “I think he could have been saved.”
“Every time I go by that blue house I feel a little sick,” says Sherrie Konda, 25. “I always say to John, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not helping you. I won’t forget you.”’
Konda, the stepdaughter of assistant wrestling coach Bill Pecha, was the last person to see Turpen alive.
It’s not that Konda didn’t want to help John. She says she tried. She and the others just didn’t know how bad off he was.
Konda was casually dating Granieri at the time and arrived late to the party. She said Turpen had already passed out. She watched Granieri draw on him but says it was only a prank.
“He wasn’t being mean at all,” Konda says. “It was a total joke. I remember Steve saying, ‘When he wakes up, he’s going to kill me.”’
By 3 a.m., everyone had gone to bed and she was waiting for a ride. She noticed liquid coming from Turpen’s mouth and nose and tried to turn his head farther to the side.
But she thought he’d be OK because, “I’ve never heard anyone snore that loud.”
Then she left.
Even today, that night still turns over and over again in Konda’s head.
She thinks about how she could have saved Turpen if she’d understood how sick he was, if she’d called 911. “I went to the church and prayed, ‘Please, John forgive me. If I’d known, I would have done something.’ I believe he can hear me. It makes me feel better.”
Granieri’s friends say he left the area devastated by Turpen’s death. An arrest warrant has been issued for Granieri after he failed to show up for a court hearing in the battery case shortly after the death.
Depression-spawned thoughts of suicide have nearly claimed Val Turpen’s life and have put her in the hospital several times.
It is painful for Sadie Turpen to go home. She has tried to help her mother, but now pregnant with her first child, she has to concentrate on her own health.
John and Don Owen still struggle to understand why Turpen drank so much that night. But they believe in their hearts the wrestler’s death was his own fault and no one else’s.
“I can live with the fact that John Turpen made a decision to drink that night and it was the wrong decision,” John Owen says.
This season, he made his wrestlers the first and only group of NIC athletes to be drug-tested.
At the end of University High School’s wrestling season, Don Owen will hand out a memorial award in John Turpen’s name. It will not go to the best wrestler; it will go to the wrestler most dedicated to the sport. A wrestler like Turpen.
“This kid deserves to be remembered because of who he was, not because of how he died,” Owen says. “He was the greatest kid.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
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