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Businessman Found Not Guilty in Fatal Fall Off Hotel Balcony

Some jurors said the lack of signs of a struggle by Sandra Orellana influenced the verdict.

November 06, 2002|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

A Texas businessman was found not guilty Tuesday of charges that he pushed a colleague to her death from a hotel's eighth-floor balcony.

The prosecution alleged that Robert Lee Salazar, 39, had sexually attacked Sandra Orellana, 27, at the Industry Hills Sheraton in 1996 and then shoved her from the balcony when she resisted. Salazar feared losing his wife and new executive job if Orellana revealed the attack, the prosecution contended.

Salazar was then vice president of Houston-based Skillmaster Staffing Services, where Orellana was a workers' compensation specialist.

The defense had argued that the pair, in Los Angeles on business and both very drunk the night of the death, had a consensual one-night affair. Orellana fell accidentally, the defense said, as the two were engaged in foreplay.

The jury of seven men and five women in Pomona Superior Court found Salazar not guilty of first-degree murder, for which he could have faced 25 years to life in prison. They also found him not guilty of second-degree murder, which carried a sentence of 15 years to life.

"I didn't believe for a second that he intentionally threw her over the balcony," juror Becky Murrieta said. Jurors said they were bothered by the absence of any signs of a struggle.

Salazar's wife, Beth, cried loudly as the verdicts were read. Salazar hugged his attorney, Michael R. Coghlan.

"I just thank God," Salazar said outside the courtroom. "God knew the truth, and he's letting me go home."

His wife said now they "can work on reconciliation of our marriage, because something did happen. It's love that keeps you together."

The family of Orellana contended that Salazar had made sexual advances toward her, and that she had contemplated filing a sexual harassment charge. They said she was engaged and would not have had an affair.

Her family left the courthouse somberly, escorted by sheriff's deputies and without speaking to reporters.

"It's obviously disappointing," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Foltz.

Foltz said that Salazar lied repeatedly to homicide investigators the day after the death and to the jury. He said it was physically impossible for Orellana to fall the way Salazar described it.

"The bottom line is the jury is the system we have to rely on," he said.

Former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti had decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Salazar. When Steve Cooley assumed that post, he decided to prosecute.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said Tuesday that Cooley is not second-guessing that decision.

"When Steve came into office, he said he was going to take a fresh eyes approach on a number of cases, including this one and the 'Angel of Death' prosecution," she said, referring to the case of Efren Saldivar.

Saldivar, a respiratory therapist, was convicted of murder for killing six patients at Glendale Adventist Medical Center by injecting them with a paralyzing drug.

During the Salazar trial, the prosecution and defense didn't differ much on the chronology of events. In November 1996, Salazar had recently become vice president of Skillmaster. He and Orellana came to Los Angeles to become acquainted with a subsidiary that Skillmaster had bought here.

After a day of business, Salazar, Orellana and a representative of the subsidiary had dinner. Salazar and Orellana began a night of drinking.

Orellana was scheduled to fly to Hong Kong the next day to join her fiance. But, Salazar testified, at the hotel bar he and Orellana began dancing, hugging and kissing.

He contended that at about midnight, the two went to the eighth floor, where Orellana invited him into her room.

Salazar testified that at one point, Orellana said that she was hot and, wearing only a top, stepped onto the balcony, and that he followed. He said that Orellana, facing the balcony, turned to face him, lifted one leg, tried to hop up to sit on the railing and fell over.

Foltz argued that Salazar used his status and power over Orellana to get her drunk. Salazar knew, Foltz argued, that Orellana was so drunk that she was in and out of consciousness and could not resist him.

The prosecutor argued that Orellana woke up during the attack and Salazar, who had written his company's sexual harassment policy, realized he would lose his job and family.

Orellana's sister, Katherine Orellana, 29, said her sibling was a bright young woman who spoke four languages and had started college just as she turned 17.

Sandra Orellana wanted to transfer to California, Katherine Orellana said, so she could more easily fly out to see her fiance in Hong Kong.

"She was really ambitious about her career," said Katherine Orellana. "She also wanted to settle down. I think when she found someone, she started envisioning that."

*

Times staff writer Steve Berry contributed to this report.

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