Southwest of Salem explores their shocking case and continued fight for justice
Meet the women known as the San Antonio Four and you would likely never guess the depth of the ordeal they've endured.
The word "sweet" comes to mind to describe their manner: Elizabeth "Liz" Ramirez, Cassandra "Cassie" Rivera, Anna Vazquez and Kristie Mayhugh. Kristie calls herself the "quiet one" of the group, but in truth none seems especially boisterous. Warm, personable, thoughtful but unobtrusive perhaps. But anyone might seek to be unobtrusive after living through a nightmare of public shaming and imprisonment -- accused of the vile crime of child rape.
It's difficult to live life like we would want to. Who would have thought that this would be going on this long? And it is.
The story of these women and their wrongful conviction is told in the new documentary Southwest of Salem, directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi. The film opens in Los Angeles Friday (September 30) and will air on the Investigation Discovery cable channel beginning October 15.
Through the use of home videos and other archival material, the film takes us back to 1994 when the women were friends living in San Antonio. Anna and Cassie were dating and co-parenting Cassie's two kids. Liz was pregnant, and fending off advances from her sister's ex-boyfriend. That man had two girls, ages 9 and 7 -- Elizabeth's nieces.
The nieces spent a week with Liz that year, a stretch during which Anna, Cassie and Kristie would come by the apartment periodically. It was about a month later when Elizabeth was picked up by police and informed her nieces had accused her and her friends of gang raping them. Thus began the nightmare for the San Antonio Four.
As the film relates, prosecutors suggested the women were part of a Satanic cult and had sexually assaulted the girls as some kind of sacrificial ritual. Dubious supporting evidence was provided by a doctor who testified to the reliability of the girls' accounts.
The San Antonio Four were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms -- 15 years each for Vazquez, Rivera and Mayhugh; 37.5 years for Ramirez. Their plight might never have been known beyond San Antonio were it not for the work of outside parties, including the Innocence Project of Texas, which blasted the doctor's trial testimony as "junk science."
When you read Liz' trial transcripts... you'll see a sort of obsession with over-sexualization, like she's been totally torn from this reality -- which is a pregnant woman with friends -- and turned into this diabolical witch who sacrificed these children on the altars of lust.
Esquenazi's film strongly suggests it was Ramirez' suitor -- the father of her nieces -- who encouraged his children to invent the accusation in retaliation for Ramirez' failure to accept his advances [the father denies that]. And in Esquenazi's film one of the original accusers, Stephanie -- now 25 years old -- recants, admitting the "gang rape" never occurred. The director filmed an extraordinary moment when Elizabeth and her accuser were reunited after the critical recantation.
Today the San Antonio Four are out of prison, but not altogether free. On appeal Judge Pat Priest, Senior District Judge of Bexar County, who had also presided over the original trial, granted the women a new trial but refused to declare their "actual innocence." That ultimate question will be addressed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with the San Antonio Four in Los Angeles, a day after a screening here. Director Deborah S. Equenazi and attorney Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, joined the conversation.
Nonfictionfilm.com: According to the terms of your release from prison you had to get special permission to come to Los Angeles?
Anna Vazquez: Yes, this is true.
NFF: This is a dramatic underscoring of the kind of restrictions your lives are still under. Do you feel there is still a cloud over your lives?
NFF: How would you describe the weight that places on you as individuals, to have that stigma attached to you.
Anna: I think you described it well. It is a weight on our shoulders still... Still to this day, 22 years later, we still have a weight. It's difficult to live life like we would want to. Who would have thought that this would be going on this long? And it is. And here we sit, still being watched. We were watched for over a decade by prison guards and we're still watched by the law, the eyes of the court and having to report when we travel, where we travel, who we're going with, when we'll be back and having to report any kind of arrest. If we're having any kind of contact with the alleged victims. So it's still difficult. It's still difficult to this day. I always like to say that I feel like we're in a prison without bars.
NFF: Where does it hit you emotionally to know that while you were treated unjustly by the legal system, there have been people outside the system who supported you and took up your cause.
Cassie Rivera: It became something so profound, so amazing. We never thought we would be here today. We never did. I mean not like this. And so it's just amazing to have all this support and all this love and how these people came into our lives and just turned everything over from what it was at one time.
Liz Ramirez: It hits to the heart because they're not only attorneys or reporters or anything, but they're friends now and they have a passion for it and they believe in us. And to me that's what makes a difference. And that's where it hits home. It's because they believe in us and they fight [voice breaks] diligently for us every day of their lives to try to prove that and today we sit here because of that. And if they didn't have the passion that we have to prove our innocence and to get exonerated then what would we have?
NFF: Mike, from your perspective, what does the film have to say about the judicial system in general?
Mike Ware: It can be the perpetrators of profound injustice, which is what happened in this case. The profound injustice that someone can not just be accused of something that never even occurred, but then convicted of something that never occurred and imprisoned and defined really by something that didn't occur at all -- that's completely fabricated, that's completely fiction -- and that that could happen in our justice system is horrible. I guess the more positive side of that is that the justice system does provide a legal vehicle... for a complete correction [of the injustice], to the extent the law can do it. And we call that exoneration. That's what we're fighting for right now.
NFF: For Deb, when you got involved as director you didn't know where this story would end. So what has that whole journey been like for you?
