Sunday, February 10, 2013

DOOM'S DAY: Tracing the last hours and steps of Staten Island mom found slain in Turkey

 EXCLUSIVE: Many questions have arisen about why Sarai Sierra, 33, of Staten Island was killed and who killed her. The man she met with is not a suspect, but officials question if her murder was a professional hit. Here's what we do know about the tragic trip Sierra took to Turkey.

Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013, 2:00 AM

Shown is a screengrab from CNN of a family photo of Staten Island mom, Sarai Sierra, 33, who was discovered stabbed to death in Istanbul, Turkey Saturday February 2, 2013. Turkish police have rounded up at least 9 individuals for questioning surrounding her death. MUST CREDIT CNN


Staten Island mom, Sarai Sierra, 33, was discovered stabbed to death in Istanbul, Turkey.

At 11:33 a.m. on Jan. 21, Sarai Sierra packed up her cell phone and iPad, shuffled out of her rented room and swung open the basement apartment’s iron door.
It was the last full day of the 33-year-old Staten Island mother’s trip to Istanbul, and she wasn’t about to spend it inside.
Sierra had her sights set on the fabled historical peninsula, the center of ancient Istanbul and home to several majestic palaces and ornate mosques.
Wearing blue jeans and a brown leather jacket, Sierra climbed the stone steps outside her shared apartment and turned right down the pockmarked street.
It was a lovely day, clear and in the lower 60s.

Pearl Gabel/New York Daily News

Turkish police and detectives investigate the area - ancient walls- where Staten Island mom Sarai Sierra was found in Istanbul, Turkey.

Sierra, an amateur photographer who took pictures with her Samsung Galaxy phone and iPad 3, was carrying her electronics and wallet in a bag slung around her shoulder. She left behind her passport and a second wallet.
Sierra walked half a block to Omer Hayyam St., turned left and breezily strolled past a corner bodega that sells dried meats and red wine for $4 a bottle.
Its 41-year-old clerk was peering out of the window.
“She looked totally normal,” the man would say later. “Carefree.”
It was the last walk she’d ever take.

Pearl Gabel/New York Daily News

Neighborhood where Sarai Sierra stayed before her body was found in Istanbul.

Sierra never returned to the apartment that afternoon, and the young mother of two never got on her flight out of the country the following day — setting off a massive police search.
Her battered body was found Feb. 2 at the foot of crumbling stone walls that had once protected the centuries-old sights she had wished to visit.
Sierra had been killed by a devastating blow to the head with a hard object amid a furious struggle, authorities say.
Investigators believe she was murdered elsewhere, and her killer then dumped her body near the walls.

Pearl Gabel/New York Daily News

The basement apartment entrance of the flat in Istanbul where slain New Yorker Sarai Sierra was staying.

A surveillance camera captured Sierra walking along the busy highway, about a half-mile from the scene, at 12:44 p.m. Where she went after that is unknown.
But through extensive interviews with top law enforcement officials and witnesses, the Daily News has pieced together Sierra’s final journey.
Before she vanished, she walked precisely 2.2 miles and was captured by roughly 20 different surveillance cameras, police chief Ertan Ercikti told The News.
Her route took her through one of the city’s seediest neighborhoods and one of its most upscale, past a famous tower and across a historic bridge.
She told friends she was drawn to the city, which was christened Constantinople in 330 AD, by the awe-inspiring images of it she saw on Instagram.

Pearl Gabel/New York Daily News

House (left) that Sarai Sierra stayed before her body was found in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday February 4, 2013.

But in her last known moments, Sierra was walking along a coastal highway leading away from the venerable sites — and was never seen again.
• • •
Her journey began on Komurcu Zeynel St. — a quiet block in one of Istanbul’s worst neighborhoods. She had found her sparse $17-a-night room in the Tarlabasi district through website Airbnb and arrived in the country on Jan. 7.
Two weeks later, after walking up the steep street that runs past the corner bodega, Sierra climbed a set of broken brick stairs and headed down an alley that took her past a barber shop.
A police surveillance camera attached to it recorded her walking up another set of stairs and emerging onto Tarlabasi Blvd., a busy six-lane road with a grassy median and guardrail.

Pearl Gabel/New York Daily News

Galata Tower on Galip Dede Avenue that slain Staten Island mother Sarai Sierra would have passed on her last known walk before she was found dead in Istanbul, Turkey.

