San Antonio. Texas. 1994. Two young girls, ages 7 and 9, sleep over at the house of their beloved aunt Elizabeth Ramirez, who takes care of them regularly. They spend the night with aunt Elizabeth and her three friends Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, all of whom were 19 and 20 years old at the time.
Weeks later, Elizabeth and her three friends were accused by the young girls of gang raping them. The state of Texas offered the women deferred adjudication, meaning they wouldn't serve prison time but would be put on probation for 10 years. The four women, convinced that the justice system would protect them, rejected the offer. They insisted on their innocence and thought they had nothing to fear.
They were mistaken.
In 1997 and 1998 the four women were convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. Elizabeth Ramirez was sentenced to 37.5 years in prison, and her three friends got 15 years each. They were barely in their early twenties, but faced sentences that would keep them behind bars for most of their adult lives.
Pediatrician Nancy Kellogg, the expert witness who examined the girls, and whose testimony sealed the women's fate, said she found healed scarring in their vaginas, which she examined two months after the alleged attacks happened, that could possibly connote molestation. She also testified in a deposition that she had jotted down that there appeared to be “signs of satanic-related sexual abuse”. According to journalist Michelle Mondo, who wrote an article about the case in 2010, Kellogg said she based her notes on her “research and experience in this area,” and published studies she could not name.
At the time, the United States was emerging from a bizarre period of mass hysteria in which many daycare workers, babysitters, and family caregivers all over the country were accused of performing satanic ritual abuse on their young charges. A cottage industry of child psychologists and "experts" surfaced, coaxing children to testify in courts that they had been abused.
The story of the so-called "San Antonio Four" is the subject of a harrowing new documentary, Southwest of Salem, which opens in New York, San Antonio and Austin on Sept. 16, and in Los Angeles on Sept. 30. The film, by Deborah S. Esquenazi, follows the four women during their trials, their conviction, their parole, and their ongoing fight for exoneration.
The four women were never directly accused of ritual abuse, but compelled by Dr. Kellogg's testimony, the prosecutors depicted the working-class Latinas as living sordid lives of debauchery. The filmmakers and the women conclude they were accused and convicted of sexual child abuse, and suspected of being in a satanic cult for one simple reason: They were lesbians.
The film portrays the deeply ingrained cultural and systemic prejudices that resulted in the convictions of these Mexican-American women. They were from Texas, a very conservative state, and didn't have recourse to expensive attorneys. They were vulnerable to racial and homophobic prejudice by the authorities. Being accused of child abuse by two young girls was tantamount to being guilty until proven innocent.
Ellen DeGeneres had yet to come out to the world on her TV show, and the idea of marriage equality was not even considered feasible by the majority of Americans. At the time, there was a prevalent misconception that gay people were predisposed to sexually abusing children.
The perverse, fantastical notions that four lesbians were prone to pedophilia because of their sexual orientation, fueled a prosecution that spun sordid tales about the lifestyle of the four women, tales that some said seemed reminiscent of male pornographic fantasies.
The women were also born into a deeply homophobic Latino, Catholic culture. They had to fight these ingrained prejudices in their own homes.
During the time of the allegations, and unbeknownst to the public or the court, Anna and Cassie were partners, and they were raising Cassie's two young children together. They used to spend time at Liz’s house because they had been kicked out of their own homes by their mothers upon learning that they were lesbians. It was this deep cultural prejudice and intolerance that allowed people to think the worst of them.
So who did it? Most likely, nobody.
On the witness stand, Elizabeth testified that the children might have lied because Javier Limon, who was married to Elizabeth's sister, and was the father of the two girls, had harbored a crush on her ever since she was a teenager. Wounded by Liz's rejection and possibly even more so by her queerness, Elizabeth said Limon exacted revenge by forcing his two young daughters to repeat his concocted accusations of abuse to the police, and later on, the courts. Other witnesses also claimed Limon had made advances to Liz starting as early as her teen years. In his opening statement, Liz's defense attorney spoke about Limon’s alleged love letters to her. Javier denies it all — that he forced his daughters to lie, and that he wrote those letters.
In 2010, 15 years into the women's nightmare, Stephanie Limon, one of the accusers, by then a young mother of 25, recanted her testimony in front of Esquenazi's cameras and two lawyers from The Innocence Project of Texas. Stephanie’s lawyer, Casie Gotro, suspects that her father, Javier Limon called Child Protective Services on her and accused her of mistreatment of her child but the case was dismissed in court for lack of evidence. Again, Limon denied involvement.
Stephanie's sister, the second girl who accused the women, refused to recant or be interviewed for the film.
Anna Vazquez was granted parole in 2012 based in the recantation and on her polygraph tests, which were consistent with her claim of innocence. She immediately set to try to seek justice for her incarcerated friends, who were released on bond in 2013. Dr. Kellogg also disavowed her flawed forensic testimony on the basis of Stephanie’s recantation. It became the first case in Texas to get reopened on the grounds of SB 344, the "junk science" statute, a bill unique to Texas that permits defendants to bring a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of new or changed scientific evidence. According to the bill, courts must grant relief in cases where new scientific evidence has come to light, or where scientific evidence used to convict was shown to be inaccurate, false, or misleading.
Child protection experts like Dr. Kellogg used to claim that certain marks on little girls’ genitalia were proof they’d been sexually abused, while later research showed that non-abused girls have the same marks.
The women's fight for total exoneration continues. In April of last year, all four women went back to court for an exoneration trial before their original judge, Pat Priest, who ruled that they are entitled to new trials, but he did not recommend them for exoneration. Priest claimed that their “assertion of proof for ‘actual innocence’ falls short of the mark.”
The case now lies in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Mike Ware, lawyer for the Texas Innocence Project, who has helped the women file their appeal, anticipates that the San Antonio Four will be vindicated and all the charges dismissed. Still, he worries that there are two other possible outcomes: the court may find there is not enough evidence for actual innocence, and order a new trial, or they will be denied and have to return to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences.
Today, the women are focused on clearing their names. They are fighting for a full exoneration and for all charges to be expunged from their records. According to Esquenazi, the legal term is 'actually innocent', in which sentences are totally vacated and the women receive restitution for time served. This is important to them because, besides the restoration of their good name, child sexual assault is still on their records and they cannot move freely within the country.
No charges have been filed against Limon for his alleged conspiracy to make false accusations. The women are still dealing with the same homophobia and prejudices that they've been battling their whole lives.
Elizabeth, who now works in a manufacturing company, says the men she works with still don't get it.
"When they find out that I'm gay, they say: you need a man in your life," she says. "We believe in being independent and taking care of our families and our children, and this is against what they believe, and they are intimidated by it, so when they see women like us, they are aggressive about it."
Yehudit Mam writes about film on her blog I've Had It With Hollywood. Her work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the US and Mexico. She is the co-founder of dada.nyc, an online platform for visual artists.