Though Santa Barbara authorities have finally closed their case in the death of Sierra Markee-Winkler — a bright and popular UCSB student from Eureka — some questions remain around how the 20-year-old died two months ago in Isla Vista.
In a coroner’s report provided to The Santa Barbara Independent through a Public Records Act request, officials say they believe Markee-Winkler’s death on May 4 was accidental and that she suffered severe injuries and drowned after falling from a section of fenced cliffs that line the seaside college town. But, “due to the suspected fall being unwitnessed,” the report reads, the manner of death was “classified as undetermined,” meaning homicide or suicide could not be completely ruled out by the end of the investigation.
An autopsy revealed that Markee-Winkler was intoxicated the night she passed away — her blood-alcohol content registered 0.25 during the examination — and that her injuries, including a broken neck, were consistent with a fall from the cliffs. The report also lists “asphyxia … due to: drowning” as a cause of death. The night before Markee-Winkler’s body was found below Sea Lookout Park in the 6700 block of Del Playa Drive, the ocean reached high tide and was approximately six-feet-deep at the base of the cliffs at that location. (In previous press statements about this case, Sheriff’s officials had referred to the area as Del Playa Park.)
Through interviews with Markee-Winkler’s roommates, family, and reporting parties, the Sheriff’s Office constructed a timeline of the events leading up to her death and the eventual discovery of her body. On Saturday, May 3, Markee-Winkler and one of her roommates spent the afternoon and evening drinking and partying at Chilla Vista — a biannual music and arts festival — when Markee-Winkler got into a heated argument with another one of her roommates, who then left town for the weekend.
Markee-Winkler was last seen by her remaining three roommates at around 1:30 a.m. as she ran toward the beach in the 6800 block of Del Playa Drive. The group “attempted to stop the decedent from leaving,” the report reads, “however, the decedent reassured them she was fine and needed to get away.” One of the group then called Markee-Winkler, who said she was okay and at Sea Lookout Park. She said that “she was going to calm down for a little while then return home.” The conversation was her last recorded contact. For it, Markee-Winkler had borrowed a phone from a woman nearby because hers had run out of battery, the report states. Officials have not been able to locate that person.
At around 7 a.m. the next morning, a bicyclist came across Markee-Winkler’s body on the beach below the park and called 9-1-1. When Sheriff’s deputies arrived, they described her location as approximately 200 feet west of a nearby stairway, and 12 feet south from the base of the cliff. The sand was wet below Markee-Winkler and up to the base of the cliff, and the area immediately around her was undisturbed save for the bicyclist’s footprints and those belonging to an “an unidentified female walking on the beach.”
The preliminary examination of Markee-Winkler’s body showed no obvious traumatic injuries or broken bones. She was found wearing shorts and a tank top, and her sandals and cell phone were soon discovered near a tree in the park at the edge of the cliff. The items were found on the south, ocean side of a low wooden fence that runs east-to-west along the park’s cliffs. (In a previous interview with The Independent, officials said that the sandals and phone were located behind a nearby house.)
When officials examined the area by the tree they saw “no noticeable ground disturbances” around it “or down the side of the cliff.” Searches of Markee-Winkler’s cell phone and her apartment did not yield any suspicious evidence.
During an interview with one of the roommates, Sheriff’s detectives were told that Markee-Winkler — who worked at Java Station in Goleta and was remembered for her warm, open personality — “was a happy, upbeat person” who would “not do anything to intentionally harm herself.” Markee-Winkler’s mother, Siobhan Markee, was similarly adamant that her daughter was not suicidal, explaining they had talked two days earlier and that Markee-Winkler was in good spirits after passing her midterms. She was planning to start studying for her upcoming LSATs, Siobhan said.
In the days following, Siobhan — who firmly believes her daughter accidentally tumbled to her death — implored county officials to take action to prevent any more falls from the Isla Vista cliffs. There have been seven confirmed fatal cases since 2001 with dozens of injuries, some serious, in that time. Since 2010, 20 people have fallen but survived.
Long-running efforts to erect taller fences along the bluffs, and install barriers in places where they don’t exist at all, have proved complicated and controversial. Those opposed to the work say fencing would obstruct ocean views and do little to prevent determined individuals from accessing the cliffs. Permitting and funding issues have also halted progress at times.
Groups like Fence Isla Vista continue to work with officials and stakeholders and last month helped erect temporary mesh fencing along the ocean side of five public parks, including Sea Lookout Park. Some of that fencing, however, has been removed, apparently by unhappy area residents.