Friday, April 19

Former KGBT anchor, friend of Selena, remembers covering scene of her death

HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — March 31, 1995 started as a normal day for Irma Garza.

She was in her second month covering the Rio Grande Valley as an anchor/reporter for the KGBT CBS 4 news team and was ready for another typical news day.

Then, reports on the radio indicated there was a tragedy in Corpus Christi. Selena Quintanilla had been shot at a motel.

Amidst the initial shock, the KGBT news team planned how they would cover this event. Then-news director Pahl Shipley decided he wanted to send a reporter to the scene in Corpus Christi. He called on Garza to take on the task.

“He asked if I have a change of clothes and a credit card.. and I did, so he sent us off in the news van,” said Garza.

Garza and photographer JD DeLeon made the multi-hour trip to Corpus Christi with little information on what they were about to witness.

“The whole time we were driving there was a sense of disbelief that this was happening,” said Garza. “When we were stopped at the [Border Patrol] checkpoint, the agents even asked us if that’s where we were going [to the scene of the shooting.]”

Shortly before they arrived at the Days Inn motel, Selena was pronounced dead. Garza and DeLeon joined a large crowd of Selena fans and media members.

“There was an enormous amount of people that were there waiting to see what happened and how [Selena] was doing,” said Garza.

Even though Selena had been pronounced dead at a local hospital, the scene at the motel was still not clear. The murder suspect, Yolanda Saldivar, barricaded herself in her truck and threatened to shoot herself, prompting a standoff between her and the police.

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During the hours-long standoff, Garza said it began to rain, creating an eery suspenseful silence where only the sound of rain could be heard among the large crowd.

“The people would not leave, even in the rain,” said Garza. “They didn’t start to leave until they got Yolanda out of the truck. At that point it was quiet then someone yelled ‘They got her!’ and when they took her down the cheers erupted.”

Garza and DeLeon stayed there the entire day covering the scene and even spent the night at a motel across the street from the shooting. The following day, they collected interviews from Selena’s fans and her family.

The death personally struck Garza as she had known Selena and her family since the singer was 12. Garza had previously worked for a Tejano radio station and had the opportunity to do interviews, live remotes, and work at concerts with Selena several times.

“She was something else. She was a happy person, always smiling. I never saw her upset or lose her cool,” said Garza. “She was living the best life that she could. She got to do so much even though it wasn’t enough time. She was a gift to us.”

Despite her connection to one of the most iconic Tejano singers of all time, Garza was able to set aside her emotions to deliver the news.

“I’ve always been able to separate my personal life from the job. I felt a huge responsibility to give the public updates on what was happening,” said Garza. “I’m really proud of our leadership at Channel 4 for having the foresight to understand what this meant to the valley.”

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Garza was the only RGV reporter at the scene and was able to deliver a live shot on the day of the shooting and bring back a news package for the next day’s 5 p.m. newscast.

Irma Garza is the public relations officer for the city of Harlingen but still vividly remembers that infamous day 27 years ago (photo: Nathaniel Puente

However, when she was off the clock, she finally reacted to the loss of her friend.

“It must have been 3 a.m. after the shooting and it finally hit me,” said Garza. “It still [hurts to talk about]. It was so senseless. I don’t understand people’s reactions being so overboard. Selena didn’t deserve to die over what Yolanda was going through. She ruined so many lives and ruined her own.”

In the aftermath, Selena’s fame shot to stratospheric levels. Tejano fans and music fans, in general, mourned the loss of one of music’s biggest up-and-coming stars. Within two years, a major motion picture chronicling Selena’s life was released and solidified her place as a cultural icon.

While Garza is happy that Selena is still getting recognition nearly three decades after her death, she believes her substantial fame was inevitable even if she was still alive.

“[Selena] was on the cusp of being a huge star. She was big at the time but she was going to be even bigger,” said Garza. “She was going to be a Beyonce or that person that we all know and glamorize.”

Selena rose to prominence in the early 1990s with the release of Tejano albums with her family band. Three of her albums reached platinum-selling status and all of them charted on Billboard’s album rankings. She was planning a switch to English pop around the time of her death.

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The south Texas native is sometimes dubbed “the Queen of Tejano” and her role as a successful woman in the genre has earned her notoriety as an icon and role model for many Latinos.

Saldivar was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. She is eligible for parole in March 2025.

Garza continued to work at KGBT-TV until 1999. She says the Selena story was one that stuck with her for the rest of her career. Since leaving KGBT, Garza has worked for several city media departments and currently serves as the public relations officer for the city of Harlingen. She notes that her favorite Selena song is “Ya Se Va” and if she had one last thing to tell Selena she would let her know how proud she is of her.

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