It was the summer of 1994, and Elizabeth Ramirez had her two nieces, who were seven and nine at the time, spend a week with her.
They went shopping, swimming, played basketball and visited with Ramirez and her three other friends Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra River, and Anna Vasquez.
All four women were lesbians and according to Vasquez, being at Ramirez’s apartment was a sort of safe haven.
“You know, back in the early nineties, the LGBTQ community was not looked at as the way it is now,” Vasquez said. “So being at Liz’s apartment for the four of us, that was our safe haven. That was our safe place that we could be ourselves, really, because I was never able to show my authentic self. Never did I imagine that this fun-filled week would change my life forever.”
A few months later, Vasquez got a call from San Antonio Police Department detective Thomas Matjeka who told her that she was being accused of sexual assault by Ramirez’s nieces.
“As you can imagine, shock, humiliation. All sorts of emotions were going through my mind, but I was like — this is a mistake. And you know, basically, ‘what do I have to do? How can we fix this?’ Never knowing that I really should have lawyered up,” she said. “But, you know, I still fully cooperated.”
Anna and the other three were questioned and told that the investigation would either end with no calls back or they would hear back.
About six months later their fears became a reality.
“I am at work at Little Caesar’s Pizza and two undercover agents come in and they arrest me. For now, aggravated sexual assault and indecency with a child,” Vasquez said. “Scared. Confusion. Embarrassment. You know, I was arrested at my place of business. You know, my management was there. Just not really knowing the whole process. I was so scared, I couldn’t believe it.”
The confusion would only continue into the trial.
Ramirez had her trial first and this was the first time Vasquez heard they were being accused of performing satanic rituals.
“(Prosecutors) presented the jurors with this picture of Liz sacrificing her nieces to her three lesbian friends on an altar of lust. I had no idea that this was a thing until it actually affected my life. I had no idea that wrongful convictions were happening. And, you know, along with satanic panic,” Vasquez said.
Sentencing for the Four
Ramirez was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to 37-and-a-half years in prison.
Vasquez and the other two women had their trial together the following year and again, another guilty verdict.
The punishment was 15 years in prison each.
“I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me,” Vasquez said.
But their fight wasn’t over yet.
“I just could not wrap my mind around being convicted of a crime that never even occurred. I was still hopeful that the truth would be uncovered,” she said.
Life in prison
Life in prison for Vasquez was not easy, especially for a person convicted of crimes against a child.
“So we were convicted in 1998, and we were sentenced to 15 years, aggravated sexual assault and to run concurrently 10 years for the indecency. Okay. But because it was 15 years and below, we were able to apply for an appellate bond. So we continued to fight. But, in 2000 it came down that we were, you know, we had lost our appeals and we would now have to start serving our sentence. So it wasn’t until 2000 that we actually had to turn ourselves in,” Vasquez said. “Basically I had to transform my way of thinking and really conform to the prison world now because that was going to be my life for the next 15 years. I knew I was going to continue to fight. I didn’t know how or where or what to do. But who better to advocate for you than yourself? So that was my life. I was still hopeful, but at this particular point I had kind of given up on the organizations because they had basically all rejected me.”
Texas Innocence Project
It wasn’t until a decade later that the Texas Innocence Project was created.
Michael Ware, one of the creators, was Vasquez’s lawyer during an evidentiary hearing in 2015.
There were two key pieces of testimony that were recanted. One of Ramirez’s nieces said her father forced her to lie about the situation because he was trying to hurt Ramirez after she rejected him romantically. An expert witness recanted her testimony.
“At this time, what they were presenting was the fact that the scientific proof, which Dr. Nancy Kellogg had testified to, was now basically junk science is what they call it,” she said.
Dr. Kellogg at the time of the trials had research that said the scarring she saw on one of the girls was evidence of trauma and she even speculated the acts were “satanic related.” But later, she said that was wrong after the American Academy of Pediatrics published a long-term study about how that kind of trauma doesn’t actually leave scars.
Life after prison
Vasquez was released in 2012 after serving 13 years of her sentence. The others remained in prison but were released on bail in November 2013.
In April 2015, the evidentiary hearing took place.
In November 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writs and vacated the convictions.
“You know, it’s something that we’ve said all along that this did not happen. And so I guess it was like confirmation, right? That what I had been saying came out to be true. But it was a huge relief, as you can imagine, finally. We were done,” Vasquez said. “This was now at the end or so, I thought.”
Their records weren’t expunged, so as Vasquez was out trying to give talks at schools she was getting flagged for her record.
The process to expunge her record took another year, and in December 2018, their records were cleared.
Satanic Panic today
Today, we are still seeing similarities to satanic panic with Qanon.
“I haven’t seen them in actual court cases being a thing now. But do I see it in the media? Yes. I mean, but now it’s it went from like a moral panic or religious panic to now political. And, you know, I mean, it can affect anybody, right?” Vasquez said. “It’s ridiculous. They’re weaponizing it to hurt people. And not really realizing that it can affect a life. Even the accusation alone can be detrimental for somebody, you know, financially, emotionally, you know, and so on and so forth.”
Vasquez now works for the Innocence Project of Texas as the Director of Outreach and Education to help and educate others.
“I would like people to not remember me and the circumstances surrounding my wrongful conviction. But I want to be looked at now as a beacon of light when people are out searching for help. That’s what I want. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but that’s the way I want to be seen,” Vasquez said.