It was the equivalent of a modern-day witch-hunt: In the summer of 1994, four San Antonio lesbians were accused, arrested, and subsequently convicted on charges that they gang-raped two girls in a sensational case that preyed on the Satanic panic that had swept the nation, as well as the prejudiced suspicion that homosexuality was a precursor to child abuse.
The sordid details of the case captivated the news media, which jumped all over the narrative of ritual sexual abuse of children at knife- and gunpoint by a quartet of perverted lesbian witches. Looking back on the trial years later, as director Deborah S. Esquenazi does in her documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, the crime that sent Elizabeth “Liz” Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez to prison is all the more alarming—because it never happened.
The documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, plays out like another Making a Murderer, starting with the details of the so-called crime that rocked San Antonio and devastated the lives of these women. Through home video-tapes and archival photos, we see glimpses of the foursome in happier times. It was the mid-1990s, and Rivera and Vasquez had fallen in love. They lived together raising Rivera’s young children and spent a lot of time with Mayhugh and Ramirez, forming a makeshift family outside of the blood relatives who didn’t approve of their sexual orientation. After all, in that place and time being an openly gay Latina woman was difficult enough, as Vasquez painfully describes while wearing her prison whites in one of several powerfully intimate interviews captured in Salem.
At trial, there’d been just the right elements to conjure a perfect storm of wrongheaded justice, the film recounts. The testimonies of the two young sisters, nieces of one of the accused, cut to the hearts of the jury and the media despite inconsistencies in their retelling—and despite the claim that their father had allegedly been obsessed with one of the accused, and was upset to learn that she preferred women.
An expert witness took the stand to assert that physical evidence was consistent with pre-established models of sexual abuse in children. Perhaps most convincingly, the district attorney repeatedly painted the four friends, young mothers and beloved sisters and daughters, as a coven of nefarious predators plotting ritualistic molestation all because they were gay—a fact that, some jurors admitted during the selection process, made them uncomfortable.
Southwest of Salem deftly paints a portrait of the jury trials that sent the quartet to prison in 1997 and 1998, and how they cleaved a hole in their lives and those of their still-supportive families back home. But the film takes on a new dimension as it chronicles their path to freedom a decade and a half later.
Rivera was sent to prison first, tried and convicted as the so-called “ringleader” of the bunch. And before Mayhew, Rivera, and Vasquez were also sent away, they’d tried in vain to find their own evidence to clear their names, playing detective and interviewing former neighbors about the alleged crime, as seen in camcorder footage shot circa 2000.
But it wasn’t until a complete stranger from the snowy wilds of Canada started researching their case that the women found any allies on the outside who believed in their innocence because they presented as atypical of recorded female sexual abusers. “It just didn’t make sense,” says Darrell Otto, the research scientist who helped jump-start the women’s journey toward freedom. “It just didn’t fit the pattern at all.”
Vasquez was released on parole first, an emotional moment captured by the film’s cameras. It follows her as she tries to piece her life back together on the outside, sharing the highs and lows and the frustration of having to legally register as a sex offender despite the overturned conviction. Wracked with guilt that the other three are still behind bars, the soft-spoken Vasquez steps up to become the face of the San Antonio Four, fighting for her friends by giving interviews and putting their faces back in the public eye.
Rallying media support is the only way to fight wrongful conviction in this day and age, asserts Innocence Project of Texas lawyer Jeff Blackburn. “If people only knew how little youth and justice had to do with the way the legal system works they’d probably amass at the courthouse with lighted torches,” says Blackburn, one-half of Southwest of Salem’s very own Strang and Buting.
Eventually all four women were released from prison when the details of their trial began to crumble under scrutiny. The medical evidence that had damned them had since been debunked as “junk science” and, more importantly, one of their now-adult alleged victims recanted her accusation, claiming her volatile father and grandmother pressured her into it.
Esquenazi’s access to these four women during and after their incarceration lends a heartbreaking undercurrent to the proceedings. Once inseparable, the friends and lovers were forced apart when their convictions sent them away. It’s hard not to sympathize as they recount the events that upended their lives, still aghast that the system they’d believed was just could have screwed them over so badly.
“You believe as you’re growing up that if you tell the truth everything’s going to be fine,” says Vasquez, who recalls waving away friends’ urgings to lawyer up because, she says, she was innocent—so why not tell the police everything she could? “I went ahead and cooperated with them and it seemed to turn out to be a mistake,” she quietly admits, shaking her head. “The biggest mistake.”
The engrossing documentary consults legal experts and journalists for a post-mortem on how the San Antonio Four case went so wrong. Its heart lies in the relationships between the women, who remained close and loyal to one another through it all, and the families and children they had to leave behind. Some of the film’s most emotionally heartrending moments come when the cameras catch up with the women post-release and the niece whose recanted testimony freed Mayhew, Rivera, and Ramirez.
But as Esquenazi most pointedly argues in Southwest of Salem, freedom has still not truly freed the women known as the San Antonio Four. Despite a recent ruling that officially vacated their convictions, they must now await a nine-judge panel to hear their appeal for full legal exoneration—a resolution that may never come.
As Making a Murderer did for convicted killer Steven Avery earlier this year, Southwest of Salem highlights the egregious failures of the criminal justice system that should get Americans rightfully riled up, if only so that other untold wrongful convictions may one day get their due. More than a mere chronicle of a crime, it emphasizes the cost of the failures of our justice system pointedly and poignantly, underscoring the futures that were taken away from these women. It’s remarkable to realize that we’re in the midst of a renaissance of true-crime documentary cinema—which might be a thing worth celebrating, if it wasn’t so infuriating.