Deborah Esquenazi: I remember early on pitching it as a radio piece which was rejected. My news bureau was like, "Well, what's new about it?" And I said, "Well, they're innocent. That's what's f'ing new about it." And there's this Innocence Project of Texas on board. That was my first fight... Then trying to raise money to turn it into a film and people saying, "Well, we don't really want to get involved because of the charges." Once we got the recantation on tape -- Stephanie recanting to the camera -- as a journalist I know what this means. This means that this is new. In the eyes of the media this is new and fresh. I leaked the tape to the local news bureau in San Antonio and we were able to watch how that seemed to unfurl this kind of new wave of interest and while slow it was enough for me to feel like, "I think we can do something here."
People ask, "How did you know when to end the film?" And of course as a documentarian when I'm working on something really structured I know the beginning and the end. This was not one of those. I certainly never imagined a moment when I was filming and I was going to the Hobby Unit or Gatesville [prisons] and seeing these women behind bars that one day I would film their exit.
NFF: I really felt in watching the film that you all were on trial for your sexuality. That was your real "crime," if you will.
Cassie: It started in Liz's case really, really bad. That's where the homophobia really started. When we started our trials just in jury selection they brought up the fact that we were gay. They stood up and said, the DA did, "If you have a problem with gays or homosexuals then you need to speak up now." And that's to all those people waiting for jury selection. That was before the trial began. So we were hung from the get-go.
NFF: Do you feel like the climate has changed as far as acceptance of gays? Maybe that will help once this case continues on appeal. These matters are tried in public in a sense and judicial rulings often reflect public sentiment.
Anna: Things have changed around the world concerning homosexuality. It has improved and I think it's a little more acceptable as we've all seen it. Is it where it needs to be? No, it's not. I mean we're still far from there. But hopefully the power of the media will help to change that and gain, I don't know, the people's trust.
The media had so much of a part in our conviction and painting this picture of us, without even speaking to us. In the beginning they didn't speak to us. They didn't ask for our take on the situation, on what happened, on what could have happened. So yeah, I believe the media had us painted as convicted child rapists already without even being heard in a court of law and hopefully with the way things are going now things will change.
I didn't understand it before and I may not understand it now but maybe one day I will...
NFF: At trial it was implied the women were part of a cult. I assume the title of the film -- Southwest of Salem -- is evoking that idea of witch trials.
Deborah: Sure, absolutely. To me it also points to a deep misogyny that exists but it's also a discomfort with sexuality generally. If you think about Salem and the witchcraft trials or things that were about the body or the woman body or the adolescent woman body -- when you read Liz' trial transcripts in particular you'll see a sort of obsession with over-sexualization, like she's been totally torn from this reality -- which is a pregnant woman with friends -- and turned into this diabolical witch who sacrificed these children on the altars of lust. And the things that were said on the stand that we didn't even need to put in the film because we thought we made the point without belaboring it, it was horrifying. Horrifying. Like asking her intimate questions about sex and sexuality. I'm also alluding to a kind of persisting misogyny -- and in a way homophobia is a form of misogyny, right, because it's about the non-feminine woman or the feminine man, right. So really to me it's all of these intersecting identities rolled into one.
NFF: Have you asked yourselves over the years at times, "Why did fate deal me this blow?"
Kristie Mayhugh: Yeah, of course. But I kind of quit thinking about that. There's a reason for everything. So out of this maybe -- I didn't understand it before and I may not understand it now but maybe one day I will understand the reasoning behind it and what was the purpose of being put into this situation. Sometimes I come up with, well maybe it was to help other people. I'm not too sure yet. But like I said maybe one day we'll all know and we'll understand.
NFF: What needs to happen in our criminal justice system so that these kind of situations stop happening as often as they seem to?
Mike: We did get the junk science law passed in Texas, which is the only one of its kind in the country right now. That's to correct injustices that have already been done as opposed to preventing them in the first place. I think that this case and the media attention that's it's gotten -- because of the film largely, lately -- and other exoneration cases that we've worked on in some ways have changed the narrative in the courtroom in a good way and I think that's important. It's a subtle point. The narrative when I first started practicing law was the people that sit at this table are scumbags; the people that sit at [that] table are the good guys. The police are the heroes. Let's have our fair trial and then let's hang 'em. With the exoneration cases that we've worked on that's changed. I mean jurors are actually more thoughtful now -- or some of them, a good number of them -- because they've heard of cases such as this one or they've heard of the DNA exonerations and they know it happens.
NFF: What can people do in a proactive way to help these women?
Deborah: September 30th we open in LA and then we'll be on broadcast on Investigation Discovery on October 15th. This is part of a design of an exoneration campaign that we're really pushing. Right now what we're asking people to do is just be active on social media, On southwestofsalem.com we have an "Act Now" page and there are very simple things we're asking people to do. These are Tweets or Facebook posts. We're amassing audiences so that if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals [which will hear the SA4 exoneration case] doesn't do the right thing we've created a critical mass of people who can get together and really push in the way that we know we want to for exoneration. We're teeing people up. But also our hope is that we're allowing these women to tell their story and to find some level of justice, not just legally but also socially. We do this to people -- this system that we all belong to -- does this to people.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.