Was Veronica Salazar strung up like a piñata and beaten to death in Michigan? Does anybody care? When the San Diego mother of three was murdered last September 1, the event rated 74 words in the Associated Press.
"Cadillac, Michigan: Authorities are continuing to investigate the slaying of a 36-year-old woman at a rest area. Veronica Salazar, of the San Diego area, was killed sometime Tuesday. She was last seen in the Cadillac area Monday evening. Police are releasing few details on the killing because the investigation is still in progress. The last time Ms. Salazar was seen, she was carrying a small green backpack and carrying a white plastic garbage sack."
Two months later, in San Ysidro, they haven't forgotten. "Who did that?" says Estela Hernandez, Veronica's mom. Tears spring to her eyes. "Justice! We must find out. Not just to let this crime go."
"[The newspapers] just put out, 'Oh, it was a Hispanic homeless person, we'll put it on the back page,' " says Veronica's sister, Arcelia. "A homeless person is always somebody by the trash can. They're homeless, they're nobody."
We're sitting in Mrs. Hernandez's San Ysidro apartment, part of the blue and gray Vista Terrace Hills complex. Facing us is a large framed color picture of Veronica. She gazes down on us from above the novenario altar set up in her honor. She looks like a saint. The candles and the large wooden cross and the white sheet beneath the votive candles are the setting for nine days of prayers to help her transit to heaven, because, as her mother says, she "didn't have time to confess."
The loving tribute contrasts with Veronica's violent death 2000 miles away, in the woodlands between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Two miles out of the farming town of Cadillac (population around 10,000), at a highway rest stop, someone beat her and strangled her with a rope in what police there are calling a particularly vicious murder.
The news took a day to come south. Wednesday, September 2, Estela and Arcelia, a copy operator with a legal copying company, were about to go to the store.
"We saw two guys coming [to the door]," says Arcelia. "My mama thought they were from a Bible [group]. So she said, 'Tell them to come back later. Not right now, because I have to go to the store.'"
"And they go, 'This is very important, so it had better be now.' They showed [Mom] a picture. They said, 'Is this Veronica Salazar?' Mom broke down. I'm here going, 'What?' And they say that they had found [Veronica] murdered up in Michigan. That's how we found out. I'm like, 'Oh my God!' "
It was worse when they found out how Veronica had died.
"Cranial cerebral trauma, and suspension asphyxia," says Dr. John G. Steigerwald, Cadillac's Mercy hospital pathologist who completed the death certificate's "cause of death" section. "Both of those mechanisms are listed in the death report as a cause of death because the occurrences were almost simultaneous, and they both contributed to her death."
"[This kind of murder] is the only one in this area that I can find since the keeping of history that matches the same circumstances. I have never seen a case like this," says Detective Don Fowler, of the Michigan State Police, speaking by phone from Cadillac.
"Death was caused by multiple head trauma and strangulation. She was alive during both," he says. "[The body was discovered by] an employee of the Michigan Department of Transportation. We believe [the murder] occurred at the rest stop [where she was found]."
Outside of that Fowler is tight-lipped. Does he feel the murder was committed by someone in town or out of town? "The investigation is still ongoing."
Was she sexually assaulted? "The investigation is still ongoing."
Yes, other agencies have been brought in, including "the FBI, Wexford County Sheriff's Department, and multiple posts from the Michigan State Police."
Can he report progress in the search for a suspect? "The investigation is still ongoing."
But what was Salazar doing up in Cadillac in the first place?
"I don't know," says her mom, Estela. "She had no money, no nothing. She was homeless. She had been homeless for a year. They threw her out of her apartment [on Dairy Mart Road] a year ago."
Representatives from Michigan social services confirm she had been wandering around the town for two days at the end of August. She was picked up twice, once on an off-ramp, when she was released after claiming she had a car that had broken down. Then again, in town. Sheriffs brought in a social worker to evaluate her. This was Monday, August 31. Salazar was examined, declared not to be a danger to herself or others, and ordered released.
The next day she was dead.
She hadn't always been a street person. As a child, Veronica Salazar had been one of the most promising of Mrs. Hernandez's eight children. "She was quiet," Mrs. Hernandez says. "But she was intelligent. She went to Silver Wing elementary, Montgomery Junior High-Middle School, and Montgomery High School. When she was 14, 15, 16, she was [helping run] a McDonald's. She had her own car."
That was part of the trouble, her sister Arcelia believes. "She grew up too quick; 15 years old and she was a manager at the McDonald's in San Ysidro before the July 1984 massacre. If she wanted anything, she'd go for it. She was a smart person. And [when she grew up] she had a good job. In Mission Valley she was an accountant. She had an apartment with good furniture. She liked the good things. I went to her work one day. I go, 'God, how neat!' An accounting firm. I can't remember its name. She was very talented. That's why we don't understand."
Drugs could have been a factor. "I know she used cocaine, years ago," says Arcelia. "And the father of Miguel [Veronica's 18-year-old son] is dead. He [was involved] with drugs. He was killed."
But Arcelia says it was Veronica's obsessive love for the father of her second child Juliana -- who's sitting here today, playing with her pet rabbit, Cuddles -- that began her spiral 11 years ago. "When she had Juliana, she started [going into] depressions. Post-partum blues. But not just that. I know she was very, very much in love with Juliana's dad. But he got married [to another, richer woman]. He wanted money. Veronica really went into a depression.
"We started noticing that she was getting paranoid, [believing] that somebody was trying to kill her. She even accused my brother Albert, who lives in San Jose. 'Yeah! He tried to kill me.' My brother goes, 'Veronica, you're dumb. If I wanted to kill you, you would have been dead!' That's how it started. It started escalating, getting worse."
