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."