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Murder Trial Opens in Hotel Balcony Death

Prosecutor alleges Texas man killed co-worker over fears that their affair would be exposed. Defense says woman's fall was an accident.

October 19, 2002|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

A business executive threw his co-worker to her death from an eighth-floor hotel balcony because he feared disclosure of their affair, a prosecutor told jurors Friday.

The allegations came as the murder trial for Robert Lee Salazar, 39, in the 1996 death of Sandra Lorena Orellana, 27, opened in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

In his opening statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Foltz emphasized that, at the time of the incident, Salazar had just become vice president of the Houston-based company where Orellana was his subordinate.

Foltz said Salazar, who acquired a scratch near his eye sometime during the fatal night, was married and knew that Orellana was engaged. Foltz did not characterize the sexual encounter as either consensual or forced.

In an interview outside the courtroom, Foltz said the facts suggested a motive that would become more clear later in the trial.

Defense attorney Michael R. Coghlan said Salazar and Orellana had a consensual affair that night, and she accidentally fell from the balcony where the couple were making love.

He said the reason Salazar did not call for help after Orellana fell and made inconsistent statements to police the following day was that he was afraid of losing his job and family. "He exercised a monumental piece of bad judgment," Coghlan said.

About 10 members of Orellana's family came from Texas for the trial. They wore buttons that read, "We love you, Sandra Orellana."

Salazar, who was released on $500,000 bail last year, arrived at the courtroom of Judge Philip Gutierrez dressed in a business suit and accompanied by his wife.

The prosecution and defense agree on the basic chronology of events. Salazar and Orellana worked for Skill Master Staffing Services, where he was her supervisor.

They came to Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 1996, on business and checked into the Industry Hills Sheraton.

After a day of work, they drank heavily at the hotel bar, celebrating her birthday and engagement. She was scheduled to fly to Hong Kong the following day to meet up with her fiance.

Late at night, they went to the eighth floor, where Salazar had arranged for their rooms to be next to each other. From that point, the accounts differ.

Foltz described and showed the jurors photographs of the crime scene: a purse on the floor just inside the door of the victim's room, blood on the bed sheets, Salazar's shoes and underwear in the room, an open sliding door. Her broken, partially clad body was found below.

Foltz displayed for the jury a replica of the balcony railing to attack one of Salazar's accounts: that Orellana fell as she turned around to face him while they were making love.

Foltz told the panel that an expert witness would testify that Orellana, at 5 feet 2, was too short to have fallen over it on her own.

Coghlan said he would present evidence to support his contention that Orellana's death was a tragic accident. He said witnesses would state that they saw Salazar and Orellana caressing each other at the bar.

And, Coghlan added, testimony would show that Orellana -- whose blood-alcohol level was .22 that night -- fell over the balcony when she hopped and sat on it, which he said will be Salazar's new and true account of what happened.

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