After Simpson trial, Saldivar case as much open as shut
Jury selection begins Monday in shooting death of Tejano star Selena
By PATTY REINERT Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle
4:47 PM 10/6/1995
After 9½ hours, Yolanda Saldivar gave up on the idea of killing herself.
Ending her standoff outside a Corpus Christi budget motel last March 31, she covered her face with a police officer's jacket and ducked into a waiting cruiser. As she was rushed to jail, hundreds of spectators who had waited her out cheered and cranked up Tejano tunes on their boom boxes.
Within a couple of hours, Saldivar -- the woman Selena Quintanilla Perez once called her best friend -- signed a confession admitting she had fatally shot the Queen of Tejano in the back. On Monday, the fan-club-president-turned-murder-suspect will walk into a Houston courtroom to face her accusers. But what at first appeared to be an open-and-shut case is now a sticky web of speculation and alternative scenarios.
The prosecution and the Quintanilla family have worked hard over the past six months to preserve their story of the loving father, the beautiful singer, and the frumpy, obsessed fan who purchased a gun and lured the star to meet her death. The defense has countered with its own version: the story of an adoring Selena fan, a troubled young starlet, her overbearing, interfering "star dad" -- and a horrible accident.
On the heels of O.J. Simpson's rapid acquittal on double-murder charges in Los Angeles last week, court watchers and others say suddenly they are reminded anything will be possible in the Selena murder trial. Beginning the day after the killing, as the 23-year-old singer's hometown was flooded with media and grieving fans, details of the slaying began to emerge. Witnesses told police Selena had named her killer -- Yolanda -- before collapsing in the lobby of the Days Inn. Police identified the murder weapon -- a .38-caliber revolver that Saldivar had occasionally held to her temple while she was holed up in a pickup in the motel parking lot. Abraham Quintanilla Jr., the singer's father and manager, provided the motive: Saldivar had embezzled more than $30,000 from the Selena Fan Club and the two Selena Etc. boutiques she managed, and Selena had fired her, he explained.
Now, on the eve of the trial, the evidence still seems solid: Prosecutors have the gun, confession, witnesses, motive. But if Saldivar's lawyers can create enough doubt in the jurors' minds, they could win an acquittal -- or at least a lighter sentence on a lesser charge than murder. As it stands, Saldivar faces up to life in prison on the murder charge, which in Texas means she would serve a minimum of 30 years before being eligible for parole.
The trial was moved to Houston from Corpus Christi because of Selena's popularity in her hometown and because of publicity there surrounding the shooting. But Tejano fans from across Texas and Mexico, as well as hundreds of reporters from all over, are expected to show up, competing for 182 courtroom seats -- only 25 or 30 reserved for the public. As court officials arranged for tighter security and braced themselves against the coming wave of media and spectators, there appeared to be little evidence last week that Selena fans were organizing the type of pilgrimage they made to Corpus Christi last spring. Car windshields have long since been cleaned of their shoe-polished messages honoring the singer.
And in sharp contrast to the almost constant air time devoted to Selena immediately after her death, Tejano radio stations and clubs in the Houston area are taking a low-key approach, citing respect for the Quintanilla family and the need for fans to heal. "We've been broadcasting what court officials have been telling us -- that there will only be a few seats for the public at the trial -- and people seem to really understand," said Gil Romero, vice president and operations manager at radio station KQQK. "There's a lot of curiosity and people want to know what's going on. And as much as they'd like to come out and maybe get to see the family, they realize this is very personal and painful and they are very respectful."
But court officials, concerned that last week may have been the calm before a very powerful storm, have been begging fans and others to stay away. "We won't know how big this case is going to be until the trial starts, but I think it's going to be as big a case as we've had here in years," said state District Judge Ted Poe, who is turning his courtroom over to a judge from Corpus Christi and moving his own docket to nighttime hours to accommodate the murder trial. "But we can handle this case," he added. "We've put in extra security throughout the building, and our staff will be here to help out. I think it's important to be good neighbors, and I think it's a good thing that people are interested in the court system."
State District Judge Mike Westergren, who will travel here to preside over the case, has banned cameras from the courtroom, but court officials are still suggesting people stay home and follow the trial through news reports. If spectators do come and want a chance to see the trial, they had better leave behind their Selena T-shirts, caps, buttons or anything else that shows their allegiance to the slain singer -- or their support for the defendant. "If they show up wearing a T-shirt or something, they can forget it," said court administrator Jack Thompson. "They won't get a ticket because they can't get into the courtroom wearing anything like that." Once jury selection is completed, likely on Wednesday, a daily lottery will be held in front of the Family Law Center near the courthouse.
