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Freeing the San Antonio Four

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Anna Vasquez planned on attending nursing school when she was arrested at age 19; Cassandra "Cassie" Rivera was raising two young children when arrested at age 19; Elizabeth Ramirez was 20 years old and pregnant when arrested; Kristie Mayhuh, arrested at age 21, was studying to become a veterinarian.

Ramirez had just discovered she was pregnant and recovering from a car wreck, when her nieces' father dropped them off at her apartment that week in July 1994. Mayhugh, who had recently flown in from New Orleans, was once Ramirez's lover. Ramirez and Vasquez were old friends from high school, while she knew Rivera from working at a local H-E-B.

All four women blame homophobia for how their cases were adjudicated. Kazen, the prosecutor, was careful to tell Ramirez's jury that homosexuality had nothing to do with the prosecution's case, but added, "It's only important in the sense that that activity is generally consistent with the activity alleged in the indictment." Meanwhile, the jury foreman in Ramirez's case was a local minister who, when asked what he believed about homosexuality in jury selection said, "I believe it's wrong. … Because that's what the Bible teaches." He insisted his views wouldn't impact his judgment on the case.

Vasquez and Rivera began dating months before all four women were charged with sexually assaulting Ramirez's nieces. In an interview last month in prison, Rivera recalled how sparks flew when she first met Vasquez. They ventured downtown together for Fiesta celebrations that spring. "We kissed. … At that point, I just thought she was it for me," she said. "The rest is crazy, because right after we got together is when all this happened," Rivera said. "I would have spent the rest of my life with her." Before going to prison in 2000, Vasquez helped Rivera raise her two young children.

Even after witnessing Ramirez's conviction and lengthy prison sentence, Mayhugh, Rivera, and Vasquez maintained their innocence, declined plea deals, and went to trial.

After they were convicted, while waiting on their appeal, Rivera and Vasquez sought to document their final weeks before being torn apart. "We knew those could be our last moments together," said Vasquez from prison in an interview in early October. "We wanted to cherish them, preserve them."

But Rivera and Vasquez had another goal. Between home video footage of family gatherings and birthday parties, of trips to Canyon Lake and Corpus Christi, there's video of Rivera and Vasquez trying desperately to re-investigate their own case. They go back to the small, cramped apartment building where the girls said they were abused. They interview neighbors, people on the street, anyone to see what they could remember. Vasquez tried to track down floor plans to the apartment building, hoping to prove the layout given by the victims at trial was all wrong.

"This, to me, is just not the behavior of guilty people," said Deborah Esquenazi, a filmmaker from Austin who's convinced of the women's innocence. "This is the behavior of desperate people." She's been gathering material for an upcoming documentary on the case since spring.

One of the last home videos Esquenazi obtained shows Mayhugh, Rivera, and Vasquez speaking at San Antonio Pride Fest in July 2000, pleading with the LGBT community to look into their case. Two weeks later, with their appeals denied, the women went to prison. Fighting tears, Rivera recalled telling her children she'd be leaving for a very long time. The kids asked if they could stay with her partner Vasquez. "I had to tell them, 'No, she's coming here, too.'"

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