Guilty of being QWOC: The San Antonio Four on being wrongly accused

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Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four looks at the injustice faced by four lesbian Latina friends: Elizabeth “Liz” RamirezKristie MayhughCassandra “Cassie” Rivera and Anna Vasquez. They were tried in the late ‘90s and fell victims to the “satanic panic” child sexual assault theory that had become a popular attack on gay individuals in the American legal system.

The documentary about their story is now hitting film festivals, several of which the women will attend. Ahead of the film’s screening at Frameline in San Francisco, we spoke with all four women about life before, during and after imprisonment, the lack of support from their local LGBT community, the homophobic tactics used during their trials and more.

Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez and Kristie Mayhugh"Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four" Premiere - 2016 Tribeca Film FestivalPhoto by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

AfterEllen.com: You were all really young when this happened. What were your dreams for the future before your arrests?

Anna Vasquez: In 1993 I had just graduated from high school. Shortly after, I’m saying like two weeks or so, I had started college at San Antonio College. My dream was to get into the medical profession. But unfortunately the accusations came about in 1994.

Cassandra Rivera: I always wanted to be a mechanic. When all this happened, I was working at AutoZone. I had two small children and they were about eight and nine when I left them behind. But my dream was to raise my kids.

Kristie Mayhugh: I was taking a break from school because I had gone to college like right after I graduated. Actually, four days after I graduated I was in college. I was actually going to school to be a veterinarian. That was my dream. But while I was taking a break, these accusations came up.

Elizabeth Ramirez: During the time of the accusations, I was 10 weeks pregnant. I wanted to raise my son.

 

AE: From the moment of your arrests up until your trials began, was there a part of you that thought you would be found guilty? What were your lawyers telling you during this time?

CR: Oh yeah, we were all very scared because one of the things that they told us was we would never win going against children. Our attorneys even wanted us to take a plea bargain because they said that no matter what, the outcome wasn’t going to be good. But we ended up firing our attorneys and hiring other attorneys that wanted to fight for us, because we weren’t just going to take a plea bargain. But yes, we were scared. There was doubt. I mean, we knew we were innocent. The second set of attorneys that we had, they felt like we were going to be found innocent–they didn’t think that we were going to be taken away. But unfortunately, we were.

ER: Unfortunately for me, my attorney that I had was a civil attorney. He kept telling me that there was no way that they would convict me. And so I believed him. He said, “They didn’t have any evidence on you. There’s nothing that happened. You’ll be fine.” I was tried before all the other ladies were and I pretty much kind of just did everything by myself. So I really wasn’t aware of the law or attorneys. I had a civil attorney doing a criminal case. That tells you enough. I didn’t have anything on my side as far as an expert or witness or anything at all.

AV: The attorneys did tell us from the very beginning that most people are not going to go against children, especially for accusations such as this. But we did come across attorneys that were going to fight, or so we thought. We thought that they did a good job, back then. But knowing what we know now, dealing with Mike [Ware] and the Innocence Project of Texas, we were not given any kind of expert to refute what the pediatrician was saying. Unfortunately, the way that really the law works is that you’re guilty until proven innocent. It’s not supposed to work like that but unfortunately, it does.

KM: My attorney said it wasn’t a really good case–the charges, the accusations–but he was going to do what I wanted to do, which was fight. I didn’t want to take a plea bargain. I was innocent. I felt like taking a plea bargain was admitting guilt. I was never going to admit to this crime. I think it was just always really a fear, being found guilty. I don’t think it really set into reality until in court they said you were guilty. I always thought that you told the truth, the truth would prevail and we would be found innocent. But that’s not what happened.

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