A Deadly Passion

Sandra Orellana became known as the woman who had sex on a hotel balcony and fell to her death. Her family says that's a lie- she was murdered by her boss.

She had shoulder-length dark brown hair, looked to be in her late twenties and was wearing only a camisole. It looked like a suicide.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Gonzalez glanced at the corpse, then stepped back and peered overhead, his eyes scanning the side of the hotel. The balcony door to a room on the eighth floor was open.

Gonzalez and his patrol partner, Robert Turner, took the elevator and let themselves into room 813. Just inside the door were a purse and a pair of women's shoes. A pair of men's underwear lay nearby. On one of the beds were some books, an unpacked suitcase and a black pantsuit. The other bed was unmade, its comforter and spread pulled back to reveal the white top sheet.

Sandra Orellana (left) with former roommate Dey Gonzalez-Lopez.
Sandra Orellana (left) with former roommate Dey Gonzalez-Lopez.
Sandra's sister Kathy (right) took the call from Los Angeles at her mother's home.
Deron Neblett
Sandra's sister Kathy (right) took the call from Los Angeles at her mother's home.

On the far side of the room, scattered about near the corner, were a pair of panties, a pair of women's slacks and some stockings. The undergarments appeared to have been removed in a hurry; they were rolled up and turned inside out.

Gonzalez stepped past the clothing on the floor, through the open glass door to the balcony. It was Wednesday, November 13, 1996, and another benignly pleasant day was breaking over Southern California. Gonzalez took in the view of the golf course, one of eight that surround the Industry Hills Sheraton Resort and Conference Center. Then he looked down.

Eight stories below, on a concrete veranda ringed with potted trees and plants, L.A. County coroners were examining the body of Sandra Orellana.

A short while later, Gonzalez was leaving 813 when he encountered a man coming out of the room next door.

"What's going on?" the man asked.

"Do you know who was in this room?" Gonzalez responded.

"Sandy?" the man replied. "She works for me."

"Well," Gonzalez said, "we're investigating a possible accident."

Robert Salazar, general manager of a Houston-based staffing agency, slumped against the wall and slid to the floor. He lowered his head into his hands and began to sob.


There are two stories, serving opposing points of view, of course, about how Sandy Orellana happened to die almost four years ago in the city of Industry, 15 miles east of Los Angeles and a long way from home.

Certain facts are undisputed: Sandra Orellana, the daughter of a Clear Lake physician from Ecuador, processed worker's compensation claims for Skillmaster Staffing Services, headquartered on West Alabama just east of the Galleria. Salazar was her boss. Skillmaster had recently acquired a California firm, and Salazar and Orellana had gone to Los Angeles to check out the new operation.

They arrived from Houston at about 11 a.m. on November 12. It was Orellana's 27th birthday. She and Salazar took meetings that afternoon, then had a celebratory meal and drinks at a restaurant with a colleague from the new company, who dropped them off at the Industry Hills Sheraton at 10 p.m. Orellana and Salazar went to the hotel bar for another round of cocktails and some dancing. They left, somewhat unsteadily, around midnight. Robert Salazar is the only person alive who knows what happened next. He says they left the hotel bar and went to Orellana's room. Out on the balcony, they began having sex. Orellana was leaning forward on the railing, and when she attempted to change her position, she toppled over. It was an accident, after which Salazar grabbed his clothes and returned to his own room, where he prayed.

Then there is the story Sandra Orellana might tell, the one that her family and friends believe is true and, as horrifying as it is, the one they cling to with salient desperation. As this story goes, Sandy had a strong dislike for Salazar and perhaps even feared him. Worn down by her boss's emotional abuse, she was considering filing a sexual-harassment complaint against him.

How that might have led Salazar to beat and rape Orellana, then throw her off the eighth-floor balcony of her hotel room is, her family admits, only speculation. But for those who knew Sandra Orellana best, it's the only explanation that makes any sense. These people say Sandy wouldn't have had sex with any married man, let alone Robert Salazar, and certainly not on a hotel balcony in full view of whoever happened to walk by. That story, they say, is absurd.

"I know my sister," says Kathy Orellana. "I know she wouldn't have had any kind of relationship with him."

Homicide detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department don't buy Salazar's story either. For starters, the detectives don't like that he neglected to call 911 or hotel security before dropping to his knees in a holy panic. Orellana's body was found by an early riser from Fresno who spied it about 6:30 a.m. from his tenth-floor balcony.

