Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, which premiered at the Tribeca film festival earlier this year to glowing reviews, will air on the Investigative Discovery (ID) channel Saturday, October 15 (7pm central), its first nationally televised showing. The doc, by filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi, has been the primary vehicle for drawing nationwide attention to the problematic prosecution of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, all of whom were handed lengthy prison sentences after being convicted of brutally assaulting Ramirez’s young niece in a series of bizarre rituals (see our 2012 feature story on the case).
The "San Antonio Four," as the women are often called, all took their cases to trial and turned down plea deals that would have allowed them to avoid prison time altogether, insisting from the beginning that the abuse never happened. Lawyers who have since re-investigated the case say the women never should have been prosecuted, let alone convicted, in the first place. Former Express-News journalist Michelle Mondo was the first reporter to highlight the many serious problems with the case in a series of stories for the local daily.
The case against the women is in some ways a Rorschach test, meaning different things to different people. Many in the LGBTQ community have seized on statements made by prosecutors at the time about the women’s “homosexual relationships” as a sign the four women, all lesbians, never had a chance at beating charges they molested little girls.
Tonya Pacetti-Perkins, who runs the local coffee house Pendlebury Brew with her wife, says that when she first heard of the case, it reminded her why so many people were reluctant to come out of the closet in the much more conservative San Antonio of the mid-90s. “I remember the atmosphere of that time – it was really volatile,” she said. “The fear of groups, of other people you don’t understand, that’s what this case makes me think of. We feel like it could’ve happened to any of us.” Pendlebury Brew has turned the documentary's national airing this weekend into a party of sorts, hosting a group of live bands (like Sons of Sancho), a screening of the movie, and then hosting a Q&A with Ramirez, Rivera, Mayhugh and Vasquez afterward.
Some see the case of the San Antonio Four as one of the last gasps of the so-called “ritual satanic abuse” panic that seized the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s (the doctor who examined the girls after their outcry, Dr. Nancy Kellogg, wrote in her exam notes that the abuse “could be satanic-related”). Attorney Keith Hampton, who's taken other satanic panic cases, is now representing one of the local women in their appeals before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He calls the satanic panic one of the most troubling periods in modern criminal justice history.
And the case is getting a national TV audience just as the state's highest criminal court decides whether prosecutors should retry the women. Last year, Senior District Judge Pat Priest heard testimony that faulty forensic analysis helped convict the women. He also heard from one of the victims, Stephanie Limon, who recanted to Southwest of Salem director Deborah Esquenazi years prior. On camera, the woman nervously read from a prepared recantation, saying she lied about the allegations against her aunt and her friends. “I was threatened 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," she told Esquenazi.
The court of criminal appeals has yet to decide whether to hear the case. Hampton says best-case-scenario for the women would be for the CCA to accept the case so the women's attorneys could argue for their actual innocence. “We just want the court to file and set it at this point,” Hampton has told us in the past. “These women are actually innocent. They don’t deserve a retrial hanging over their head. They deserve compensation for all those years spent in a prison cell.”
Southwest of Salem viewing, Saturday, October 15, 6:30pm, Pendlebury Brew, 7271 Wurzbach. For more info, see this Facebook event posting.