In the file of worst possible things that could happen to you, being falsely accused of sexually abusing young children, and then convicted and imprisoned for over a decade, is probably close to the top of the pile.
This is the hell that was dealt out to a few dozen Americans in the great Satanic sexual abuse panic that burned its way across the nation in the 1980s and 90s. Rumors and media fervor, followed by wild and often impossible accusations from little children, methodically coaxed out by bogus experts, sent childcare employees and others to prison all over the United States. From the McMartin family's preschool in Los Angeles—the longest criminal trial in US history at the time, which ended with nearly all charges dropped—to the saga of the Amirault family's day-care center in Malden, Massachusetts, where prosecutors said about 40 kids were "tied to trees, sexually penetrated with knives, and tortured by a 'bad clown' in a "secret room,'" it was a dark time.
Often these sex panics were spiked with homophobia. Take the persecution of Bernard Baran, a young daycare worker who had just come out to his western Massachusetts community when he was accused by a homophobic family of raping their child. (He spent 21 years in prison before being released and eventually exonerated.) Or Kelly Michaels, sentenced to 47 years on 115 counts against 20 children at a day-care center in Maplewood, New Jersey. According to Michaels, when police entered the apartment she shared with another woman and saw just one bed, she knew she was in trouble.
Anti-gay bigotry also fueled the preposterous case against Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez, four women barely out of their teens—lesbians and Latinas, two of them mothers of young children. They were arrested in 1994 on what became satanic child sex abuse charges in San Antonio, Texas, a town that was homophobic even by south Texas in the 1990s standards. And as in previous instances of lesbians and gay men accused of satanic child abuse, critics say established LGBT advocacy groups left them hanging. As the San Antonio Four's current lawyer, Mike Ware, told me, "Truthfully back then, most of the [LGBT] groups were so marginalized themselves, at least in San Antonio and that area, they were reluctant to get involved in any kind of alleged sex crime."
The accusers were Liz Ramirez's two nieces, age seven and nine. Their stories, like those of many children in these cases, were inconsistent and all over the place. The girls had reportedly made similar accusations against another person while staying with their mother two years earlier while their father was suing for custody. On top of that, Liz Ramirez claims she had spurned the advances of the children's father years before. (He denies this.) None of the backstory was admitted as evidence in the trial, and one of the two accusers has since recanted her story.
What gave the four defendants the final shove into prison was junk science. An expert medical witness, Dr. Nancy Kellogg, testified that photographs of the two little girls' hymens showed clear signs of trauma—a claim that more recent medical research has since demolished (leading Dr. Kellogg to recant her testimony). When a new "junk science" law came into effect in Texas in September 2013, allowing prisoners to challenge dodgy expert testimony, the release of three of the women—Anna Vasquez had already been paroled out—followed a few weeks later.
Last Wednesday, I met the San Antonio Four while they were in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of a new documentary, Southwest of Salem, about their long struggle. At an event sponsored by the National Center for Reason and Justice, an advocacy group for people accused of sex panic charges, and held at the Lower East Side bookstore Bluestockings, the four strong women spoke to a standing-room-only audience that sobbed and laughed with them.
They told stories of lives not destroyed but seriously derailed. Ramirez and Rivera were separated from their young children. Kristie Mayhugh had been enrolled in the prestigious veterinary program at Texas A&M but is currently earning a living in an automotive plant—"a different line of work,"as she dryly puts it.
Throughout the ordeal, the four have never turned on one another. "I felt so bad to be responsible for what happened—I'm very grateful to have friends who didn't hold anything against me," Ramirez told the audience between sobs. The prosecution tried her separately from the other three, trying to cast her as the ring leader in a courtroom proceeding soaked through with homophobia and medieval weirdness. "The prosecutor tried to picture me like I was sacrificing this girl," she said. "He tried to paint me as this person who got in trouble all the time, was a satanist who was abusing these kids, who were my own flesh and blood!"
Despite the hideous injustice the four have survived, they are somehow able to look back at some moments with a piquant sense of humor. They shared a big laugh with the Bluestockings audience at how their defense attorney tried, unsuccessfully, to neutralize the courtroom homophobia by insisting they—and especially Vasquez and Mayhugh, who do not fall firmly on the femme side of the dial—wear flouncy dresses and lots of makeup to their trial. "And you can see in the movie how ridiculous we look," Mayhugh noted with a deadpan smile. "Remember how I did your hair?" chimed in Rivera.
Now their convictions have been vacated, but they have not been formally exonerated. Ware, who is also the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, voiced optimism qualified by the fact that the state of Texas has a financial incentive to not exonerate, given that it must pay out to each exoneree a sum of $80,000 per year spent in prison. And the legal standard to be met for proving innocence—because on this side of the looking glass it is innocence and not guilt that must be proved—is a high one. As Ware told the audience at Bluestockings, "It's very difficult to prove that something never happened."
Before the panel, I was able to squeeze in a few questions to get a sense of their personal experiences behind the court documents and headlines. Convicted child predators are, in pop culture anyway, targets for constant abuse inside prisons. Did their fellow prisoners believe their claims of innocence? "Yes, actually they did," Vasquez told me. "According to them, I did not fit the profile." Kristie Mayhugh likewise spoke of her former prison mates without bitterness. "You build a relationship with the people you're in with, almost like family," she said.
I also asked Vasquez about any reprisals she faced for refusing enrollment in a sex-offender treatment program while in prison, a defiant assertion of her innocence."I did face heavy repercussions. They took away my privileges—commissary privileges. They took away my contact visits with my family, and I was only able to see my mom, through a glass," she said. "And when I was on parole, I was put on a sex-offender registry, and they wanted me take sex-offender therapy, but I was able to prove through a series of tests that I didn't fit the category. And I got off the registry about a year and a half after my release."
If you're wondering whether the prosecutor, Philip Kazen, saw any consequences for stoking a homophobic sex panic to get his scalps, the answer is no. In fact, Kazen was elected judge after racking up his convictions, is now retired, and will never face any kind of sanction for railroading these four women. And as Mike Ware reminded me, "The DA's office in Bexar County hasn't even agreed yet that my clients are innocent." (Criminal DA Nico LaHood did say in February, "I have some serious reservations about this case, and I don't believe pursuing these cases would be in the interest of justice.")
But Ramirez is rightfully amazed they haven't already been completely exonerated.
"It's the same thing as at the beginning—how can you convict me of a crime that never happened?" she said. "How can you not exonerate us? It's been twenty years since 1994, and our story has remained, and we still remain, the same."
Readers can contact Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Nico LaHood at 210 335 2311 to politely but firmly request a full exoneration.
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