Then there was Salazar's behavior that morning. For hours, he maintained that he had no idea how Orellana wound up dead. No telling how long that pretense might have survived, but for one piece of evidence in room 813: the men's underwear -- white, Fruit of the Loom, size 30-32. It was Salazar's. He had also left behind a shoe.

It took a while longer, but by 4 p.m. detectives had finally extracted Salazar's lurid tale of an ill-fated sexual encounter. He was arrested on suspicion of murder, only to be released two days later when the Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined to charge him, claiming no one could disprove his version of events.

To date, no one other than the Orellana family and the LASD's homicide detectives has challenged Salazar's account -- at least no one reliable. Six weeks after Orellana's death, on January 3, 1997, the TV program Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on the case. The lead detectives, Ray Rodriguez and Craig Melvin, went to NBC studios in Burbank to wait out the broadcast across three time zones, hoping someone would call in with information.

Less than ten minutes after Unsolved Mysteries was seen in the central time zone, they took a call from a man who identified himself as Mike, from Richmond, Indiana. Mike said he and his mother were in Los Angeles on November 12, 1996, staying at the Industry Hills Sheraton. They were strolling around the hotel when they heard the sounds of an argument coming from above. Mike said he looked up and saw a man grab a woman by the ankles and flip her off the balcony.

Mike, who said his mother had urged him not to get involved, promised to call the detectives back soon. He never did. The Unsolved Mysteries segment has been rebroadcast at least twice, followed in the central time zone by a videotaped message from Rodriguez and Melvin, pleading for Mike to come forward again. Mike didn't, and detectives have never found him.

While efforts to locate an eyewitness have failed, Rodriguez and Melvin believe there is substantial evidence to contradict Robert Salazar's story, beginning with the findings in a February 1997 report by the L.A. County coroner. The coroner called the fall "an assisted drop" and ruled Orellana's death a homicide. Orellana had a blood-alcohol level of .22, double the legal standard for impairment, and was likely semiconscious or worse when she fell, according to the coroner's report. In her condition, the five-foot-two-inch Orellana would have needed assistance going over a three-foot-eight-inch railing. The coroner also noted that Orellana's body landed 14 feet to the east of the area directly below the balcony of room 813. All things considered, Orellana "seems to have been pushed or dropped over the railing," according to the report.

A month later, Joel Burdick, a mechanical engineering professor from the California Institute of Technology, offered his assessment. Hired by the LASD as a consultant on the case, Burdick gleaned data from a series of simulations, whereby investigators dropped a dummy made of fire hose from the balcony of room 813. He also interviewed Hollywood stuntpersons brought in by the sheriff's department. Burdick concluded that while it's impossible to know all the factors that contributed to Orellana's fall, the "most reasonable hypotheses concerning the events would be substantially different from the suspect's official story."

Investigators again took the case to prosecutors, who again rejected it. As the one-year anniversary of her death approached, Orellana's family began to consider the possibility that Robert Salazar would never answer for Sandy's death, that his story of exhibitionist sex that led to a tragic accident would be allowed to stand, forever soiling Sandy's memory. In November 1997 the Orellana family interrupted the planning of a memorial service for Sandy long enough to file a civil lawsuit against Salazar and Skillmaster Staffing Services. The suit, which is scheduled for trial in Harris County district court next month, accuses Salazar of murder. Skillmaster is charged with failing to relieve their general manager of a position "in which he constituted a danger to the company's female employees."

The suit seeks unspecified damages, although money clearly isn't the Orellanas' objective. In the absence of a criminal prosecution of Salazar, the lawsuit is a necessary step in setting the record straight, says the family's lawyer, Michael Sydow. In some ways, Sydow points out, the Orellana family's civil action is much the same as the one taken by the family of Nicole Brown Simpson following the acquittal of her ex-husband on murder charges.

"I'm convinced this is the O.J. syndrome," Sydow says. "The D.A. in Los Angeles tried that case without an eyewitness and on circumstantial evidence, and they weren't able to put it together. I don't think they want the bad press of losing another high-profile case."

That's ridiculous, says Sandi Gibbons, a spokesperson for Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti.

"Ethically, we cannot file a case unless we feel we have enough evidence to convict the person who committed the crime," Gibbons says. "In this particular case, the D.A. felt there was no proof that this woman was pushed or forced over the railing or anything else. There was no proof of a crime."

