Speculation Swirls in Istanbul: What Happened to Sarai Sierra?

A single, violent blow to the head killed her. But what was the motive behind the murder of Sarai Sierra? Mike Giglio on the rumors surrounding the American mom vacationing in Turkey.

02.04.13 4:57 PM ET

On Sunday, Istanbul’s police chief addressed reporters to confirm how Sarai Sierra had been killed: a single, violent blow to the head. He also took the opportunity to fight back some of the fevered speculation that has swirled around the 33-year-old New Yorker’s death.

Sierra was not involved in drug trafficking, the police chief, Huseyin Capkin, said. Nor was she a spy. She was simply a tourist, he said, “walking around by herself.”

Sierra’s nearly two-week disappearance in Istanbul sparked a flurry of interest, which reached a crescendo when her remains were found near a graffiti-covered wall along a roadside on Saturday. Loved ones have painted a picture of Sierra, a married mother of two from Staten Island, as a novice tourist who took a solo vacation to Istanbul to pursue her passion for photography. They say she checked in with them regularly and posted snapshots of the city on Instagram before vanishing on January 21, the day she was scheduled to fly home.

But many have wondered whether there’s more to the story. Some of the wilder theories have percolated in the famously raucous Turkish press. The tabloid Vatan, for example, published an article claiming that Turkish authorities were investigating the possibility that Sierra was a foreign agent, citing side trips she made to Munich and Amsterdam after arriving in Istanbul on January 7. The far-right Yeni Safak, meanwhile, took the idea further in a recent op-ed. The author posited that Sierra was working for the CIA—only to be killed by her former handlers when they discovered that she’d betrayed them for the Russians.

And Turkey’s biggest newspaper, Zaman, ran an article today titled “Was Sarai From the USA a Spy?” It concluded that Turkish authorities have no evidence to support the idea.

The case has gripped the American media too, as reporters try to piece together how an American woman visiting Istanbul, a city where violence against tourists is rare, could meet with such a sad and mysterious end.

A police official, Yener Ulgutol, said in an interview published yesterday in the prominent Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that the Istanbul trip was not only Sierra’s first time leaving America, but her first time leaving New York. The same report said that FBI records showed that Sierra had no criminal history.

Responding to yet another line of inquiry, Ulgutol also said that during Sierra’s trip she had spent nothing close to the $15,000 some reports had suggested, telling Hurriyet that she spent “‘reasonably’ for a tourist.” He added that Sierra’s husband had sent her $500 to help finance her trip. U.S. officials have not commented on the specifics of the case.

Sierra’s husband, Steven Sierra, is a New York City bus driver, according to USA Today. She reportedly worked part-time in a chiropractor’s officer while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Her family has said that they were kept well appraised of the details of her trip, including during her short stops in Amsterdam and Munich. Throughout, Sierra was apparently in touch with people she’d met online through social networking sites before her trip, including on Instagram, where she was a dedicated poster.

Over the weekend, one man posted on a similar photo-sharing site that he had let Sierra stay with him in Amsterdam and was heartbroken to hear of her death.

Another man that Sierra met online told police that the two had met twice in Istanbul, according to a widely cited Vatan report, but denied that they had an intimate relationship or that anything suspicious took place. The two were supposed to meet again on January 21, the day Sierra disappeared, the report said, but the man said he hadn’t been able to find her.

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But few additional details have emerged to shed light on Sierra’s time in Istanbul and Europe, or on the circumstances surrounding her disappearance and death.

Many of the details that have emerged since the discovery of Sierra’s body on Saturday have only led to further speculation.

Turkish police say there is no sign of sexual assault, though they are still awaiting the results of an autopsy. Sierra’s body was also found with her bracelet, ring, earrings and watch intact, leading some to suggest a motive beyond rape or robbery—though her iPad and iPhone have yet to be tracked down. It is also unclear whether Sierra was killed in the spot where her body was found or moved there after her death. Police were reportedly examining a blanket found near the body with the latter theory in mind.

Turkish police have reportedly questioned more than 20 people in connection with Sierra’s death.