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Saturday, February 9, 2013 - Page updated at 10:00 a.m.

Death in Turkey: An American’s first, and fatal, trip abroad

The New York Times

NEW YORK — In a zinc-plated coffin, Sarai Sierra’s body was flown back from Turkey, a belatedly tragic return Thursday that brought a wife and mother home to Staten Island for burial, but left unanswered many questions about her death.

She was killed in Istanbul while traveling alone. It was her first trip abroad, and until recently, there was little in her life that would suggest that she would undertake such an adventurous endeavor or meet such a violent end.

Growing up, most of her trips were spent upstate with a youth group from Christian Pentecostal church. Next Friday, funeral services will be held at that church, a place where she worshipped and came to know Steven Sierra, whom she married shortly after high school.

For her husband, the grim discovery of his wife’s body left open the mystery of her death. How did a tech-savvy young mother, whose growing passion for photography drew her overseas, end up dead by the ruins of Istanbul’s old city walls?

After Sarai Sierra’s death, Turkish authorities questioned and took DNA samples from nearly two dozen people. But so far, the tests have yielded no suspects and no formal arrests. The Turkish police said she died from severe head trauma.

For Sarai Sierra, 33, the trip had seemed so easy, booked on her iPad and previewed in gauzy digital photos by virtual friends: a room was reserved in Istanbul via Airbnb, the global apartment rental site; a side trip was arranged to meet a man in Amsterdam whom she had met online.

Even after a friend she was to travel with backed out, Sierra pressed on, departing on Jan. 7. She met digital friends for the first time on gritty Istanbul streets and in Amsterdam cafes, posting delicately crafted images taken with her phone to a cheerful band of social-media followers. And she stayed in constant contact with friends and relatives at home through Skype and instant messages. Friends said it was as if she had never left.

Such connectedness quite likely helped her feel secure in strange new surroundings, said Kathleen Cumiskey, a professor of psychology, gender and sexuality at the College of Staten Island, where Sarai Sierra was a part-time student.

“What it does is generate this sense that you’re not alone, which can really mess with your perception of risk,” she said, adding that social media “lulls you into this sense of security because it is a world of your own creation.”

Sierra used photo-based social networks to make new friends, including at least two men in Turkey and another in Amsterdam, with whom she stayed. In the absence of official updates on the investigation, Turkish news media reports have filled with suggestions that Sierra may have engaged in questionable behavior with some local residents.

One of the Turkish social media friends, identified only as Taylan K., said through a lawyer that their relationship was purely friendly and dismissed suggestions that Sierra had served as a drug courier, according to the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency. Sierra looked like an “ordinary tourist,” the lawyer, Ozkan Polat said, quoting his client.

The man she stayed with in Amsterdam, Ammer Reduron, also denied anything beyond a friendship, and said that Steven Sierra was aware his wife would be staying in his apartment. “Taking care of her,” Reduron said, “meaning showing my city and being a good friend to her. She had a wonderful time here.”

Even before going abroad, Sarai Sierra began to engage offline with those she met on the photo-sharing site, Instagram.

A month before her trip, Sierra formed a bond with three amateur photographers in New York, meeting several weekends in unfamiliar areas of the city to shoot digital images on her Samsung phone.

“She had, honestly, no fear wherever she went,” said Jay Pereira, 29, one member of the group. “Her mind was so adventurous.”

Photography was a social and creative outlet for Sierra, one that exerted a seemingly natural pull. “It was like she had it in her all the time and then found out that she was good at it,” Jimenez said.

Soon her artistic frame of view broadened, from fingernails to cityscapes to sunsets over Istanbul and the canals of Amsterdam, where she took a side trip from Turkey. (She also made a brief layover in Munich, Reduron said.)

She posted her last picture on Jan. 20, a day before she went missing. Steven Sierra and his wife’s brother, David Jimenez, would go to Istanbul to try to find Sarai Sierra. Their search ended when the authorities found her dead, her head bludgeoned.

On Thursday, Steven Sierra was back on Staten Island, making funeral arrangements at Matthew Funeral Home. Another task, even more heartbreaking, had just been performed: telling his sons, ages 9 and 11, what they no doubt suspected, but had not yet been told.

“I told them,” he said, “Mommy got hurt and she died.”

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