Jury to hear accusations of stealing
Money was missing from Selena's salons
By PATTY REINERT Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle
10:15 PM 10/23/1995
Jurors deciding how to punish the murderer of Selena Quintanilla Perez will hear allegations today that Yolanda Saldivar was stealing money from the Tejano star's salons in the months leading up to the singer's slaying, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The jury, which convicted Saldivar of murder on Monday, was to return to the courtroom Tuesday afternoon to listen to evidence on her sentence, which could range from probation to life in prison.
But after lawyers argued for more than two hours over what testimony the jurors should be allowed to consider, state District
Judge Mike Westergren called the jury into the courtroom to apologize and dismiss them for the day. Three hours later -- after nearly a dozen prosecution witnesses had testified that Saldivar had misappropriated thousands of dollars from Selena Etc. Inc. -- the judge decided he would let the jury hear the allegations, even though Saldivar has not yet been charged or convicted of embezzlement. "I'm not real comfortable with it,"Westergren said. "It will go before the jury." The theft allegations began on March 31, the day Selena was shot in the back at a Corpus Christi Days Inn.
As Saldivar held police at bay for 91/2 hours, Selena's father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., told police and reporters that Saldivar had been stealing money from his daughter's fan club and boutiques. A confrontation over the alleged theft apparently led to Selena's death, he said. By late summer, Nueces County prosecutors were planning to present an embezzlement case to a grand jury in Corpus Christi. They decided to wait, however, because Saldivar's lawyers threatened to delay the murder trial if she were charged with embezzlement. While the embezzlement investigation is still ongoing, District Attorney Carlos Valdez said this week that he plans to take the case to a grand jury as soon as possible after returning to Corpus Christi. An investigator working on the case, Sgt. Joel Castañeda, testified Tuesday that he had documented more than a half-dozen checks that Saldivar allegedly wrote out for cash and endorsed.
In the memo section of each check, there were invoice numbers or other notations indicating the cash was to go toward paying bills for Selena Etc., the singer's boutiques and beauty salons in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Saldivar, who helped manage the salons, was authorized to write checks. Other witnesses testified they never received the cash, which was to have paid for such things as hair care supplies, fingernail files and radio advertising for the salons. Defense attorney Doug Tinker argued that while most of the checks presented by prosecutors bear the name of Yolanda Saldivar as the payee, the payor or the endorser, there is no evidence that she is the person who wrote or cashed the checks.
And because Selena also had check-signing authority for the bank account, there is no way to tell whether the singer gave Saldivar permission to write the checks, he said. "There is absolutely no evidence that Yolanda Saldivar ended up with any of this money," Tinker said. "They not only have to prove that she appropriated the money, but they have to prove lack of consent. It would be different if Yolanda Saldivar had forged the checks, but she had authority to write the checks." Prosecutor Elissa Sterling countered that the jury could reasonably infer from the documents and the testimony that Saldivar meant to deceive Selena by indicating the money was going to pay bills when the bills were never actually paid. "She was depriving Selena Etc. of the cash from these checks," Sterling said. "We cannot have Selena here to testify. That's obvious." Westergren ruled that the jury will not be allowed to hear testimony from a San Antonio dermatologist who had accused Saldivar of stealing money from him while she worked as his receptionist in the early 1980s.
The doctor, Faustino Gomez, testified Tuesday away from the jury that he believes Saldivar stole several thousand dollars from him in 1983. He fired her and was later reimbursed for his losses by his insurance company. Saldivar was never charged in that case; she settled a civil lawsuit with the doctor's insurance company, but details of that agreement are confidential. Westergren said that because those allegations are more than 10 years old, and Saldivar could have changed in the meantime, he would not allow Gomez to tell the jury of his suspicions. The doctor may testify, however, that he knew Saldivar in the early 1980s and may comment on her reputation at that time. Lawyers said they plan to complete testimony in the punishment phase of the case today, with arguments slated to begin Thursday. The jury can consider probation because Saldivar has no prior criminal record.
If she receives a life sentence, she will have to serve at least 30 years before being considered for parole. Meanwhile Tuesday, hundreds of Selena fans outside the courtroom took advantage of mild autumn temperatures to express disdain for Saldivar. At every appearance of a televison camera, those standing seven-deep behind police barricades at the Harris County Criminal Courthouse broke into cheers and chants. Virtually no one, it seemed, was without a color poster of the sultry chanteuse pouting for the camera. And those without preprinted posters brought their own.
A wordy few combined reverence for Selena with contempt for her killer. "San Antonio love's you and we will not replace you," read one. "We want the maximum for Yolanda." But others were more direct. "Hang the witch," demanded one illustrated with the visage of a hag. "Make her suffer, suffer. Give life in prison," admonished another. Boomboxes blasted Tejano tunes, and the youngest demonstrators could hardly keep their feet still as the beat filled the normally sedate heart of the county's criminal judicial system. As the sidewalk party ebbed and swelled, depending on the proximity of the broadcast media, a police officer turned to another bystander and offered a wry, knowing smile.
(Chronicle reporter Allan Turner contributed to this story.)