The untold truth of Selena Quintanilla's murder

On March 31, 1995, the life of a promising young pop star was snuffed out, callously taken by a friend and colleague whom the singer had trusted with her livelihood. Texas-born beauty Selena Quintanilla was being billed as the Latin Madonna at the time, not only because she also adopted a single moniker (professionally known simply as Selena), but because her style, sex appeal and instantly recognizable voice had made her an icon across northern Mexico and the southern US. The queen of Tejano music  (a fusion of polka, country and jazz popular in and around Texas) never got the chance to expand her reign to other corners of the world, gunned down in cold blood aged just 23 with her star on the rise. Today, more than two decades later, the millions who loved Selena's music and looked to her as a role model still mourn her loss and still revile her killer. This is the untold truth of her tragic murder.

The fan club

Selena was shot and killed by a woman she had known and trusted for some time, a woman named Yolanda Saldivar. A fellow Latina and a keen Tejano music fan, Saldivar became obsessed with Selena after seeing her perform live, turning her apartment into a "shrine" to the singer according to a former roommate. Wanting to be more closely involved with her career, Saldivar contacted Selena's parents to ask about starting up a fan club.

Selena's father Abraham Quintanilla agreed and named Saldivar president of the club, which would later lead to a managerial position in Selena's budding chain of boutique stores, Selena Etc. The no-nonsense Saldivar was popular within the family to begin with (she even claimed that Selena would call her mom when they spoke on the phone) but things started to sour when money began going missing.

After personally receiving complaints from fan club members as well as customers and staff at the two Selena Etc. stores, Abraham tallied the books and was shocked to find that $30,000 was unaccounted for, embezzled by the woman in charge of it all. "My daughter Selena was killed this morning by a disgruntled employee," her distraught father told reporters from the Memorial Medical Center shortly after 1:00PM. "There were discrepancies with the fan club, and they resulted in the shooting of Selena."

Saldivar set a trap

Saldivar denied any wrongdoing when she was quizzed about stealing from the family, but, according to a report in the New York Times, she put a $100 deposit down on a handgun just two days after being confronted. Realizing the jig was up, she arranged to meet Selena at a Days Inn motel in the singer's hometown of Corpus Christi, telling her that she needed to explain herself in person. She took the gun with her, however, and when she learned that Selena had come to fire her, she pulled it from her purse.

Selena was shot in the back as she fled the room, the bullet penetrating just below the right shoulder blade and severing a vital artery. She carried on running, however, and was able to make the considerable distance to the motel lobby in time to name the culprit. Days Inn receptionist Shawna Vela later described how the Hispanic superstar left a trail of blood hundreds of feet long behind her as she escaped and then collapsed in front of her desk. Vela told the court that Selena screamed: "She shot me. She's in room 158. Lock the door or she'll shoot me again." The last word the dying singer got out before she lost consciousness was "Yolanda."

The standoff

As if naming her wasn't enough, Selena collapsed clutching a diamond ring that had been a gift from Saldivar, leaving very little doubt about what had happened to her. Authorities would later deduce that Selena had been in the process of giving the ring back when the disgruntled employee lost it and opened fire. After the shooting, Saldivar made for her getaway vehicle but was promptly boxed into the parking lot by a number of police, who had responded quickly when news of what had happened (and to whom it had happened) reached them. The suspect immediately turned her weapon on herself and threatened to commit suicide on the spot, leading to a standoff with authorities that lasted almost 10 hours.

Saldivar sat at the wheel of a red pickup truck she had borrowed from her nephew with her pistol against her temple as trained officers attempted to talk her into surrendering. By the time they managed to convince her to put the gun down and step out of the vehicle, a huge crowd had gathered at a gas station just across the street, despite the rainy weather. TV crews and reporters mingled with fans, many of them young women who wept and prayed as they listened to Selena's music on boomboxes and car radios.

