Traveling alone, but constantly connected — until her death
An American traveler, found dead in Turkey, left a digital trail during her trip.
The New York Times
ISTANBUL — It was her first trip overseas, but in many ways Sarai Sierra was the epitome of a modern young tourist — alone yet constantly connected.
She struck out for Turkey from New York last month, trailed by a digital horde of hundreds, who followed her online postings, and by her family, who spoke to her regularly by Skype on her iPad. She went online to rent the room where she stayed — in a rundown area of Istanbul not known to attract casual visitors.
She disappeared on the day that she was to leave.
The feverish search for Sierra — by the Turkish police, American investigators and, later, her husband and her brother — ended over the weekend with the grim discovery of her body alongside a busy coastal road outside the walls of Istanbul’s old city, about three and a half miles from where she was staying.
By Sunday, the Turkish authorities had questioned nearly two dozen people in connection with the death of Sierra, who was 33 and lived in the Stapleton neighborhood of Staten Island. No one had been formally arrested.
Istanbul’s police chief, Huseyin Capkin, told reporters that based on a preliminary examination of her body it was “certain that she was killed by a blow to her head.”
Hundreds of Turkish police officers were said to be poring over surveillance footage taken in and around the area where her body was found. Her earrings, ring, watch and a bracelet were found on her body. The Anatolian News Agency, however, citing Turkish authorities, said Sunday that her iPhone and iPad had not been located.
Investigators were examining a blanket found nearby for signs it might have been used to move the body, which was near a pedestrian walkway.
A female witness told the police late Saturday that she had spotted a woman’s hand as a middle-aged man tried to pull something out of the back seat of a white car near where Sierra’s body was found, the Anatolian News Agency reported.
Sierra communicated with at least one person in Turkey before her arrival and during her stay, a man the Turkish police identified only by his first name, Taylan. The two met on the Internet and both used the photo-sharing site Instagram. Sierra, according to both Turkish and U.S. officials, was in touch with him on the day she vanished.
“I’ll be across from the Galata Tower in a while, will you come?” Sierra reportedly wrote in an email sent on Jan. 21 at 11 a.m., referring to a popular tourist attraction in downtown Istanbul. The text of the message was reported in the Turkish paper Vatan.
The tower is a short walk from the building in the Tarlabasi district where Sierra had rented a room.
Sierra sent another message at 11:33 a.m., saying, “I’m leaving, call me if you want to reach me.”
Taylan replied at 12:45 p.m., writing, “I’ll come there, hope you have wireless.”
He was questioned by the police and released, according to the local reports.
The State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has assisted the Turkish authorities in the inquiry, declined to comment on Sunday.
A man who said he had rented Sierra a room, Yigit Yetmez, told the Milliyet newspaper that he had not seen her since the day before she disappeared. “She stayed alone and made advance payment for the 13-days stay over the website,” he said, not naming the site.
It was unclear how she found the room or how she settled on one in Tarlabasi, a rundown neighborhood that has few tourist sites. Sierra’s final moments remained a painful mystery for her relatives and those who followed her movements online. As she traveled the city, making side trips to Amsterdam and Munich, she updated friends and new followers online with photographs of sunsets, train stations and minaret-filled skylines — anything that caught her eye.
“I planned it on a whim, so glad that I did,” she said, commenting on an early photograph from Istanbul posted to her Instagram page on Jan. 9. “Having a blast so far.”
Her last photo appeared on Jan. 20, of a winding river believed to be somewhere in the Netherlands.
After her death, that same collection of photos — well-done tourist shots mixed with an occasional New York City vista — became a mournful message board for hundreds of notes.
Outside the family home in Staten Island on Sunday, relatives and family friends remained in a state of shock.
“She lived for her sons and her husband,” said Vicki Vega, 57, a longtime friend of Sierra’s mother. “She was so loving and caring. She never treated anyone badly.”
The mother of two boys, ages 9 and 11, Sierra worked part-time in a chiropractor’s office. Her husband, Steven Sierra, has said he remained in contact with her until her disappearance.