That's because everything points to no crime having been committed, says Mike Cash, Salazar's lawyer. Cash says there is no unassailable evidence that Orellana was either beaten, raped or murdered. First, the coroner's opinion that cuts on her upper lip suggest "an altercation" prior to the fall defies common sense: Orellana plunged eight stories, head first. Second, there are no signs she was sexually assaulted, and Salazar's semen wasn't found inside Orellana, on her body or at the scene. Finally, says Cash, an accident, no matter how horrible, doesn't constitute murder.

"Robert has a lot of sympathy for this family," Cash says. "I have a lot of sympathy for this family, and I can see why they think he is a bad man. But what kind of evidence is there to support the things they are saying about him? The answer is, none."

Obviously L.A. County investigators feel differently and are disappointed Garcetti won't take their case. But they haven't given up hope: Should Garcetti fail to be re-elected in November -- he's trailing so badly, he has been all but written off -- perhaps whoever succeeds him will be more aggressive. He'll have to be -- the statute of limitations for manslaughter expired last November. The only crime Salazar can be charged with now is murder, meaning prosecutors will have to prove he intended to kill Orellana.

The Orellana family won't have that burden of proof to contend with in civil court next month. All the same, investigators say it might be hard for prosecutors to turn down a criminal case again if the jury delivers a wrongful-death verdict against Salazar.

"We can't make the district attorney prosecute," Sydow says, "but there can at least be a trial."


Violeta Orellana is a handsome, square-faced woman, short of stature but, like a lot of first-generation immigrants, long on pride and emotional fortitude. She has undoubtedly needed both in the wake of her daughter's death. That, and lots of friends and family.

"Big family," Violeta says, her accented voice swelling, "and very close family. There are many people who admire how close we are, and all my friends, they are always saying prayers in her name."

Violeta and her former husband, Hugo Orellana, came to the United States from Ecuador more than 30 years ago. They divorced not long before their daughter was killed, but remain close. Violeta still refers to Hugo as "my husband"; she calls him "Daddy" in front of her children, Katherine, 27, and Michael, 21.

It was Kathy Orellana who took the call from Los Angeles at her mother's home at roughly 5:30 p.m. on November 13, 1996. The caller would say only that there had been an accident and that someone from the Houston Police Department would be in touch soon. Kathy persisted until the caller told her Sandy was dead. She took a number and called her father, who got the full story from the LASD's homicide bureau. Friends and family gathered at Violeta's house, where Hugo announced that Robert Salazar had been arrested in connection with Sandy's death.

In the days and weeks that followed, Violeta and Kathy were the public face of the Orellana family. They spent considerable time in Los Angeles, occasionally giving interviews, but mostly filling in holes for detectives. By all accounts, Sandra Orellana had a generally happy life and, in fact, almost insisted upon it. She was kind and stubbornly optimistic, two traits that caused people to go to her for advice. Claudia Sanchez, who had known Orellana since they were teenagers, says Sandy was everyone's best friend.

"She was always telling me, "You have to be happy. Life is too short; you have to smile and be happy,' " recalls Sanchez. "Sandy was always trying to make everyone feel better."

Orellana graduated from Duchesne Academy in 1987, then went to New Orleans to study international business at Loyola University. She was industrious and intellectually curious, studying Japanese and Italian and dragging friends to lectures or out to sample the local culture. Orellana left New Orleans without graduating and returned home, where she switched majors and eventually got a psychology degree from the University of Houston.

Orellana started working at Skillmaster, her second job out of college, in 1994, as an assistant to the company's safety manager, Robert Salazar. She was promoted a year later, at the same time Skillmaster put Salazar in charge of the company's operations as general manager. For most of her two-plus years at Skillmaster, Orellana apparently had no problems with her boss. They were part of a group of employees who worked closely together and often exercised, played softball or had drinks when the day was done.

According to other Skillmaster employees, Salazar was good at his job, which included conducting safety audits and coordinating employee policies for Skillmaster's clients. Salazar was born and reared in Port Lavaca. After graduating from high school in 1981, he sacked groceries and stocked shelves at a supermarket until he saved enough money for college. He got a two-year degree in occupational health and safety from Texas State Technical College in Waco in 1984, then returned to Port Lavaca as an industrial hygienist at the Standard Oil plant. He held down that job while taking a full load of classes at the University of Houston in Victoria. He got a management degree from UH in 1986.

