The Other Murder Trial

THE BULLET THAT KILLED SELENA Quintanilla-Perez on March 31 weighed less than one ounce and cost about 25 cents. Just before 11:50 a.m., in room 158 of the Days Inn motel in Corpus Christi, Texas, the bullet struck Selena below her right shoulder blade, slashing through a major artery. Shot by the woman who considered herself Selena's closest confidante, the bullet ended the life of the most promising star in the world of Tejano music. In most of the country, as news reports showed 30,000 mourners passing by her coffin -- left open to dispel rumors that she was not really dead -- the shooting revealed for the first time how huge the 23-year-old's audience was, and how passionate.

This week in Houston, the woman who fired the bullet, Yolanda Saldivar, 35, goes on trial for murder. She has pleaded not guilty. Though it is too soon for another trial of the century, more than 80 news organizations are set to cover the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks. Judge Mike Westergren, though, has denied Court TV's request to air the trial.

The broad facts of the case are not in dispute. Saldivar worked for Selena, first launching her fan club and then becoming her personal assistant and running her Selena Etc. boutiques in San Antonio and Corpus Christi. On the morning of March 31, Saldivar met Selena in Saldivar's motel room. The two argued. Selena's father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., had accused Saldivar of embezzling money from the fan club (Quintanilla has since filed charges; the case is under investigation). He had also, said Saldivar, called her a lesbian. In the motel, Saldivar produced a .38 caliber handgun that she had bought legally in San Antonio two weeks earlier, pulled back the hammer and, in the words of district attorney Carlos Valdez, "caused the death of Selena with a firearm." Saldivar ran into her red GMC truck, turned the gun on herself and held the police at bay for nine and a half hours before surrendering. In custody, she signed a confession.

What could be more clear-cut? But in a pretrial hearing, Texas Ranger Robert Garza challenged the confession. According to Garza, Saldivar told police that she had first pointed the gun at her own head, then shot Selena by accident when Selena started to walk out. Despite Saldivar's objections, he says, police refused to include her claim that the gun discharged by accident. Doug Tinker, Saldivar's attorney, is likely to make the most lurid copy probing the tangled relationships between Selena, Saldivar and Abe Quintanilla. Saldivar is described variously as an "evil little midget" -- by Martin Gomez, an ex-designer for Selena's clothing line -- and also as obsessively devoted to Selena, turning her bedroom into a shrine to the singer. She also had a dicey financial past: in 1983, a dermatologist she worked for filed suit accusing her of "manipulating account books"; the suit was settled. Quintanilla is known as a visionary manager but also a domineering man; Selena often had to soothe associates that he insulted. He refuses to discuss Saldivar: "I don't want to give her the time of day. She betrayed Selena." And Selena was the beloved butterfly who, according to her brother, A.B., "had no friends," who relied on Saldivar and was not afraid to defy her father: against his wishes, she married her guitarist Chris Perez three years ago at city hall, without family present. The day before she died, she told her mother and sister she wanted to have a baby.

The Selena Etc. boutiques in Corpus Christi and San Antonio will be closed during the trial. Meanwhile, the Selena business continues apace. Casting for the Selena movie will begin in the next few months. The family also plans to release three or four concert videos, an expanded fashion and cosmetics line, a biography, maybe even Selena dolls. "I haven't had time to mourn my daughter," says Quintanilla. And in Corpus Christi, visitors from as far away as Honolulu still come to visit her grave or her home. "People are still in denial that she's not here," says Jerry Inocencio, 22, of the Corpus Christi station Club 98.3-FM. "It's like when Elvis died, people want to grab on to something. She's what we wanted to grab on to."