New Yorker Sierra's suspected murderer caught

New Yorker Sarai Sierra, who was found dead by Turkish police earlier in February, is seen in this photo provided by her family. (Photo: AP)

March 17, 2013, Sunday/ 13:18:00

A man believed to have murdered American tourist Sarai Sierra, whose body was found behind the ancient city walls in İstanbul in early February, was caught by security forces in the southern province of Hatay on Sunday, the governor of the province has said.

A statement made by the Hatay Governor's Office said the prime suspect in the murder of Sierra was captured in Reyhanlı, a district of Hatay province.

The suspect, a paper trash collector officially identified only by the initials Z.T. and publicly known as “Laz Ziya,” was captured by security forces at around noon, Hatay Governor Celalettin Lekesiz confirmed at a press conference on Sunday. Z.T. (46) had been on the run since February.

After first being questioned by police and receiving a medical exam at Antakya State Hospital, the suspect was referred to court.

Hatay Police Chief Ragıp Kılıç said on Sunday that his teams had been working extensively and meticulously to find the prime suspect. The borders of the province, which neighbors Syria, were being strictly controlled by the police and Syrian opposition forces had also been notified of the search, he noted. Kılıç said Z.T. would be brought to İstanbul by plane early on Monday morning.

Sierra, a 33-year-old mother of two boys, was murdered while on a solo vacation to Turkey. She last contacted her family on the morning of Jan. 21, the day before she was supposed to begin her journey back to New York. She never showed up for her flight out of İstanbul.

Twelve days after her disappearance, police found her body behind the ancient city walls in the low-income neighborhood of Cankurtaran. She had reportedly been bludgeoned to death. The police, which launched a thorough investigation to find the murderer or murderers of the US tourist, found tissue samples under Sierra's nails during the autopsy. The police came to believe the DNA extracted from the tissue will prove to belong to Z.T. when they raided Z.T.'s family home in Karabük province and collected a DNA sample from Z.T.'s brother, since the suspect had already disappeared. The sample taken from Z.T.'s brother was a close familial match to DNA samples found during the autopsy, confirming Z.T. as the prime suspect in the case.

Police suspect that Z.T. might have first taken Sierra's personal belongings and then attempted to rape her, but decided to kill the woman after she resisted.

According to reports from the suspect's family members, Z.T. went to his hometown of Karabük, borrowed TL 100 from his brother and left. The family members, who were questioned by police, allegedly said Z.T. told them he had to buy his bus ticket using a false name, which also raised suspicions. He told a family member that he was going to Hatay. As police had strong reason to believe that the prime suspect was hiding in Hatay, a group of 100 police officers was assigned to begin an investigation and capture Z.T. in Hatay in late February.

Speaking to a reporter from the İhlas news agency (İHA) after being questioned by police, the murder suspect's brother, İbrahim T., said his brother was mentally unstable and that therefore they could not refute the allegations against him. He stated: “We cannot believe it, or we do not want to believe it, but the police clearly stated that they have strong evidence that my brother might be the murderer of the American woman. My brother has been living on the streets for a long time and he has been mentally unstable for over 15 years. We don't know where he is. He just comes home once every two or three years. He never uses the telephone. He had said he planned to go to Hatay or somewhere near there, but we are not sure at all.”