Salazar had eight years of experience as a safety and training director before joining Skillmaster in 1994. His previous job, for H-E-B grocery stores in San Antonio, had ended abruptly after nine months. In a recent deposition for the civil lawsuit, Salazar denied that there was any specific reason for his dismissal. He speculated that he was let go because he had already saved the company $10 million and H-E-B wanted to replace him "with somebody for $20,000 a year."

"I was told one day, things just weren't working out," Salazar said. "So, I could resign or be terminated. They didn't give me a reason."

At Skillmaster, Salazar earned a reputation as a demanding supervisor. He was fair, former co-workers say, but on occasion he could be uncompromising, especially when it came to punctuality. Every Monday, Salazar had a meeting at 7 a.m. Those who were late -- and Sandy often was -- felt the boss's wrath. "He would come down pretty hard on us, but then he'd come back and talk to everybody and everything would be fine," recalls Mark Ryman, who is now a vice president of operations for Skillmaster. "But Sandy would get pretty upset when Robert hollered at her."

At some point -- friends and family can't pinpoint the exact moment -- Orellana's complaints about Salazar became more frequent and more troubling. She said he had started to remark on her looks, telling her she had great legs or looked good in a particular dress. At other times, she told friends, Salazar would berate her mercilessly.

"One time she came home upset and said she started crying at work," says Dey Gonzalez-Lopez, who was Orellana's roommate. "He was humiliating her, belittling her in front of people at the office. She couldn't understand why he treated her that way."

Whether Salazar was a swine-ish nuisance or a threat, his behavior was making Orellana's life miserable. She even started taking medication for stress. But Orellana was also dealing with issues that seemed unrelated to her problems with Salazar. She couldn't decide whether to find another job or go back to school. Another option was to marry her boyfriend, Salim Zakhem, who was living in Hong Kong. When she found out Skillmaster was sending her to Los Angeles, Orellana arranged to leave from there to visit Zakhem and perhaps make a decision.

Sometime before that trip, Orellana went to see a psychiatrist. According to a letter written by the psychiatrist and sent to homicide investigators at her father's request, Orellana was feeling "somewhat insecure and had doubts about career versus marriage, work versus school." While her response to those issues was "in the range of normal," the psychiatrist noted that Orellana had complained about Salazar, calling him "a jerk." The exact nature of the problem was unclear.

"Sandra indicated she may be [going] to Los Angeles, but that after the trip, she will come back and talk further about a troubling situation," wrote the psychiatrist. "I was shocked to learn of her death. She was clearly trying to find a course in life that will bring satisfaction and peace."


When L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Gonzalez first encountered Robert Salazar outside room 813, the evidence still suggested the body on the hotel veranda was a suicide.

But Gonzalez began to suspect otherwise the moment Salazar crumpled in anguish at the mention of a "possible accident" involving Orellana. For one thing, Gonzalez hadn't told Salazar that Orellana was dead or even injured. For another, Salazar couldn't reasonably explain an inch-long scratch on his forehead. When asked about the wound, Salazar said that it must have happened when he lowered his head in his hands and began to sob.

Gonzalez questioned Salazar briefly about Orellana and elicited this story: Salazar said he last saw her around midnight. Orellana was quite drunk and needed help getting upstairs to her room. She complained of being warm, so Salazar opened the sliding glass door. He then retired to his own room, reminding Orellana as he left that they were meeting Hector Herrera, with whom they had dined earlier that evening, in the hotel lobby at 7 a.m.

Gonzalez looked up from his notes and asked Salazar if he had left anything behind, "clothes, jacket, shoes, underwear, that kind of thing."

No, Salazar replied. Gonzalez took Salazar down the hall to an empty room and told him to have a seat. Then the deputy radioed the LASD's office for a homicide team. By the time detectives Ray Rodriguez and Ron Bosket arrived at around 10 a.m., investigators from the coroner's office and the L.A. County crime lab were already gathering evidence. Rodriguez went to room 813, while Bosket sought out Hector Herrera in the hotel lobby.

According to Herrera, after tending to business all afternoon, Salazar and Orellana checked into the Industry Hills Sheraton at about 6:30 p.m. Herrera met them at the hotel a half hour later, then drove everyone to Montebello for dinner and "a little celebration" in honor of Sandy's birthday. He dropped them off at the hotel around 10 p.m. As planned, he was back the next day at 7 a.m., when he met Salazar in the lobby. They waited about 20 minutes for Orellana before Herrera suggested that Salazar call her. There was no answer, so Salazar left a message. He called again five minutes later and again got the answering service. "Come on, Sandy," he said. "We're waiting on you." Herrera told Bosket that Salazar then took the elevator up to the eighth floor, where he ran into Deputy Gonzalez outside room 813.

