It was a dream trip, her first outside the United States. For a young New York mother with a passion for photography, it was an opportunity take her camera and spend time exploring the mysterious and exotic country of Turkey, a locale rich with history and photographic opportunities. The 33-year-old artist had done her research of the best and safest places to go, her husband was onboard to take care of their 9- and 11-year-old boys while she was gone, and a good friend was set to accompany her. Sarai Sierra was ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
When her friend cancelled at the last minute there was discussion about her postponing. Her family was understandably concerned about her traveling alone to a place so far and so unknown, but Sierra was too invested to avert her plans at that late point. She felt she’d set things up in such a way that she knew where to go to be safe, so despite their concerns her family gave her their blessing and on January 7 she got on her flight. It was the last time any of them would see her.
In the beginning days of the journey Sierra kept in constant touch, mostly via Skype. After arriving in Istanbul, a place she’d been encouraged to visit by people she’d met through an online service, the photos she sent to her Instagram feed were stunning evidence of the sites she visited and the experiences she was having. She made a brief excursion to Amsterdam to photograph the graffiti, according to her husband, then returned to Turkey on January 19th to continue her adventure there. Three days later she was gone…and no one knew where. From CNN World:
Sierra had rebooked her flight to arrive back early, on January 22, in part to surprise her two sons, 9 and 11.
Days before her scheduled trip home, Sierra spoke with her father, Dennis Jimenez, via Skype to remind him of her flight number and arrival time.
When Dennis Jimenez went to the Newark, New Jersey, airport to pick Sierra up, she didn’t show, he said.
The airline told him she had never checked in for the flight.
“She kept in contact with us all the time,” Sierra’s mother, Betzaida Jimenez, said. “And then not to hear from her? It’s not like her.”
The panicked family got in touch with Turkish officials immediately. The police found surveillance video which captured Sierra walking through a mall on Sunday, January 20th. At the hotel where she was staying the manager also remembered seeing her that day. Reports conflicted as to what of her possessions were left in her room: one said her passport and medical cards were found but her phone and iPad were not; another said her phone was left in the room, which meant authorities were not able to use it to track her. Her last communication to her family was a Skype call on the 21st saying she was going to see the Galata Bridge on the Asian side of the city; from that time on, there was no further contact.
Sierra’s husband, Steven Sierra, flew to Istanbul with her brother, David Jimenez, to do what they could to help find her. Steven spoke to CNN from there:
“The last we heard from my wife was Monday morning on the 21st. She had spoken with her sister and the last thing she said was, ‘I’m coming home tomorrow,’ and she was excited and put a little smiley face at the end of her statement,” said Steven Sierra in an interview with CNN earlier this week. […]
The worried husband was periodically overwhelmed with emotion throughout the interview.
“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,” Steven Sierra said, choking back tears.
“Its 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.”
Steven Sierra’s hopes that his wife would be “OK” were shattered when, shortly after that interview, a woman’s body was found near an ancient walled area of Istanbul’s Sarayburnu district. Via the drivers license on the body they were able to identify it as Sarai’s. Police reports, as of this writing, offered conflicting reports on the cause of death; original reports said she had been stabbed several times, another implied she’d received a blow to the head. Police also reported it was likely her body had been moved from another location. [Source]
Nine suspects have been detained, with one man, in particular, of interest:
The man only identified as ‘Taylan’ on social media sites was taken into police custody after questioning on the disappearance of the woman, who went missing while vacationing alone in Istanbul.
Sierra was last heard from on Jan. 21, the day she was to start her journey back home to Staten Island as well as the day she planned to meet up with ‘Taylan,’ according to their online communications. [Source]
Crime in Turkey is considered to be generally low and the city of Istanbul, in particular, a relatively safe city for travelers. Unfortunately for Sarai Sierra that proved to be false when she made arrangements with a man to meet at a particular bridge in a particularly picturesque part of the city because, likely, she’d heard it was a beautiful and historic place to take photographs. And that, after all, was why she was there.
[UPDATE: 2.3.13, 4:01 EST: Though the earliest reports indicated Sierra was stabbed to death, more recent information has confirmed "it is clear a head injury caused her death." The U.S. State Department is participating in the investigation.]