She was heading for the neighborhood just on the other side of the street, but to get there, she had to first turn left and head east to Kalyoncu Kullugu Ave.
Before crossing over shabby Tarlabasi Blvd., she would have passed a wig shop that largely caters to the transvestite hookers who operate in the area and a police station where cops stand guard outside holding assault rifles.
Crossing the street, she first came upon a hole-in-the wall eatery where pig intestines are cooked on an open-air grill.
She turned right and walked the opposite way down Tarlabasi Blvd. before turning left on Hamalbasi Ave., a sloping road that leads to the bustling shopping area known as Taksim.

Pearl Gabel/Pearl Gabel/ New York Daily News

The Galata Bridge that slain Staten Island mother Sarai Sierra would have crossed on her last known walk before she was found dead in Istanbul, Turkey.

As she climbed the hill, she walked past the walls of the British Consulate. Opposite the consulate is a six-story building that houses Club Cocktail and the peculiarly named Club Virus.
Gray-haired men in dark coats sit outside on low stools smoking cigarettes and sipping tea.
Two streets converge at the top of the hill, and the streets suddenly turn busy.
Sierra continued along a path that brought her by a pair of ATMs and a jewelry shop, with a glass window emblazoned with a Valentine’s Day message: “February 14: Get the most special gift for your loved one.”
The narrow street then opens up into the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare called Istiklal, which is lined with an array of high-end boutiques, dessert shops, consulates and even 18th century churches.
Golden Horn District


A view of the Golden Horn district and the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey.

Sierra turned right and walked in between a man selling chestnuts from a red cart and a man hawking a Turkish bagel known as a simit.
She walked past a Swarovski jewelry store, a Nine West, numerous kabob restaurants and a lottery stand where two men with bushy mustaches call out, “This evening. This evening.”
Sierra knew this area well. The night before, she had met up at a bar nearby with a man identified as Taylan K, whom she befriended online through the Instagram photo-sharing website. Taylan, who was 34 and well-educated but unemployed, would later tell cops they had sex that night, reportedly in the bar’s bathroom.
The pair had discussed touring the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, two of the city’s most important landmarks, the next day.
Just before she set out on Jan. 21, Sierra sent him an online message saying she was heading toward the Galata Tower, which is on the way to the sites. But Taylan told police he didn’t receive it until after he woke up — and never ended up meeting with Sierra.

'Taylan K' claims he had sex wih Sarai Sierra in a bar restroom the day before she died.

Sierra likely walked past the soaring Galata Tower, which is located just beyond Istiklal, at about noon.
Before reaching the site, she strolled past the World House hostel, but she looked nothing like the wayward, awestruck tourists streaming outside.
“She wasn’t walking like a foreigner,” the police chief Ercikti would say later. “She was walking like she knew the place.”
From Galata Tower, she followed Yüksek KaldirimBlvd. to the mouth of the Galata Bridge, a teeming span that reaches over the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus strait.


Turkish airport ground service workers load a casket carrying the remains of New York City woman Sarai Sierra, 33, found dead while on a solo vacation in Istanbul, into a plane bound for New York at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013.

A stunning array of palaces and monuments can be seen from the bridge, and Sierra would have blended in easily with the dozens of other tourists admiring them from the span.
It’s unclear whether she pulled out her cell phone or iPad to take pictures of the Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace, but investigators are certain that she wasn’t being followed.
It was likely approaching 12:15 p.m. now. Sierra walked through a plaza at the bridge’s end and continued into a packed pedestrian underpass.
Emerging from the tunnel, she spilled out into the shadow of the towering New Mosque. She walked past the Spice Bazaar, a crowded maze of vendors selling everything from pungent cheeses to brightly colored scarves, and continued along Kennedy Blvd., a busy highway that runs along the Bosphorous and leads to the airport.
It’s an unusual place to see tourists walking. The road doesn’t lead to any of the sights in the area.

The body of Sarai Sierra was found last week near an ancient wall in Istanbul.

It’s possible that Sierra had gotten lost. The young mother, who abroad for the first time and had spent part of her trip in Amsterdam. She might also have been craving a spontaneous adventure.
But what investigators know for certain is that she followed Kennedy Ave. for just under a half mile.
At 12:44, one hour and 11 minutes after she walked out of her apartment, she was captured on a surveillance camera strolling past a hilly street called Sayaburnu.
It was the last time she was seen alive.
More than two dozen people — including Taylan, other Turks she met online and homeless people who frequent the area where she was found dead — have been questioned and subjected to DNA tests.
Authorities say there’s no evidence that Sierra was involved in criminal activity during her trip. And though she was found wearing only a shirt and underwear, initial tests show no signs of rape.
State prosecutor Huseyin Kaplan said the investigation has been unprecedented in scope
“There was another murder that same night,” Kaplan told The News. “If we’ve done one thing about that murder, we’ve done 200 things about this case.”
“If it’s possible to find her killer, we’ll find him.”

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