By noon, a little more than five hours after Orellana's body was discovered, the LASD homicide team knew Salazar wasn't telling them everything. Rodriguez had gotten Salazar's permission to search his room, where he found a pair of black Fruit of the Looms, size 30-32, which was a match for the men's underwear found in room 813. Rodriguez also found a match for the man's shoe found in Orellana's room. Moreover, one of Salazar's T-shirts was stained with what turned out to be human blood. Earlier, detectives had noticed spots of blood on the sheets on the unmade bed in 813.

One might ask what Salazar hoped to accomplish by attempting to set up an alibi after leaving his underwear and a shoe in Orellana's room. Nothing, says Mike Cash, Salazar's lawyer, he didn't know what he was doing.

"He just freaked," Cash says. "And the next morning, he woke up and prayed to God that it didn't happen. But it did."

Confronted with the evidence, Salazar told Bosket and Rodriguez he was ready to explain what really happened. They were both drunk, and once inside Orellana's room, they immediately began removing their clothes. Then, Salazar said, "we did what we did." Afterward, they agreed that having sex was a mistake. Salazar mumbled his apologies, picked up his clothes and left. Orellana was wearing only the beige camisole she had worn to dinner.

"How did she end up down there?" Rodriguez demanded.

"I don't know."

"Did you strangle her?"

"No."

"Did you choke her?"

"No. I didn't do any of that."

"When you say you didn't do "that,' what do you mean? You didn't throw her overboard?"

"I didn't I didn't. How she ended up there, I didn't do that. I know it doesn't look good, but I didn't do that."

Bosket asked if they had gone out on the balcony. "Just for a split second," Salazar replied, "because she was hot, and then we came right back in."

The physical evidence still didn't add up, Bosket insisted. If Salazar's story didn't soon start making sense, the detective suggested, "you're talking yourself into murder versus an accidental death."

"What is accidental death?" Salazar asked. "What is that?"

Bosket went on an extended riff about a 14-year-old boy, "messing around," who punched another kid just right and drove his nose into his brain, killing him. In the end, the kid got off, Bosket said, because he didn't cover anything up. "He just said, "This is what we were doing.' "

Rodriguez chimed in with the story of Charles Rathbun, who claimed he accidentally killed model and former Raiderette Linda Sobek while executing a driving maneuver. Rathbun, who had strangled Sobek and dumped her body in Angeles National Forest, talked himself into life without the possibility of parole, Rodriguez said. And the same forensic team that nailed Rathbun was on the Orellana case.

"So," Rodriguez asked, "what really happened, Robert?"


Four days after the L.A. County district attorney freed him, Robert Salazar resigned as general manager of Skillmaster Staffing Services at the company's request. He and his wife, Beth, sold their home in southwest Houston and moved to Metairie, Louisiana, with their two children. For the last three and a half years, Salazar has worked for a Metairie company that staffs doctors' offices and other specialized professions. He's the general manager, supervising 15 employees.

What has gone through Salazar's mind since Sandra Orellana fell from the balcony of room 813 is easy to imagine, but hard to know. He hasn't spoken about the case to anyone but his lawyer since Rodriguez and Bosket arrested him. Deposed twice by the Orellana family's civil attorney, Salazar took the Fifth Amendment to any question remotely related to the events of November 13, 1996, as well as any question having to do with his job at Skillmaster. By refusing to be deposed, Salazar probably will be prohibited from taking the stand at his civil trial. In Texas, attorneys must be given an opportunity to prepare for a witness's testimony.

Mike Cash, Salazar's attorney, says his client wishes he could tell his side of the story again. Cash describes Salazar as "the guy who made the mistake of a lifetime."

"He was in a hotel room with a woman not his wife," Cash says. "That wrong he committed, and the dues he's paid for it are higher than most people would have had to pay. Unfortunately, Sandy being in a room with a married man paid an ultimate price, but it was as tragic an accident as could be."

Cash says there is a whole set of facts that neither the Orellanas nor homicide investigators want to talk about. Indeed, two cocktail waitresses and a man in the eighth-floor hallway of the Industry Hills Sheraton told detectives that Orellana and Salazar were acting like a couple. One waitress said they were holding hands; the other said she saw Salazar stroke Orellana's cheek.

