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Woman's Death From Hotel Fall Ruled a Homicide

Crime: Coroner's report says Houston businesswoman was 'assisted' in fall from balcony. A co-worker had said she fell while the two were having sex.

January 17, 1997|NICHOLAS RICCARDI and MAYRAV SAAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Casting doubt upon a Houston man's story that his co-worker fell to her death from a City of Industry hotel balcony while the two were having sex, Los Angeles County coroner's officials Thursday ruled the woman's death a homicide.

Sandra Orellana, 27, was "assisted" in toppling over the balcony railing outside her room at the Industry Hills Sheraton in November and plunging 11 stories to her death, coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said.

Thursday's was just the latest twist in the macabre case.

Orellana and her boss, Robert Salazar, 33, were in town on a business trip Nov. 12, meeting with local companies that had been purchased by their Houston-based employer, Skillmaster Staffing Services.

Orellana's body was found on a veranda beneath her balcony the next morning, and that afternoon Salazar approached investigators and told them she had fallen during sex the night before, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Ray Peavy said.

Authorities arrested Salazar and booked him on suspicion of murder. But they released him days later, after the district attorney's office declined to file charges.

Only after Salazar returned to Houston did Orellana's outraged family and friends contact Los Angeles authorities and allege that Orellana had planned to file a sexual harassment complaint against Salazar.

Investigators intensified their probe, dropping mannequins from the balcony to see how Orellana would have fallen. They concluded that her body was found in a position indicating she did not fall in the way Salazar described.

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An autopsy also showed that many of the numerous bruises, scratches and lacerations on Orellana's body came neither from the fall nor from hitting the railing, Carrier said Thursday.

Additionally, the height of the railing and Orellana's short stature make it unlikely that she simply toppled over it, he said. No drugs were found in Orellana's system, but she had drunk a "moderate" amount of alcohol, Carrier said. Witnesses had reported seeing Orellana and Salazar sharing drinks in the hotel lobby earlier that night.

As to whether Orellana was alive when she hit the ground, Carrier said, "there is no way of knowing."

Salazar remains in Houston, where he has resigned from his post as a vice president at Skillmaster, officials said. His lawyer could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Peavy said he would present the new information to the district attorney's office and that they would decide whether to file charges.

"The ball is in the [D.A.'s] court," Peavy said.

A district attorney's office spokeswoman said prosecutors will wait for the sheriff's final report before taking any action.

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