The trial was huge

If it weren't for the fact that it took place during the same year as O.J. Simpson's sensational murder trial, Selena's shooting would have been the biggest story of 1995 by far. "Though it is too soon for another trial of the century, more than 80 news organizations are set to cover the trial," Newsweek reported at the time. "Judge Mike Westergren, though, has denied Court TV's request to air the trial." Fans of the murdered star were up in arms about the decision to keep proceedings private, but Westergren was wary of the intense publicity the case was getting, and in the interest of a fair trial he moved it away from Selena's hometown.

Houston was chosen as a new location, but it soon became evident that Houston wasn't far enough. While the trial wasn't going to be shown on TV, there was no rule against broadcasting Selena's funeral, and news stations around the world beamed out images of 30,000 mourners turning out to grieve. The family even had to use an open casket to dispel rumors that the whole thing had been staged, such were the levels of denial among her supporters. It was literally the only story being covered by Mexican news stations at the time, and the shock spread north through the States, meaning that by the time Saldivar went to trial there wasn't a town within hundreds of miles of Texas that didn't have her in their crosshairs.

Saldivar claimed it was an accident

It was during those 10 hours spent at loggerheads in a Days Inn parking lot that Saldivar first gave her version of the events that took place in room 158, explaining to officers that she had fired on Selena by accident as she was inexperienced with a firearm. According to Saldivar, it was she who told Selena that she intended to bring their working relationship to an end, which caused the singer to throw herself at the older woman's feet.

"It's over Selena, I can't work for you no more," she claimed to have said in reply. "She went down, she grabbed my feet, and told me not to leave her," Saldivar continued, "and when she was walking to the door, she was going at an angle. I told her, 'Don't close the door.' And in that instant, the gun went off." While it seems an unlikely story, the fact that police failed to include it in their official statement almost blew up in their faces come the trial.

It was Corpus Christi police officers that made the arrest, though the Texas Rangers were also called out to the scene, and one caused a stir when he told the court that Saldivar wasn't happy about the wording of the confession put to her by police. "She hesitated to sign the statement because it didn't have the word 'accident' or 'accidental,'" Ranger Robert Garza said. "It didn't reflect what she had stated, according to her."

The jury didn't buy it

Forced confession or not, the jury simply didn't buy Saldivar's 'the gun just went off' story. Her defense attempted to paint a picture of sloppy local police work and blamed the whole event on Selena's overbearing father—Saldivar alleged that Abraham Quintanilla hated her, spread rumors that she was a lesbian and even accused him of raping her, which he denied. In the end, her lawyer called a total of five witnesses (three motel staff members, a policeman and Saldivar's seventh-grade teacher) while the prosecution called 33, presenting more than 120 exhibits to the jurors.

One such witness was Days Inn housekeeper Norma Martinez, who testified that she saw a wounded Selena fleeing room 158 with Saldivar yelling "bitch" at her as she gave pursuit. Interestingly, Martinez (who, as the defense pointed out, was herself a convicted thief) did not mention Saldivar cursing in her police statement, but the way the trial was going meant the jury didn't need any embellishment to make up their minds. They found the defendant guilty of murder in less than two hours of deliberation.

Luckily for Saldivar, the death penalty was off the table because the killing lacked the aggravating circumstances of a capital crime. That didn't seem to comfort her, however. When asked if she had anything to say about the guilty verdict, Saldivar replied "No, sir," and then wept as the judge sentenced her to life in prison without possibility of parole for 30 years.

Early release rumors

In 2014, a fake news story appeared online claiming that Saldivar was going to be released from prison due to her "failing health and recent legal modifications," sending Corpus Christi residents into meltdown. My San Antonio reported a flurry of worried activity on social media after the bogus article was published, writing that "Selena has more power to break the Internet than Kim Kardashian" in their part of the world. While they were able to successfully reassure readers that the stories about her release were false on that occasion, mySA would later break news that, while she wasn't about to get out, Saldivar was actually working hard on her appeal.

