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Murder Turns Microscope on Sensation Called Selena : Trial: Prosecutors call singer's death senseless and cowardly. Accused killer points a finger at the father.

October 12, 1995|JESSE KATZ and LIANNE HART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HOUSTON — Six months ago, Selena Quintanilla Perez was nearly invisible to the non-Spanish-speaking world, which seemed almost bewildered by the sudden outpouring of grief that followed her slaying in a South Texas motel.

By the time the trial of her accused killer and ex-fan club president got under way Wednesday, mainstream America had finally caught up to the 23-year-old Tejano sensation, a pop superstar and cultural icon who, in death, achieved the crossover success she so fervently sought in life.

"Unfortunately, the tragedy accelerated everything," said Los Angeles-based publicist Sandy Friedman, who represents Selena's family and her record label.

It has also fueled some unwelcome scrutiny of her famously wholesome image, as Wednesday's opening arguments made clear. With nearly 100 media organizations here to cover a trial unofficially dubbed "Hispanic O.J.," lawyers began painting two very different pictures of the Grammy-winner's relationship with her alleged assailant, a 35-year-old former nurse from San Antonio named Yolanda Saldivar.

The founder of Selena's fan club and manager of her boutiques, Saldivar surrendered to police on March 31 after a bizarre 9 1/2-hour siege in the singer's hometown of Corpus Christi, Tex. Authorities said Saldivar had been fired for embezzling money from Selena's accounts. Snubbed by the woman she worshiped, Saldivar allegedly confronted Selena at a Days Inn motel, then pumped a .38-caliber slug into her back.

"Selena Quintanilla Perez was killed in a senseless and cowardly act of violence," said Carlos Valdez, the district attorney in Corpus Christi, from where the case was transferred due to pretrial publicity. "It's a serious act but not difficult to prove."

Saldivar's court-appointed attorney, Doug Tinker, hopes to put forward another scenario. Putting the onus on Selena's father, he described Abraham Quintanilla as a manipulative "stage dad" who wrongly suspected Saldivar of having romantic designs on his daughter. Fearful of Selena's father and distraught over losing a dear friend, Saldivar grew suicidal and bought a gun. During their emotional meeting, Tinker said, it accidentally went off.

"She was hysterical at the death of a woman she thought of as a sister," Tinker told the jury, which consists of seven whites, four Latinos and one black. Before surrendering, Saldivar reportedly told police: "Her father hates me. Her father is responsible for this."

The public airing of such unseemly affairs has been one of the most disturbing aspects of this trial for Selena's legions of fans. Although she projected a racy stage persona, complete with glittery bustiers and a bare midriff, she was also a Jehovah's Witness who preached clean living and family devotion.

Even as she became known as the Queen of Tejano, her father still managed her blossoming career. Her husband, Chris Perez, played guitar in the band, which also featured her brother and sister. She lived in the old Molina barrio of Corpus Christi, next door to her parents. Despite fame and fortune, she could often be seen mowing the grass or hosing down her one luxury, a red Porsche Carrera.

"The combination of all that is almost an ideal formula; it's part of her attraction," said Antonio Valverde, a correspondent for Los Angeles' Spanish-language KMEX-TV, who is in Houston covering the trial. "If the defense tries to destroy that image, it could backfire. That's not what the public wants to see."

To say that Selena is a role model is to almost understate her appeal, especially to young Latinas who have been flocking to Selena look-alike contests in South Texas since her death. Dark-haired and olive-skinned, she has become a validating symbol of Mexican American identity, a culturally authentic entertainer who never abandoned her roots.

"Selena Quintanilla Perez was idolized by millions of young Hispanic women who saw her as a Madonna of their own," journalist Alisa Valdes wrote in a Boston Globe column after the shooting. "In this sense, she was both a role model and a safety net . . . a safety net who caught the often plummeting self-esteem of adolescent Hispanic girls."

Her posthumously released bilingual album, "Dreaming of You," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. A quickie biography, which combines Spanish and English versions into one paperback, topped the New York Times bestseller list. A special People magazine tribute vanished from newsstands almost as soon as it appeared. And her first name, by which millions know her, has inspired the christening of everything from parks to streets to babies.

"It's hard to explain what we feel for her," said Carmen Leon, who came to the courthouse this week with her husband, Javier. "She was part of our lives, even if we didn't talk to her."

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