Each day, potential spectators who gather there will be handed a ticket at 7:30 a.m. About 7:50, a drawing will be held for the public seats and the winners will be given courtroom passes for that day. In addition to the public seats, and seats reserved for the families of Selena and Saldivar, 76 reporters and eight sketch artists have been granted courtroom passes. An additional 200 journalists will have access to courthouse pressrooms and a roped-off area outside the courthouse where daily news conferences will be held before television cameras.
Neither Nueces County District Attorney Carlos Valdez, who will prosecute the case along with assistants Mark Skurka and Elissa Sterling, nor defense lawyer Doug Tinker, who was appointed by the court to represent Saldivar, have returned telephone calls seeking comment on the trial. But in the past six months, both sides have been busy shaping their cases, promoting their positions and fighting minor skirmishes in pretrial hearings. Saldivar, 35, has been paraded before the cameras wearing makeup and new clothes in an effort to displace her tired, frazzled police mugshot with a softer, kinder image. Her family and friends have quietly sat in the back of a Corpus Christi courtroom to show their support during pretrial hearings. Friends and relatives describe her as a polite woman who would often treat her childhood friends to a hamburger or a hot chocolate at a restaurant near her San Antonio home.
They say she is a hard worker who dedicated her life to Selena's success, a No. 1 fan who decorated her apartment as a monument to the star, a friend and protector who, according to one relative, would have died for Selena and, therefore, could not have been the one to kill her. Tinker, who defended one of the Branch Davidians tried last year in the murder of federal agents in Waco, has said he will base Saldivar's defense on his theory that the shooting was an accident. "I hope to show there was conflict between Mr. Quintanilla and his daughter, and my client was a confidant," Tinker said at a hearing a few months ago. "The reason they met at the hotel was Selena did not want her father to know she was confiding" in Saldivar, whom Quintanilla believed was a lesbian obsessed with his daughter.
Tinker has also dismissed Quintanilla's claims that Saldivar was stealing money from Selena's businesses, and has aggressively, but so far unsuccessfully, tried to gain access to the family's financial records. He has subpoenaed witnesses he says can testify that Saldivar had tried to quit her job as Selena's business manager, and that she purchased the gun because she was afraid of Abraham Quintanilla's legendary temper. He even has a Texas Ranger who came forward to corroborate Saldivar's contention that, despite her confession, she told police that night the shooting was an accident -- that she had been holding the gun to her own head, but it "went off" when she pointed it toward the motel door, motioning a frightened Selena to close it rather than flee.
Meanwhile, a massive publicity campaign orchestrated by Abraham Quintanilla has kept Selena's popularity high -- and the family's version of events in the forefront. The members of Selena's former band, Los Dinos -- including her husband, Chris Perez, and her siblings, Suzette Arriaga and Abraham "A.B." Quintanilla III -- have said little publicly. But the singer's father has barely taken a break since Selena's death. Immediately after the slaying, Quintanilla acted as family spokesman, funeral arranger and memorial service organizer, and stepped in to become executor of Selena's estate with Perez's blessing.
The father-manager has appointed himself guardian of Selena's memory and her assets, vigorously defending her good name and viciously attacking others seeking to profit from it illegally. He pushed for the release of a Selena memorial album, "Dreaming of You," which combines such Spanish hits as Amor Prohibido (Forbidden Love) and Bidi Bidi Bom Bom with some of the English tracks the singer had recorded for an album she hoped would launch her cross-over career on the mainstream pop charts. Quintanilla also negotiated a book and movie deal, recruiting the director of Mi Familia and the producers of The Milagro Beanfield War.
The search is on to find an actress to play Selena, and Quintanilla has made it clear the film will be a tribute to his daughter's life and career. Her death will not be included. Filming is scheduled to start in February, with a tentative release planned for next August. In the weeks preceding the trial, Quintanilla appeared to step up his activities. In San Antonio, he introduced the family recording studio Q Productions' newest star, 12-year-old Jennifer Peña, who resembles a miniature Selena. Dressed very much like a model for the slain star's costume line, she sings and dances her Tejano heart out.
Last week, Quintanilla held a news conference in Corpus Christi to announce the formation of the Selena Foundation -- composed of Selena's immediate family -- which will raise funds for the Stay in School project, the Support Family Values project, the Selena Charities project, the Selena Music Camp, the Selena Scholarship and the Selena Museum. He declined, however, to discuss specifics about financing the projects. On Thursday, San Antonio's Hard Rock Cafe dedicated a star to the singer, with special guests Chris Perez and Abraham Quintanilla attending. Neither Quintanilla nor spokesman Joe Villarreal would respond to questions faxed to Q Productions last week.