By the time they left the bar and rode the elevator to the eighth floor, their passion had grown, according to one William Boone, who checked into the hotel around midnight. Getting off the elevator, Boone walked between a black jacket and a purse on the floor. He looked to the right and saw a man and woman kissing. Boone didn't like that his room looked out over a golf course, so he returned to the front desk, ignoring the couple on the way down. Coming back to his room, Boone noticed the couple had retreated to an alcove down the hall, where they were strenuously exercising their mutual attraction. "I thought they were going to have sex right there in the hallway," Boone told detectives. Boone later identified Orellana, Salazar and the purse from police photos.

Cash says that testimony will shatter claims by the Orellana family that Sandy didn't like Salazar. "I think the thing that Robert is looking forward to -- and that's probably not the right term to use -- but Robert wants the chance at least to have 12 people look at [the evidence] and, frankly, reach the same thing the L.A. prosecutors apparently reached: that there is nothing there to blame this guy for.

"There are plenty of guys out there who shudder at the thought of something bad that could have happened to them. A traffic accident if they're with the wrong person or any of a number of things. Well, Robert's nightmare came true."

So did Sandra Orellana's.

In the early days of the investigation, homicide detectives in Los Angeles spent as much time retrieving messages and returning phone calls as they did gathering evidence. "After the incident, it would not be unusual for me to come to work and have in excess of 50 phone messages, from all over," says Ray Rodriguez.

Most of those calls were from reporters. But the LASD also received numerous tips that the Orellana family believes reflect the true nature of Sandy's relationship with Salazar. Christy Khyle, a close friend and sorority sister of Orellana's at Loyola, reported that Sandy wanted to file a sexual-harassment complaint against her boss, but didn't want to jeopardize a possible promotion.

Orellana's aunt, Olga Delgado, called the LASD to report that her niece "was not promiscuous" and had been so affected by her parents' divorce that she took her "exclusive relationship" very seriously. According to Delgado, Orellana had mentioned that Salazar was upset she was going to Hong Kong to see her boyfriend.

Charles Black, another college friend of Orellana's, told detectives he was "shocked" by the media's portrayal of Sandy. Black said that having sex with a married man, especially her boss on a hotel balcony, "seemed out of character" for Orellana.

Cash argues that such statements are transparently biased. What's more telling is that throughout the civil case's discovery process, he has seen no evidence to suggest his client was ever a threat to Orellana. "We've asked, we've waited," Cash says. "There has not been a single person who has testified, there's not a single record at any of his employers, where anybody has made any type of written or oral complaint. There's not a shred of evidence that he has ever sexually harassed anybody, ever."

Cash is liable to get some help on that issue from Skillmaster employees. Mark Ryman, the company's vice president of operations, says he "absolutely disagrees" with the Orellana family's allegations. "Sandy was always real sweet, kind, very friendly," Ryman says. "But nobody who was there at the time believed there was anything going on between her and Robert. I wonder to this day what went on out there, but I'm not sure we'll ever know."

While Ryman might not have a bias as strong as the Orellana family's, it's a bias nonetheless: He's got the job Salazar was about to be promoted to when he was arrested. Likewise, other Skillmaster employees are unlikely to dish up anything that might jeopardize their jobs.

That leaves the physical evidence, which is easily the dullest of all the elements in this ignoble tale. To be sure, it can't compare with the occasional request still taken at the front desk at the Industry Hills Sheraton for a night in room 813. However, every complex physics principle, every mind-numbing calculation involving drag forces and free-fall duration, will carry greater significance than all the speculation from both sides combined -- and in more ways than one, they will be much more revealing: Even if their lawyer means to destroy Salazar's story, Violeta and Hugo Orellana will be forced to watch repeated re-creations of it.

So will a jury. Unfortunately this has always been the story of the woman who died while having sex on a hotel balcony, and it may be expecting too much from any 12 people to ignore the question, Did she or didn't she? For Salazar, the answer could mean vindication or a future criminal prosecution. For the Orellana family, it could finally put to rest the Sandy they know or start them on the road to understanding who she might have been.

For homicide detectives in Los Angeles, the civil case may be nothing more than another long haul toward some version of the truth. Not in the case of lead investigator Ray Rodriguez, who, in the four years since Sandra Orellana's death, has spent thousands of man-hours figuring out where Robert Salazar went wrong. In the end, the answer wasn't all in the evidence.

"To me, from what I know of this case," says Ray Rodriguez, "consensual sex would be out of the question. There is just no way."by brian wallstinJoe Forkan

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