In 1994, San Antonio, Texas, was hit with a case that would change the lives of four young Latinas. Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were charged and later convicted of gang raping two young girls aged 7 and 9. For years, they maintained their innocence. Twenty-two years later, the documentary “Southwest of Salem” is trying to expose the alleged bias and mishandled investigation that may have put four innocent women behind bars for more than a decade.
For the past 22 years, these women have been living a nightmare. They’ve been fighting against allegations that they gang raped two young girls in 1994.
Credit: @mySA / Twitter
Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera all claim they are innocent — but that didn’t stop them from serving jail time.
It all began when Ramirez, second from the left, was watching her two nieces, ages 7 and 9, for a week.
Her three friends — Vasquez, Mayhugh and Rivera — came to stay with Ramirez during that time. When the week ended, the nieces returned home, and the four women had no idea anything was wrong with Ramirez’s nieces.
“It was a typical week, just what families do,” Ramirez told CNN. “We did things, we went out to the park, we ate, just kind of hung out.”
Things took an unexpected turn when the nieces began accusing the four women — who were all lesbian — of sexually assaulting them as part of a Satanic ritual.
All four women were eventually arrested. During questioning by police, they realized their sexual orientation was going to be used against them.
Credit: @HSDocClub / Twitter
“When we were being questioned by police, they made a point to put it out in there that we were gay,” Anna Vasquez told The Guardian.
Their defense attorneys were also pessimistic about winning the case. They felt it was a losing battle to go against the word of two young girls who were making such serious allegations.
During their trial, prosecutors also pointed out their sexual orientation as a motive for the crime.
Credit: Southwest Of Salem
Prosecutors relied heavily on two things during the trial:
1) The appearance of scar tissue in one of the niece’s internal membrane tissue.
2) The women’s sexual orientation since all four had recently come out as lesbian.
According to CNN, the prosecutors used their closing statements to point out the sexual orientation of the women and urged that being lesbians gives motive for the attack. In Ramirez’s case, which was separate of the other three women, prosecutors talked about her sex life in explicit detail. The jury foreman for Ramirez’s case was a minister who openly said that homosexuality was wrong on religious grounds, according to My San Antonio.
All four women were convicted of the rape of Ramirez’s nieces.
Vasquez, pictured above, Mayhugh and Rivera were all sentenced to 15 years in prison each.
Ramirez, the aunt to the accusers, was considered the ringleader and received 37.5 years in prison.
Credit: The Texas Tribune / YouTube
In total, the four Latinas were collectively sentenced to 82.5 years in prison.
The four women all maintained their innocence. Ramirez told police officers and her attorney that the allegations were made up by her nieces’ father.
Credit: The Texas Tribune / YouTube
Javier Limon, the father of Ramirez’s nieces, was her sister’s ex-boyfriend at the time of the visit. After the relationship with Ramirez’s sister ended, Ramirez claims that Limon insisted on trying to court her romantically. When she refused, Ramirez says he tried to get revenge by coercing his daughters to make up false claims about Ramirez and her friends.
Ramirez’s claim was strengthened in 2012, when one of the accusers came forward and recanted her statement.
A photo posted by Michael Rivera (@_micj_) on
Credit: @_micj_ / Instagram
It set off a chain reaction that would help the San Antonio Four. Everything from the testimony of the accusers to the science used to convict was all reexamined. One of the most important pieces of evidence was also proven to be inaccurate as the science of testing rape cases advanced.
One of the nieces, Stephanie Limon Martinez, released a statement saying she had no recollection of the crime.
Credit: bluecabinfilms / YouTube
Instead, she recalls her father, Javier Limon, pressuring the young girls to make up the story and stick to it — or face punishment. “I was threatened,” Stephanie Limon told The Texas Tribune about her father, Javier Limon, forcing his daughters to testify against their aunt. “And I was told that if I did tell the truth that I would end up in prison, taken away and even get my ass beat.”
Enter Deborah Esquenazi, the director of the documentary “Southwest of Salem.”
— TWC News San Antonio (@TWCNewsSA) April 25, 2016
Credit: @TWCNewsSA / Twitter
When she heard the story of the San Antonio Four, Esquenazi was moved to create a documentary about their decades-long battle. “I got a call from my mentor, a woman named Debbie Nathan, who said, ‘You should look into this,” Esquenazi told NYMag. “So I read Liz’s trial transcripts, and they were horrific. They included phrases like ‘gang rape,’ ‘cult-type activity,’ ‘a certain perversion,’ and it was all very sexualized.
“When I finished reading, I was broken. Then she sent me a VHS tape that they had recorded on their search for exculpatory evidence, and I was like, oh my God, this is a story not just about injustice but about a family torn apart.”
As of April 2016, the four women have been released from jail — on bond, not as free women. They are all up for a new trial.
— AndACTION (@andactionnow) April 27, 2016
Credit: @andactionnow / Twitter
Their goal is to be completely exonerated. “I think the only reason that the investigation was seriously pursued, why there wasn’t more skepticism about the preposterous allegations in the first place, was because these four women had recently come out as gay, that they were openly gay,” Mike Ware, their defense attorney told CNN.
“Southwest of Salem” recently played at the Tribeca Film Festival, bringing even more exposure to the case.
— Southwest Of Salem (@SanAntonioFour) April 8, 2016
Credit: @SanAntonioFour / Twitter
The women are fighting to have their names cleared and the charges removed from their records.
“I believe we deserve to be known as innocent. There is a terrible injustice,” Rivera told CNN. “We are not going give up until we are found we are innocent. We will keep fighting.”