A homeless man has reportedly confessed to the January bludgeoning death of American tourist Sarai Sierra, 33, in Turkey. Turkish police say Ziya Tasali committed the murder after a night of huffing paint. But so far, police have not charged the man in the case of a wife and mother of two boys from Staten Island, whose plans to go on a photographic tour in Turkey took a very tragic turn. The murder has attracted even more attention from the tabloid press following largely unsubstantiated reports about Sierra’s alleged infidelity and the possibility that she met an online male pal while in Turkey.
The U.S. State Department has yet to make a statement confirming the arrest or about Tasali’s confession. Steven Sierra, the victim’s husband, said he has not been officially notified about the arrest and only knows what he has heard and read about it in the media. He reportedly told the New York Post that he learned about the arrest from media reports and expressed his hope that Turkish police had arrested the right man.
Tasali, a 46-year-old garbage collector, went on the lam in January after telling a friend in a cafe that the Turkish police would try to frame him for Sierra’s murder. According to Turkish media reports, Tasali’s DNA matched traces of blood and skin found on Sierra’s clothes. Skins samples collected from underneath her fingernails were also consistent with Tasali’s DNA, according to Turkish media reports.
Turkish media reports said a witness saw Tasali, who frequented Istanbul’s Cankurtaran district, with large scratches on his face the day after Sierra was murdered. He told the witness that he scratched his face after falling down a gully full of bushes.
After his arrest near the Syrian/Turkish border, Tasali quickly confessed to the murder. TimeTurk.com reported that police released an English translation of Tasali’s confession. He reportedly said:
“I got thinner; the woman was passing by there. I hit the woman’s head with a stick. When I woke up in the morning, l realized the blood of the woman and I understood she was dead. I went to Karabuk and passed to Syria.”
Sierra’s movements were believed to be captured on video several times on the day she was killed, as she visited and photographed ancient ruins that date back to the Byzantine era. In what is believed to be the most recent video of her before her death, she is seen walking next to train tracks while wearing a pink dress in the historic Eminonu district, Dogan News Agency reported.
According to the Dogan News Agency, Tasali admitted to police that he approached Sierra near the train tracks where he attempted to kiss her. She fought back, and according to Tasali’s statement, Sierra struck him with her phone before he began hitting her.
Police say Tasali used a brick, which had traces of Sierra’s blood, to strike Sierra on the head, her arms, torso, and legs until she was dead. Her body was then stashed in a hole in a nearby wall. Tasali fled Istanbul a few days after the murder took place. He reportedly told at least one witness that he was going escape to Iran or Syria because he feared that police would suspect that he was involved in Sierra’s murder. After hiding out at his sister’s house in Karabuk, he eventually made his way towards Syria.
Tasali has been transferred to a prison facility in Turkey where he awaits arraignment. If convicted of murder, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The Infidelity Question
Reports surfaced following Sierra’s disappearance that speculated that she had made the trip to stray outside of her marriage. While she had taken a photography class and was very passionate about photography, Sierra had also been in contact with at least two men she had met online whom she arranged to meet in Turkey. Her husband also published posts about cheating and being unfaithful in relationships a few days before she disappeared.
Sierra’s 40-year-old husband wrote a few days before his wife’s departure on Instagram and on Facebook about infidelity in relationships, but did not mention his wife or why he was writing about the subject.
“Don’t cheat in relationship, if you are not happy then just leave. A real relationship is where you can tell each other everything & anything. No secrets, no lies.”
A few days later on the days she left, he wrote:
“Good relationship [sic] don’t just happen. They take time, patience and two people who truly want to be together.”
Then, January 17, shortly before his wife’s murder, he posted a more esoteric post about his thoughts on love in general:
“People are to be LOVED. Things are to be USED. The reason why the world is in chaos is because THINGS are being LOVED and PEOPLE are being used.”
Speculation about Sierra’s possible infidelity became an even more central theme in the tabloid press when a man police call “Taylan K” whom Sierra had met online, testified that he had sex with her in a bathroom in a bar the day before she was murdered. However, Taylan K’s lawyer, while admitting his client had met Sierra after establishing contact online, said the two did not have sex and were not romantically involved. The lawyer claimed that they met to discuss their common interest in photography. He said that his client was a college graduate and denied reports in the Turkish press that he was involved in drugs and gangs.
Sierra’s husband also expressed confidence that his wife was faithful to him during her trip. He said that he never had any reason to think that his wife ever strayed outside of their marriage, despite the reports in the Turkish media and tabloid press to the contrary. He said he was expressing his thoughts about infidelity in general and never had any doubts about his wife being faithful when he published the posts on Instagram and Facebook about cheating in relationships. He also told police that his wife had told him that she would meet with fellow photographers while she was in Turkey whom she met on Instagram and that he trusted her.
Friends of Sierra also vouched for Sierra’s character, saying she traveled to Turkey only to take pictures. Her friends said she was a devout mother, who kept a job that paid less but had a flexible schedule in order to spend more time with her two grade school–aged boys.
Sierra’s husband has said that he hopes Turkish police have apprehended the right suspect, while noting that it has not been confirmed that Tasali is a viable suspect. The FBI is investigating the case and so far has not informed Sierra’s husband about whether they think Tasali is a legitimate suspect or whether his confession is reliable.
Sierra’s husband flew to Istanbul soon after she did not turn up on her scheduled return flight. He spent over a week in the city where he reportedly felt overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, far removed from the familiar New York City area where he grew up. He reportedly held out hope that he would find his wife incapacitated but alive in a hospital as he reviewed videos of her and traced her steps. But 10 days later after Sierra disappeared, his worst nightmare came true when he learned that his wife had been savagely beaten to death after identifying her body at a morgue.
In the meantime, Steven Sierra has told media outlets that his main concern now is helping his sons cope during a time of deep grief and confusion. Sierra’s funeral was attended by over 300. Sierra’s close family and friends openly grieved. A mother killed because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time after traveling thousands of miles to a foreign land to take photographs is tragic indeed.