by Rebecca M. Alvin
In 1994, four young gay women in San Antonio, Texas, were just beginning their lives. Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera were in a committed relationship, living together and raising Rivera’s two children. Kristie Mayhugh had been attending Texas A&M’s Veterinary School, and Elizabeth Ramirez was expecting a child. When Ramirez’s two nieces accused all four women of sexually abusing them in a satanic ritual, their lives as individuals stopped, and they became the San Antonio Four. Although all four were convicted, the cases were reopened when one of the alleged victims, now an adult, recanted her testimony, admitting that it was her father who coerced her and her sister to completely fabricate the story of abuse, apparently in retaliation for Ramirez having rejected his romantic advances.
The story of the so-called San Antonio Four is one that resonates on a number of levels. It’s hard to imagine a fate worse than serving a prison sentence for a crime you did not commit, but the situation is made all the worse when the alleged crime is the sexual abuse of children. The four women, who were all between the ages of 19 and 20 at the time, have been fighting to clear their names for more than half their lives now. Sitting in the lobby of the Sheraton at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, where the documentary about them Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four had its world premiere, the women, accompanied by the film’s director Deborah Esquenazi, producer Sam Tabet, and their Innocence Project lawyer, are eager to speak about their case and the impact it has had on their lives.
“There’s people in [prison] that actually did their crime, and they know they have to suffer the consequences, you know, do the time for something that they did, but to actually be in there for something that you didn’t do, that’s very difficult.” explains Mayhugh.
The four never wavered, and in fact, in between the time that they were convicted and the time they actually began their sentences, Vasquez, Rivera, and Mayhugh actively set out to prove their innocence, interviewing any possible witnesses, videotaping footage of the area where the alleged abuse took place, doing anything they could to demonstrate their innocence.
“I think that back in the day what we were trying to do was to find any way to prove that what they were saying wasn’t real…It seemed like every time we hired an attorney they would say we had no chance, there was just no way. We needed people to believe in us,” explains Rivera.
It was that footage that found its way to the Innocence Project of Texas and also to Debbie Nathan, author of Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. Nathan, in turn, suggested the case as a documentary topic to Esquenazi.
“When Debbie Nathan gave that to me, I said, ‘I don’t really want to touch that. I think it’s a little too much for me,’ for the same reasons that a lot of people were uncomfortable reporting on it,” explains Esquenazi. “But then I read the trial transcripts, met the women, looked at the evidence, met the Innocence Project folks, and it was just very clear—I mean it was like very clear that they were innocent…That footage is so clearly the footage of people who are innocent: they’re going on a hunt for their exculpatory evidence. They are doing things to sort of free themselves. Those are actions of innocent people.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that documentary films can change the lives of their participants. Errol Morris’ groundbreaking 1988 film The Thin Blue Line succeeded not only as a work of art, but also as evidence that resulted in the release of an innocent man on Death Row. The 2013 film Blackfish, about the alleged mistreatment of captive whales at SeaWorld, resulted in millions of dollars in losses for the aquarium/park and an end to their captive whale program. And in 2012, the release of The Central Park Five, about the wrongful conviction of five teenagers in the notorious Central Park jogger case, forced the City of New York to settle the lawsuits for wrongful imprisonment that had been in limbo for an appalling nine years.
But this ability to bring about change is not only true for documentary subjects. Directors often spend five, ten, or even more years with their subjects, constantly thinking about them, mulling over their stories, and looking at the material from different angles. For Esquenazi, the process was a wake-up call to bust out of the closet in which she herself had been hiding for years.
“I think part of what made it so important was when Debbie Nathan, my mentor said, ‘you know, this could be you.’ And it was sort of a stroke of brilliance on her part to frame it like that, because it’s something you can’t shake after that,” she explains. “I’m visiting these incredibly strong women who are out, in prison, and I am in this prison that is totally self-inflicted; that’s so sad…I mean what sort of person would I be if I didn’t come out,” she says.
Nothing can bring back the time each of these women lost, particularly those who have children. “I had to watch Michael and Ashley grow up behind a glass,” says Rivera.
“My son was two when I got incarcerated,” says Ramirez, unable to hold back her tears. “I tried to deal with things the best way I could…I wasn’t able to visit my son and I had three friends that were suffering.”
Vasquez, who was released earlier because she made parole also struggled to put the pieces back together, but she says she sees a society that is much more accepting of lesbians now.
“LGBT rights have grown so much,” she says. “Now there’s adoption. There’s marriage for us. You know, it’s very impressive, and people are out, people are walking around holding hands, and it’s amazing because in 1994, and a little after that, before we got put in prison, it was not like that… It was just looked upon with disgust.”
The women’s futures are still in limbo, even though they are all currently out of prison. Without being exonerated, they cannot move on with their lives. The case is currently in the highest criminal court in Texas awaiting a final decision, with no deadline for when that decision must be made.
While the film Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four has not yet been released, you can keep up to date on the case and the film’s release schedule by visiting southwestofsalem.com.