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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."

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