A Deadly Passion

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.

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.

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Brian Wallstin