She isn't eligible for parole until 2025, but according to the man who prosecuted her in 1995, the convicted killer is taking a new angle of appeal and plans to represent herself. "[Saldivar is] saying that the defense counsel failed or refused to interview witnesses and introduce any exculpatory physical evidence," Carlos Valdez said. When approached for comment, Selena's father said that Saldivar is safer in prison because "not many people like her" on the outside. Abraham refused to discuss the matter at length, however, telling reporters that nothing they did to Saldivar would bring his daughter back to life.

Was Selena pregnant?

In 2016, Saldivar gave a rare TV interview from behind bars, elaborating on a part of her story that had previously been dismissed as rumor—Selena was pregnant when she shot her. The singer's confidante-turned-killer claims that she promised Selena she would "take this secret to the grave" after overhearing her mention to a friend that she was with child. "People that don't want to know the personal life of Selena, and only care about the celebrity aspect, are not doing her any justice," Saldivar told RTS (via Vivala), "because she suffered a lot."

Saldivar went on to explain that the Selena the fans knew was not the same woman that she saw struggling with the weight of expectation on her shoulders, both professionally and personally. "The public believes that Selena was always so happy and cheerful but she wasn't," she said. "I saw her cry." This depressive behavior was news to Chris Perez, however, Selena's husband.

The Grammy Award-winning rocker (who was a member of Selena's backing band Los Dinos) has always rubbished claims that his wife was pregnant at the time of her death, and has grown increasingly annoyed with rumors about Selena's private life over the years. "There were some things that were just ridiculous," he said. "What bothered me is that they said it like it was so matter of fact, like, I know this is true. And it really p***** me off."

Disney is developing a TV show about the murder

The true crime genre has seen a spike in popularity in recent years thanks to the success of Netflix series Making A Murderer, and with a second season of that wildly popular documentary series about the potentially wrongful imprisonment of Steven Avery (the latest evidence points towards Teresa Halbach's boyfriend as her killer) on the way, it isn't going away for a while yet. Disney, keen to muscle in on the action, is making a series about Selena's life and death, and her family are less than pleased about the project.

This is because Disney will base the show on Selena's Secret: The Revealing Story Behind Her Tragic Death by a journalist María Celeste Arrarás, whom Selena's sister has called "full of crap." Suzette Quintanilla claims the book is "based on a whole bunch of lies," but the award-winning reporter maintains that the story she heard from sources was a "very different story" to the one peddled by her family after the murder. "It turns out that in the months prior to her death, Selena was not as happy as many thought," Arrarás said. "She was living through a tumultuous moment, since she was surrounded by people that loved her but that wanted to manipulate her."

Telemundo have also been developing a series based on Selena's Secret, though they are already in hot water over it. The Spanish-language network has received a flood of criticism after the trailer dropped, showing Selena's final moments in graphic detail.

J-Lo already played Selena in a biopic

Two years after the murder, an up-and-coming Hispanic talent named Jennifer Lopez was cast as the Tejano queen herself in Selena, a movie biopic that concentrates on the late star's relationship with her family and rise to fame rather than her sad demise at Saldivar's hand. Both the film and the leading lady were well received by critics, with The Hollywood Reporter heaping on the praise in their review. "What makes this movie work is Jennifer Lopez's electric performance as Selena, capturing the charismatic aspects of Selena's stage persona and the essence of her maturity as a growing woman."

2017 marked the two decade anniversary of Selena's release, and Lopez (who went on to do what most assumed Selena would and break into the mainstream American market) hasn't forgotten what that role did for her career. The singer and actress sat down with Billboard to discuss what playing her hero meant to her, despite never having gotten the chance to meet her. "This amazing, beautiful spirit, full of joy and music and so much feeling, just was cut off in the middle of being," she told the music mag. "She had a sense of living in the moment, living in the present and following her heart. For me, that was the biggest lesson."