"Always, Veronica was walking, walking," says Estela. "Sometimes no shoes. I gave her a backpack. Green with a brown suede bottom."
She brings out one similar to the pack Veronica's body was found with from a closet near the novenario altar.
"They should have put her in a hospital. She was chemically unbalanced, and they had her [diagnosed]as a paranoid schizophrenic," Arcelia says. "She would go out to the burger places over in Imperial Beach and come back saying, 'They put something in my hamburger and I'm going to blow their restaurant up because their food's no good.' Things like that, just off the wall. We could tell when she was on medication and when she was not. On it, she could have a nice conversation with you, calm, without any foul language, nothing of blowing up this and that. And when she wasn't on it, you could tell right away. And the police say, 'We can't do nothing.' California law. She had to admit herself for treatment. Except, according to her, she was fine. And then I go, 'How could she admit herself if she's not in her right mind? Isn't there anything you can do for her?' "
Estela says the final chapter started two years ago when Veronica gave birth to her youngest -- in her apartment.
"She gave labor by herself," says Estela. "[She put] the placenta in the refrigerator."
"The [apartment] manager happened to find out because he went to go check something in the apartment, and he opened the door, and he sees Veronica with the baby," says Arcelia. "And they call [Child] Protective Services and the police. She didn't have no food in there. She didn't have nothing in there. But she didn't want to let the people know that she had the baby, [because] they'd take it away. And that's what they did. They took the baby away."
"Then, one year ago, they took away her Social Security [benefits] too," says Estela.
"They took it away because they said she was fine," says Arcelia. "And she wasn't. But according to them she was fine. She didn't need that aid no more."
"I went and [begged] them, 'Give her the Social Security back,' " says Estela. "She's homeless. And someday she'll get killed in the street.' And they don't do anything. They don't care nothing. A lot of times Veronica goes to Social Security to [look for help]. And the police throw her out on the street. And I tell this to [Chula Vista Social Security claims representative Alberto] Villaseñor. And Villaseñor says, 'Oh, sometimes I go and help her.' [But] you know they throw her out [because she's] homeless and dirty."
On the phone, Villaseñor says Richard Chester, district manager of the Chula Vista office of the Social Security Administration, must address the issue. "She was suspended in September 1997," acknowledges Chester. But he says that happened only after repeated requests for her to come in for an updated evaluation.
"She'd been receiving benefits since 1989. She was called in for a 'continuing disability investigation.' This is set up so we can see if they're still disabled. We tried to get her to come in for an interview, with no response. There were a good many attempts, and no response, [so] we had to suspend her benefits, which we don't do lightly. We realize people are really dependent on [the money], and we try to go through normal administrative procedures before we do this. It's a last-line thing, basically to get them to come in so we can do this investigation. And even then she didn't respond for several months. Her benefits were terminated.
"I agree, it's a tragedy. Maybe we had something to do with it because we weren't paying her. I'm not sure. There's not much I can do about that. But I understood that even before, she was moving around the country some. It could have happened [because of] the kind of company she kept or the places she went. It's a shame."
Chester says Social Security has accepted claims for Veronica's three children since her death.
Ironically, last June, Veronica had seen a flicker of hope on the horizon. She had landed a job.
"It was at the Food Palace [market] in National City," says Arcelia. "She started buying clothes for it, because she didn't have any clothes. I gave her some stuff that I had, that my sisters gave, because they didn't fit them. She took a couple of pants, and some shoes that were there. But they must have found out that she wasn't in her right mind, because after one month, they asked her to leave."
Veronica had already shown she could travel. "Two months [ago] she called me collect," says Arcelia. "I answer, 'Hello?' She goes, 'Oh! Arcelia, do you have any money?' I go, 'No, Veronica, not right now. I don't get paid until next week. Why? Where are you?' She goes, 'Oh, I'm here in Sacramento.' And I go, 'What? What are you doing in Sacramento?' She goes, 'I don't know, but I want to go home.' A week after, she was here. I have no idea how she got money."
The last time Arcelia heard from her sister was on her answering machine in early August. "I didn't know where she was calling from. She goes, 'Arcelia! Arcelia! Are you there? Come on the phone!' "
"The [police] wouldn't tell me exactly where they found the body," says Jenny Gray, a reporter for the Cadillac News. "I went back [to the rest stop where Veronica was found] and hiked around the whole property, looking for grass matted down, or something [indicating] where it might have happened. There must be 20, 30 apple trees back there. I didn't find anything. Nothing."
Local police say there was a big thunderstorm the evening Veronica was killed, with heavy rains that washed away a lot of evidence. But according to Gray, the town's not too worried: Veronica was homeless, from far away, and was apparently killed beyond town boundaries, probably in a chance encounter.
And yet there's the horror of the way she was killed.
"He must have beaten her like a piñata," says Gray.
The thought takes a moment to absorb. Could it be possible that someone had strung Veronica Salazar up and beaten her to death?
No way, says Sergeant Jeff Herweyer of the Michigan State Police in Cadillac. "Bad information. The rope was around her neck. [But] it's not like she was hanging from a tree. She was not hanging like a piñata."
Yet according to Cadillac's Mercy Hospital pathologist Steigerwald, the death was due to "cranial cerebral trauma, and suspension asphyxia."
Back in San Ysidro, Veronica's mom Estela sits looking at the picture above the novenario altar. "She was right here, the last time I saw her," she says. "Three or four weeks before. And I get mad. I say to her, 'Don't bother me!' I never saw her again."
She holds out a letter from the San Diego Housing Commission dated the day after Veronica's death. "9/2/98. Dear Veronica Salazar: your request for a hearing has been granted [for] Monday September 21, 1998, 11:00 a.m..."
"Too late," she says. "We are all too late."