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It was the biggest media event of the new year, and Elena Cristiano was in her element. A crowd of more than a hundred reporters, photographers, politicos, and sports fans, along with a bank of television cameras, had turned out on the bayfront steps of the County Administration Building to hear her boss, San Diego mayor Dick Murphy, announce a curious alliance with his erstwhile political foe, county supervisor Ron Roberts. Cristiano, a striking, 30-ish brunette who had been the mayor's press secretary since he took office in December 2000, stood just off camera, taking in the scene with mayoral chief of staff John Kern. As they surveyed the assemblage on that sunny morning in mid January 2002, Cristiano would periodically lean her head close to Kern's and whisper something in his ear. Murphy and Roberts took the podium to announce that they were working on a secret way for the county to save the troubled downtown ballpark in case the latest courtroom challenge succeeded in blocking Murphy's city funding plan. After the presentation, Cristiano, dressed in an elegant black coat and a stylish purple turtleneck, rushed to congratulate the mayor; she stood at his side as he answered questions from lingering reporters. Afterward, she, Murphy, and Kern huddled near the Donal Hord fountain before heading back to the mayor's dark green SUV.

As it turned out, the legal threat to the ballpark soon evaporated, and Murphy did not need Roberts's help. But the media event held that January 23 would be remembered for another reason. It was one of the last times reporters would get a glimpse of Cristiano. Less than four weeks later, on February 19, the mayor issued a three-sentence news release, headlined "Mayor Murphy Makes Staff Changes." It said that "Mayor Dick Murphy today announced that Colleen Rudy has been appointed Press Secretary in place of Elena Cristiano who has been appointed Director of Communications.

"Ms. Rudy will be responsible for all press inquiries and media relations. Ms. Cristiano will be responsible for speech writing and special projects. 'I am pleased to announce these changes. I think these new assignments will strengthen our ability to communicate with the press and the public,' Mayor Murphy said."

Since that day, Cristiano has not been seen around city hall. Though she is listed on the mayor's website under the title "Director of Communications/Speechwriter" and her photograph appears there, her successor, Colleen Rudy, will not comment on her status nor her whereabouts, referring all questions about her to the city attorney's office. "That is a personnel matter," said Rudy. Deputy City Attorney Michael Rivo, to whom Rudy referred all questions, said he also won't confirm or deny that Cristiano is still on the mayor's payroll. "It involves a personnel matter, and that, at this point, would not be disclosable."

Finally, last week, in a telephone interview from her home in Poway, Cristiano broke weeks of self-imposed silence to answer some of the questions surrounding her abrupt, secrecy-shrouded departure from the city's most prominent and coveted public relations job. Guardedly, she shared a story that she said involves unspecified "legal issues" she has with mayoral chief of staff Kern, an ex-newspaper reporter, political consultant, and Murphy intimate since the 1970s, when Kern served as chief of staff to then-city councilman Murphy. Cristiano said she's consulting a lawyer about the matter but can't comment more directly until she and her attorney have had more time to evaluate her options.

"I need to talk to my attorney about the situation with the mayor's office," she said. "As you know, there have been some legal issues that have to be resolved legally between myself and specifically John Kern. Absolutely none of this has to do with my past. I did a great job. My last communication with the mayor was that my job was secure, and there was no reason for me to fear losing it."

Cristiano said she hasn't been into her city hall office for weeks and that she stopped receiving her $65,000 salary on the first of March but still considers herself the mayor's employee. "I hope to go back. I'm on state disability right now, but it's not through the city. I filed a workers' compensation claim, but the city's self-insured, so not surprisingly the city denied the claim. [State disability] is something separate, that your doctor has to say that the stress has caused physical harm."

She adds that she still regards Murphy as a friend and remains his loyal staffer, even though the mayor no longer is talking to her. "Well, that obviously concerns me, but in light of the situation, I'm trying to understand. I've served the mayor very well," she said. "I've always gotten along with Mayor Murphy. I'm a huge fan of him personally."

How did the 36-year-old Cristiano, who had never before worked for an elected official -- let alone in the high-profile position of press secretary to mayor of America's sixth-largest city -- get her job at city hall? That, she said, is a long story. She describes a life of early hardship, full of tumultuous relationships with a series of men. Those relationships began with her violently abusive adoptive father in Ohio, where she was born on September 2, 1965, and continued in her college days at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she said she fulfilled the graduation requirements but didn't receive a diploma because she owed the school money, to waitressing at Seau's, barely surviving on welfare, and finally a job with the "Pad Squad," cheerleaders for the San Diego Padres, where she met Padres executive Charles Steinberg, whom she now calls "my mentor and dear, dear friend."

Steinberg, she said, gave her the breaks she needed to help turn around her life, which had been marked by nasty physical confrontations with ex-boyfriends and a series of run-ins with the law, including, the record shows, two convictions for shoplifting in the early 1990s, allegations of personal battery, and a 1997 arrest by lifeguards at La Jolla Shores after a boardwalk donnybrook in which she allegedly struck a lifeguard in the head and questioned the size of his penis before being led away in handcuffs.

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