The body had tattoos like Alicea's. Immediately worried, Turner's friends contacted police.
Turner had filed a police report Oct. 22 with the Clayton Police Department that had been forwarded to Atlantic County.
A DNA analysis is still in progress for final confirmation, the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office said Monday.
But authorities were sure enough to make a formal identification from the tattoos and a fingerprint match: Tara Alicea, 30, had been killed through "asphyxiation with strangulation," the state Medical Examiner's Office said.
"I thought it would be an overdose, not a homicide," Turner said.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor's Office, which is handling the case, said Monday that no arrests had been made. No new details were available.
"Why would they stick her in a suitcase? . . . I have to know," said Turner, who stopped several times to cry, or close her eyes and steel herself. "There's a lot of things that go through your mind. Lots of questions."
Alicea had turned to heroin after years of back pain, first from a childhood fall and later from a serious car accident, Turner and family friends said.
Alicea, initially identified by police as Tara Rogers Alicea and in news reports as Tara Rogers-Alicea, fought the addiction with the help of family interventions and rehab.
As she struggled, Alicea decided she needed to provide more stability for her three daughters. In April 2010, she gave Turner custody of Marih, now 12; Ariana, 9; and Nilza, 8.
Alicea's husband, Hiram, now 32, agreed to give Turner custody, in part because of a stint in prison on drug charges and, later, a burglary conviction.
"This is what Tara needed to do for her girls," Turner said. "I said, 'I'm grateful that you chose this instead of . . . just trying to hang in there, because [addiction is] a horrible demon.' So she was doing the best for her girls."
Alicea lived for a while with her father, Vincent Manna Sr., and brother, Vincent Jr., in Monroeville. She later stayed with a friend in Franklin Township.
Over the last year or so, Turner and family friends said, she had been at the Shore. The exact timeline is unclear because she kept her whereabouts private to spare them anxiety, they said.
As a child, Alicea was an outgoing, happy girl, well loved by her family and a wide circle of friends.
"We don't want people to think that she was just some kind of heroin whore, for lack of a better word," said Robin DelVecchio, 55, a close friend of Turner's. "She wasn't. She was very loved, and she came from good people."
Born in Camden and raised in Clayton, Alicea loved music, dance, and, at one point, softball, Turner said. Growing up in the house where Turner still lives, Alicea loved doing hair and makeup, making a mess because she wouldn't put things back. Everyone thought she would be a hairdresser.
After a few years at Clayton High School, Alicea received a GED in 2000. She became a medical assistant in 2005 and worked for a doctor in Turnersville.
In 2007, she married Hiram Alicea, whom she met riding along on her mother's school bus route. Hiram was a passenger.
Tara Alicea loved to be out and about, Turner said. She'd drop everything, grab the children, and drive with her husband to visit his family in Connecticut as though it were just around the corner.
On birthdays, the girls would nervously wait for what they knew was coming: their mother with icing to smear on their faces.
Alicea would have turned 31 Friday. Family and friends converged all week on Turner's house, providing a support network.
On Sunday, the group released a "Happy Birthday" balloon into the sky. Turner wrote a simple message on it: "I love you, and I'll see you in heaven."
"Minute by minute," they remind each other. Get through the morning, breakfast, lunch, the afternoon. Make it to dinner, another day done.
Marih, the oldest daughter, understands what's happened, Turner said. Nilza and Ariana have had a tougher time.
The adults were writing down thoughts about Alicea last week when Nilza asked DelVecchio what they were doing. DelVecchio invited the 8-year-old to join them.
"I love my mommy, and I'm sorry somebody killed her. And I wish she'd call and come home," Nilza wrote.
The family is focused on helping the children, encouraging them to reach out to a counselor, if needed, at school. The plan is to keep them busy with activities they love, such as roller skating. Ariana skated backward Sunday for the first time.
"It's about these girls - make sure that they can move forward," said Johnny Alicea, 49, Hiram's uncle.
Finances are one concern. Turner's husband died in 2004; her income as a bus driver has to support her and her granddaughters. A fund, managed by Fulton Bank, has been set up to help the girls.
Marih told her great-uncle that she was "relieved," he said, because she no longer had to worry about her mother.
"The expectations that she had . . . worrying, where she was at, what she was doing, if she was hurting, if she ate, if she's coming by . . . now she doesn't have to worry about that anymore," he said.
The family of Tara Alicea is accepting contributions through the Sona Ra Turner Memorial Fund For Tara Ra Alicea, Fulton Bank, 35 N. Delsea Dr., Clayton, N.J. 08312. For information, e-mail:
Sona Turner talks about her daughter, Tara Alicea: