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HOUR AFTER HOUR THEY filed past the sturdy steel casket surrounded with thousands of long-stemmed white roses. In life, the 23-year-old pop phenomenon known as Selena, the reigning queen of Tex-Mex music, had enchanted fans with her danceable tunes. Now her tragic and bizarre murder had filled them with an almost inexpressible grief. As many as 50,000 mourners, some from as far away as California, Canada and Guatemala, converged on Bayfront Plaza Convention Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, last week to pay their final respects. Their sense of loss—and denial—was overwhelming. At one point a rumor swept the crowd that Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was still alive and that her coffin was empty. Finally, her family ordered the coffin opened briefly to confirm the unacceptable truth. And there she lay, her lips and long nails done in blood red, wearing a slinky purple gown.

The tragedy had begun to unfold just two days before, when, on the morning of March 31, Selena had gone to a room in the Days Inn motel in Corpus Christi to confront the former president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar, 34. Saldívar, suspected by Selena and her family of embezzling funds, was on the verge of being fired, and she knew it. Soon after Selena arrived, say police, Saldívar shot her once in the back with a 38-caliber revolver. The singer staggered to the motel lobby for help before collapsing and being rushed to a hospital. Saldívar was quickly cornered in the motel parking lot and for nearly 10 hours kept SWAT teams at bay as she sat in a pickup truck with a gun to her head, threatening suicide. According to Corpus Christi Assistant Police Chief Ken Bung, Saldívar "was expressing remorse all through the incident." Finally, police managed to coax her out of the truck and put her under arrest.

For Selena's family, who knew Saldívar well, the rush of events had a surreal quality. "The ultimate sorrow a human can feel is when someone dies," her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., told PEOPLE. "I felt like this was all a dream."

For Latin music enthusiasts, the most apt comparison was with the death of John Lennon. Selena was vastly talented, deeply adored. "This was not some sexy babe groomed by a record company," says author Enrique Fernandez, one of the nation's most respected critics of Latin music. "We'll never be sure of how far she could have gone." Though not yet widely known outside the Hispanic community, Selena was the undisputed superstar of Tejano music, a lively, Spanish-language blend of Tex-Mex rhythms, pop-style tunes and German polka that is hugely popular in Mexico and the Southwest. During the past several years, she had played live concerts to audiences of up to 80,000.

In 1994 she won a Grammy for best Mexican-American album, Selena Live. Touted by Latino critics as the next Madonna, she seemed on the verge of crossing over into mainstream stardom. Just this month she was scheduled to complete her debut English-language album, for which she had already recorded three songs. And she appears in the new Johnny Depp movie Don Juan DeMarco as a mariachi singer. But what Selena's core fans found as endearing as her talent was her utter lack of pretension. As one disc jockey told a group of 2,000 mourners at an impromptu memorial service in Corpus Christi, "She was from the barrio. She still ate tortillas and frijoles."

In fact, her background was not quite so simple. Selena was born in Lake Jackson, Texas, a blue-collar town outside Houston, the youngest of three children of Abraham Quintanilia Jr., now 55, and his wife, Marcela, 50. Quintanilla had a comfortable job as a shipping clerk at Dow Chemical, but his real passion was music. In his youth he had been a vocalist with a popular South Texas band called Los Dinos (slang for "the Boys"). When Selena first sang at the age of 6, he immediately recognized her talent. "Her timing, her pitch were perfect," he says. "I could see it from day one." She loved all music, everything from Little Anthony and the Imperials to country and western to Michael Jackson. For the time being, though, she confined herself to informal jam sessions with her brother Abraham III, now 31, and her sister Suzette, 27.

Then the family had some bad luck. In 1980, Quintanilla quit his job at Dow to open his own Tex-Mex restaurant in Lake Jackson, where his three children—Abraham III on bass, Suzette on drums and Selena singing—often performed. A year later the restaurant went under, a victim of the recession caused by the Texas oil bust. Suddenly the Quintanillas had lost their home, many of their possessions and, above all, their livelihood. "That's when we began our musical career," recalled Selena in 1992. "We had no alternative." And so the band, known as Selena y Los Dinos, began touring all over the back country of South Texas, playing everywhere from weddings to honky-tonks. "If we got 10 people in one place, that was great," said Selena, who was 9 when she hit the road. "We ate a lot of hamburgers and shared everything."

They traveled to gigs in the banged-up family van, with only one concession to comfort—a foldout bed in the back. An excellent student, Selena stopped going to school in eighth grade, though later she did earn a high school equivalency diploma through a correspondence course. Looking back on those hard times, she professed not to mind. "I lost a lot of my teenage period," she admitted. "But I got a lot out of it too. I was more mature."

Slowly, steadily, she and the band were also becoming more successful, graduating to ballrooms and cutting nearly a dozen albums for a small regional label. Their break came in 1987 when 15-year-old Selena won the Tejano Music Awards for female vocalist and performer of the year. There followed six increasingly successful albums, topped by Amor Prohibido (Forbidden Love) in 1994, which had been nominated for a Grammy and sold more than 500,000 copies.

The acclaim was not without its ironies. The first was the fact that Selena, the new princess of Latin pop, could barely speak Spanish. For each of her songs, most written by brother Abraham III, she learned the lyrics phonetically. It wasn't until the early 1990s that she even started taking Spanish lessons, which her father believed were necessary to help her promote her albums on Spanish-language radio and in interviews. Even after several years of practice, though, she still had trouble trilling her r's and spoke English with a classic Texas twang.

Her father, who was her manager, had encouraged Selena to learn Spanish. But he didn't care for Selena's evolving stage presence, which relied more and more on sexuality. Abraham Jr., a Jehovah's Witness, didn't like seeing his daughter dancing onstage in heavy makeup and bare-midriff costumes, but Selena overruled his objections. "I love shiny things and I love clothing," she said.

Unknown to her fans, she also loved Chris Pérez, now 25, the band's guitar player, whom she married in 1992. Quintanilla wanted to hush up the wedding, fearful that it might undermine her youthful image. Instead, her popularity only grew, fueled not only by her talent but also by her rapport with ordinary people. Though she and her family came to be worth an estimated $5 million, all but Suzette continued to live in three adjoining houses in the same lower-middle-class neighborhood of Corpus Christi to which they had moved in 1981. One of the few signs of affluence that Selena allowed herself was the red Porsche Carerra she kept parked in the driveway.

The person responsible for helping to nurture that image was Yolanda Saldívar. In 1991, Saldívar had approached Quintanilla about forming a fan club for Selena. In the past the family had resisted similar overtures from others if only because they wanted to keep a tight rein on such things. In some respects the short, heavy-set Saldívar seemed an unlikely candidate to take on the task. Born to a large family, Saldívar was a loner who lived in a modest house near San Antonio, where she worked as a registered nurse at two nearby hospitals.

Never married, she had no children of her own but took custody of three of her brother's children after he abandoned them. "She never talked about having any boyfriends," says Esmeralda Garza, the former secretary of the Selena Fan Club. "She never had time." Other than the fact that she was the aunt of a childhood friend of Selena's, no one in the singer's family knew much about her. Yet her enthusiasm won over the Quintanillas, and in 1991 she was given the unpaid job of founding the fan club.

In an interview shortly after Saldívar was hired, Selena raved about her. "She's doing exceptionally well," she said. "Fan clubs can ruin you if people get upset and turned off by them. But she's doing really good." Selena showed her gratitude by showering Saldívar with gifts. "Yolanda was crazy about spotted cows," says Garza. "So Selena bought an $800 rug with a cow on it. She bought her a cow phone in Los Angeles. They really splurged on her." For her part, Saldívar seemed utterly devoted to Selena, almost to a fault. According to one acquaintance, she turned her home into a virtual shrine that included, among other things, a life-size cardboard Selena cutout over which Saldívar draped backstage passes from her concerts.

The two soon became close friends. Then eight months ago, Selena promoted Saldívar to a paid position, putting her in charge of the singer's new business venture, Selena Etc. Inc. The company had opened one shop in Corpus Christi last year and another in San Antonio earlier this year. In addition to selling Selena's signature line of fashions and jewelry, the shops feature salons for hairstyling and manicures. Selena Etc. was also involved in merchandising its products to other stores. Saldívar worked hard, but it wasn't long before she began to have problems with other employees. Designer Martin Gomez had been brought in to help produce the fashion lines. But, says Gomez, 30, "from the beginning there was such tension between Yolanda and myself. She was mean, she was manipulative." Finally last January, Gomez quit in exasperation. "I told Selena I was scared of Yolanda," he says. "She wouldn't let me talk to Selena anymore. She was very possessive."

Evidently out of loyalty, Selena did nothing. Then two months ago, her father began receiving calls from some of Selena's fans. They complained that they had sent in their $22 membership fee to the fan club of some 2,000 members but hadn't received any of the promised premiums, such as T-shirts and cassettes. Quintanilla confronted Saldívar about the matter, but she insisted nothing was wrong. "She was just as cool as a cucumber," he says.

Then about three weeks ago, Selena was told by several employees of her San Antonio salon that Saldívar appeared to be taking money from the business. The two had a heated confrontation during which Saldívar denied any wrongdoing. She claimed she had documents that would prove her innocence, but she stalled when she was asked to produce them. Finally, at the end of March, she called Selena to say she had the papers. On Thurs., March 30, Saldívar phoned Selena to tell her she was staying in a Days Inn. She wanted the singer to come to the motel—alone—to discuss the matter. Instead, Selena went with her husband, Chris; they returned home several hours later, apparently after Saldívar claimed she didn't have the needed documents after all.

What happened the next day is unclear. Selena left home at 9 a.m. that Fri., March 31, and at some point dropped by the Days Inn again. At 11:50 police received a 911 call reporting a shooting at the motel. Selena was rushed to the hospital, which alerted her father. Doctors reportedly gave her five pints of blood over the objections of Quintanilla who insisted that such procedures violated the principles of his daughter's religion. Selena died an hour later.

Quintanilla is convinced that Saldívar deliberately plotted to kill Selena. According to the Bexar County sheriffs office, Saldívar, who is being held on $100,000 bond, bought the murder weapon in San Antonio on March 13, just as the Quintanillas were raising questions about her activities. "I know Selena was set up. This was premeditated," says Selena's father, Abraham Jr. "Saldívar got caught with her hand in the cookie jar."

But others aren't so sure that Saldívar was worried about losing her job or her income. Esmeralda Garza and her husband, Ernest, are convinced that Saldívar's motive was less obvious—and perhaps more pathetic. "Saldívar could have been fired by Selena and gone and gotten her old job back. She was doing well as a nurse," says Esmeralda. "She probably couldn't accept the fact that she wasn't going to be around Selena anymore."

BILL HEWITT
JOSEPH HARMES in Corpus Christi and BOB STEWART in San Antonio

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Bob Stewart.