ANKARA, Turkey (CBSNewYork/AP) — A U.S. congressman said Monday the FBI is playing a significant role in the investigation into the death of a Staten Island woman in Istanbul.
The investigation comes as the victim’s family members spoke to members of the media.
Sarai Sierra, a 33-year-old mother of two, went missing Jan. 21 while on a solo vacation in Istanbul. Her body was found 12 days later, near the remnants of some ancient city walls. Police said she had suffered a fatal blow to the head.
Congressman Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent, said U.S. investigators were invited by Turkish authorities to assist as they try to find out what happened to Sierra.
Police on Monday were still scouring the area where the body was found for clues, with the help of sniffer dogs, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department confirmed Sierra’s death and thanked Turkey’s government for its extensive efforts to locate her body.
“We are also appreciative of the many expressions of sympathy received from the Turkish people,” the State Department said in its statement.
The Milliyet newspaper said a forensic medicine lab will examine samples from Sierra’s fingernails as well as hair and other samples from a blanket found near her body. It said some nail scrapings suggest she may have tried to fight off her attacker.
More than a dozen people were questioned in the case but most of them have been released, Milliyet reported. It said three people were still being held for questioning.
The state-run Anadolu news agency reported that Turkish authorities finished an autopsy on Sierra on Monday and gave DNA samples from it to a crime lab.
Turkish authorities have also obtained a court order allowing them to take DNA samples from 21 people questioned in Sierra’s death.
VICTIM’S PARENTS GET ‘CLOSURE’
Grimm and Sierra’s parents, Betzaida and Dennis Jimenez, said the family’s immediate concern is returning Sierra’s body to the U.S.
“I wanted to see my daughter alive but at least we have closure, at least they found her,” Betzaida Jimenez said.
Sierra, whose children are 9 and 11, had left for Istanbul on Jan. 7 to explore her photography hobby. She was to have traveled with a friend, but the friend cancelled.
“At the time I wasn’t working, so I just I didn’t have the money to come up with it. I have kids and family of my own. So it was going to be really difficult for me to go, fund-wise,” Sierra’s friend Magalena Rodriguez told CBS 2’s Steve Langford.
Sierra’s decision to go to Turkey alone was not a wildly popular idea with her family in the first place.
“Well I kind of didn’t want her to go,” said Sierra’s father, Dennis Jimenez.
“She was just a mother who had a hobby, and she wanted to fulfill her dream,” said the Rev. John Rocco Carlo of Christian Pentecostal Church on Staten Island, where she and husband, Steven Sierra, were married 15 years ago.
Betzaida Jimenez said she prayed for her daughter before the trip.
“I hugged her before she left. I said to her, ‘I want to say a prayer for you. Let’s pray together for your safety and that you have a safe trip,’” Jimenez said. “Just the thought of knowing that I’ll never be able to hug her again is hard.”
Sierra was in regular contact with friends and relatives during the trip and had told them she would visit Galata Bridge, which spans Istanbul’s Golden Horn waterway, to take photos.
Dennis Jimenez said he waited in vain at the airport the day his daughter was due back in New York.
“I thought that she was stuck in customs because it was an international flight,” he said. “Ticket booths told us that sometimes it takes hours to get through customs when you come through. So I waited and waited.”
Family friends said Sierra’s two children still don’t know what happened to their mother.
“Not until the father gets home, you know, will he be able to let them know everything that’s going on,” said family friend Marjorie Ryan.
Sierra’s husband is in Turkey and intends to accompany her body, but the family is still determining how to fund the transport.
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