The death of 20-year-old Sierra Markee-Winkler, who was found nine days ago on an Isla Vista beach, remains very much a mystery to the Santa Barbara community, but a few key details have been released about the last hours of her life and how or why the UCSB student may have died.
Authorities are quick to note that they haven’t discovered anything to suggest Markee-Winkler was the victim of foul play; they also explained that until their investigation is complete, they can’t rule out any possibilities. An autopsy was performed late last week, but the Sheriff’s Office declined to discuss its preliminary findings and said no determination of cause of death will be announced until a later date.
Markee-Winkler, a 2012 graduate of Nevada Union High School, where she was a cheerleader, debater and class valedictorian, was found May 4 at approximately 7 a.m. on the beach below the 6800 block of Del Playa Drive. While it’s unclear where her body was in relation to the tide line and the cliffs above, officials stated Markee-Winkler was discovered below the Del Playa Park, which is fenced on its ocean side.
Initial speculation among Isla Vista and Santa Barbara residents was that Markee-Winkler had fallen from the cliffs — an accident that has killed seven people since 2001 — but an early examination of Markee-Winkler’s body didn’t reveal the injuries typically associated with a fall. “Usually it’s obvious that someone fell off the cliff, they broke a bone or something,” said Lt. Rob Plastino with the Isla Vista Foot Patrol. “But that’s not the case this time, which complicates things.”
Plastino said Markee-Winkler had been drinking and was involved in an argument with one of her roommates the night before her body was discovered. He said she left her residence and headed toward the 6800 block of Del Playa Drive, where she placed her sandals and cell phone behind a house along the cliffs. Plastino theorized Markee-Winkler then walked down a nearby path to reach the beach. In an interview with The Daily Nexus, Plastino explained that though Markee-Winkler was emotional when she left her home, there were no signs of foul play and it didn’t appear anyone had followed her.
Again taking pains to note that detectives are considering all possibilities as they look into the case, Plastino speculated that Markee-Winkler may have drowned that night. “It seems like a typical death of a person who is washed ashore,” he said. “Maybe she did just fall asleep and [when the tide came up] get hypothermia after about an hour.” Plastino explained that as authorities were removing Markee-Winkler from the beach, they were approached by a young woman who was concerned the body was that of her missing roommate. Using forensics and information provided by the woman, they soon positively identified Markee-Winkler.
Markee-Winkler was in her second year at UCSB and was double-majoring in philosophy and language, culture and society; she reportedly wanted to be a lawyer when she graduated. She worked at nearby Java Station and was remembered by her friends and colleagues as warm, smart, and selfless. A memorial service was held last Wednesday on the beach below Del Playa Park where family members, convinced Markee-Winkler fell from the cliffs, urged county officials to take action to prevent any more falls.
Sheriff’s officials ask anyone with information on the case to contact (805) 681-4179.