In 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez, then 20, was arrested in San Antonio, Texas, for allegedly molesting her two young nieces, aged 7 and 9.
In two bizarre trials, she and three other women, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, all lesbians, were accused of repeatedly assaulting the girls during a nightmarish week-long orgy in 1994. A medical expert and the prosecutor hinted that the women had been performing a Satanic ritual, and pointed to what they claimed was scientific evidence of their guilt. A judge sent the women to prison -- 35 years for Ramirez, 15 for each of the others.
For more than a decade, the women sought the attention of advocates for prisoners and of the press, insisting that they had been falsely accused, but their calls for help went unanswered. And then, in 2006, a Canadian college instructor named Darrell Otto began researching the case. Otto became convinced that the women were innocent and reached out to the National Center for Reason and Justice, a New York-based organization that pushes for the release of those believed to be wrongly accused of crimes against children. He set in motion an effort to free the women that has finally culminated in victory.
On Monday, a judge acknowledged that the witness testimony used to convict Ramirez, Mayhugh and Rivera was faulty and agreed to release them under bond. The fourth woman, Vasquez, is already out on parole. Reached by phone, she told The Huffington Post the news was "exciting and overwhelming."
Although she has been out of jail for more than a year, the conditions of her parole restrict her from going within 500 feet of a school, a church, a playground or any other place where children gather. Monday's decision does not immediately effect her, but she said she expects her conviction will eventually be overturned.
For Vasquez and her supporters, the release of the remaining three of the “San Antonio Four," as the women came to be known, signifies a growing acceptance of LGBT people both in Texas and nationwide. “Homosexuality back then was viewed as perverted, a sickness, and one where they associated lesbians with having been child molesters,” she said.
Mike Ware, the defense attorney for the women, argued that his clients' sexual orientation may have played a role in the investigation and the trial. “I think that if these kinds of preposterous accusations had been made against four Junior League women, the investigation would never have been taken seriously,” he said. “But I think because they came out as openly gay, the investigator and people down the line said, ‘If they’re gay, anything’s possible. They’re not like us.’”
According to a 2010 report in the San Antonio Express-News, the prosecutor who argued the case against Ramirez, Philip Kazen, invoked anti-gay stereotypes in the courtroom, “including the misperception that lesbianism is related to child abuse.” Ramirez's sexual orientation was "only important in the sense that that activity is generally consistent with the activity alleged in the indictment," Kazen told jurors at the trial.
Kazen did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.
The trials largely hinged on the testimony of Ramirez’s nieces, who told the police and jurors that the four women called them into an apartment where they were drinking and smoking marijuana, pinned them down by their wrists and ankles, and repeatedly assaulted them with various objects. Dr. Nancy Kellogg, a pediatrician, testified that she had noticed scarring on the genitals of the two girls during a medical examination. She attributed the damage to trauma.
But in 2012, one of the nieces recanted her testimony, saying the assault never took place. And last month, Kellogg retracted her testimony, too, admitting that she could not say with with “any degree of medical certainty” that an assault had taken place, according to Ware. A spokesperson for Kellogg at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio said that Kellogg is “not commenting at this time.”
Debbie Nathan, a writer and journalist who is a director at the National Center for Reason and Justice, described the medical evidence at the center of Kellogg’s testimony as “junk science.”
Kellogg had also noted in her medical report that the alleged attacks could have been “Satanic-related.” When Nathan first reviewed the case, that suggestion sounded familiar.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the national media reported hundreds of cases of people allegedly abusing children in supposed Satanic rituals. In 1995, Nathan co-wrote a book showing that those accusations were false. The misperception of lesbians as child abusers and the hysteria over Satanism combined to create "the perfect storm," she said.