The desperate search for a missing American woman came to a grim end in Istanbul on Saturday, when Sarai Sierra was found dead along a roadside in the city. But the mystery surrounding Sierra’s death and disappearance remains.
Sierra, a 33-year-old married mother of two young boys, lived in Staten Island, New York, where she worked in a chiropractor’s office while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. She also had a passion for photography and last month boarded a plane for Istanbul—a picturesque and culturally rich city with views of the Bosporous strait and the Sea of Marmara—to spend two weeks pursuing it. It was her first trip abroad, but when a friend who reportedly planned to accompany her had to cancel, Sierra decided to go alone.
Istanbul is a safe and welcoming city that hosts millions of tourists each year. After arriving January 7, Sierra posted photos regularly on her Instagram page—there was one of a mosque at sunset titled “Sunset, Istanbul style” posted January 15 and a street-level shot called “An Unfiltered Istanbul” on January 19. Sierra was reportedly in regular contact with friends and family in New York throughout her trip, which also included short stops in Amsterdam and Munich. Her last Instagram post is dated January 20.
The next day, Sierra was scheduled to fly home, and she reportedly checked in with her family to let them know to expect her. But when Sierra’s father arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport to pick her up, he told CNN, she never appeared. The airline said she hadn’t checked in for her flight.
Taylan told police he and Sierra had struck up an online friendship four months ago, communicating over Instagram and Gmail.
News of Sierra’s disappearance made headlines in Turkey and set off a furious search. Authorities reportedly found Sierra’s belongings in the room she rented at a hostel near the historic Galata Tower, in an area popular with tourists. Last week police questioned and then released a man believed to have had the last known contact with Sierra. The Turkish media have referred to him only as Taylan. He and Sierra were reportedly in email correspondence, and the two exchanged messages January 21 suggesting that they planned to meet near Galata Tower, according to the Turkish newspaper Vatan.
A Vatan article published Saturday, parts of which were included in a New York Times report, said that Taylan told police he and Sierra had struck up an online friendship four months ago, communicating over Instagram and Gmail. He denied that the two had an intimate relationship and said he’d encouraged her idea for an Istanbul trip. He said he’d tried to meet her at Galata Tower on January 21, but didn’t find her there.
“She told me that she wanted to come to Istanbul to take pictures, and I told her that it was a good idea,” Vatan reported Taylan telling police, according to the Times. “She came to Istanbul, we continued talking over the net and met face to face for the first time on Jan. 13, talked about each other’s lives, wandered around and then left separately.”
Anadolu, a semiofficial Turkish news agency, said Sierra’s body was found near the remains of an ancient city wall Saturday. The site sits near a roadway and is in the vicinity of Galata Tower. Sierra was reportedly fully clothed with her earrings and bracelet intact. Some press reports have said that she had a head wound, while others have said she had been stabbed. Anadolu reported that at least 11 people were being questioned in connection with Sierra’s death. It also said that police believed Sierra may have been killed elsewhere before her body was moved to the site where it was found.
The FBI is reportedly assisting Turkish authorities in the investigation. Sierra’s husband, Steven, and brother traveled to Istanbul last week while the search was under way. In an interview with CNN in the city last week, Steven Sierra fought back tears. “You're hoping that she’s OK wherever she’s at, that she’s not hurting, that she’s not cold, that she’s being fed,” he said. “It’s difficult what's going through my mind, if our hopes and prayers are not answered. It is difficult when you have two children that look up to you, and you have to do your very best to stay strong regardless of what happens.”
On Sierra’s Instagram page, her photos from Istanbul were filled with mournful comments from friends and family. “I’m so sorry Sarai,” read one on the photo of the mosque at sunset. “Rest in peace.”