Anna Vasquez had no reason to mistrust the criminal justice system. That is, until it put her behind bars for more than a decade for the supposed ritualistic sexual abuse of a friend's nieces – abuse that neither she nor her accuser say ever happened.
Relatively speaking, Vasquez is the lucky one. She was released Nov. 2 on parole, perhaps prompted by the recantation of one of the alleged victims. Her three friends Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, and Cassandra Rivera (collectively known as the San Antonio Four), however, are still in prison, serving time for the alleged sexual abuse of two of Ramirez's nieces, then 7 and 9.
It was 1994 when those accusations were made – right at the tail end of the satanic ritual abuse scare that had gripped the nation since the McMartin Preschool case took control of the national consciousness in 1983. For those who don't remember the hysteria, this probably seems incredible: Across the country, individuals, many of them daycare workers, were accused of "ritual" abuse of young children left in their care. The accusations of abuse went from sad but commonplace allegations of penetrative sexual assault to absolutely off-the-wall allegations involving satanic rituals. Daycare workers put children through blood-letting rituals; they took children to cemeteries and put them into freshly dug graves; they deluded them into believing that an arm was being cut off and replaced with the arm of Satan. Indeed, those three allegations are among many specific charges made to Austin police and Travis County prosecutors in the 1992 case brought against Fran and Dan Keller, who ran a modest drop-in daycare center out of their home in what was then rural Oak Hill. According to police and prosecutors, those allegations were not only believable but credible. As recently as 2009, prosecutors at the Travis County District Attorney's Office have maintained their belief that these "crimes" happened.
Frankly speaking, it sounds ridiculous because it is. Those things did not happen. Not in McMartin, where, after a decade, the defendants were cleared of having injured any of the children left in their care, and not anywhere else across the country: Daycare workers and other adults accused of bizarre incidences of abuse allegedly motivated by depraved obsessions were either overturned by courts of appeals or were paroled and then moved on into quiet anonymity. There are only a handful of individuals who remain behind bars as a result of the more than decadelong obsession with supposed satanic ritual abuse; five of them are in Texas.
Three of the still-incarcerated are Vasquez's friends. They weren't daycare workers, but they are lesbians, and at trial they were characterized as being more likely to abuse children because of their sexual orientation. That remains one of the more despicable aspects of the case of the SA4. As San Antonio Express-News reporter Michelle Mondo put it in the rough-cut of the work-in-progress documentary on the case, screened for a packed audience at the Salvage Vanguard Theater last night, the lurid accusations made against the four women sounded most like "a man's version of what women do in their spare time."
The details of the case made against the SA4 are, unfortunately, not uncommon. Vasquez, however, is the luckiest of the bunch – if you consider having to register as a sex offender in Texas lucky. Ultimately, the SA4 are very fortunate. They have the Innocence Project of Texas on their side, with Jeff Blackburn, the IPOT's guru attorney, along with his best friend Mike Ware, the lawyer who was for a while the face and brains behind the Dallas County DA's conviction review unit. They also have a "victim" who has recanted. As part of the documentary being made by local filmmaker Deb Esquenazi, for whom the plight of the SA4 has become a passion, the young niece Stephanie, now a young adult, has recanted at length, writing in a letter read on camera that she was coerced into claiming she was sexually abused. "I was only 7, and I was scared," she says.
The niece's recantation is indeed a powerful moment in the not-yet-fininshed film. And in a perfect world, perhaps that mea culpa would mean game over, and that the women should be released from prison. But that's not the way things work – and very much not the way they work in alleged sexual abuse cases. Consider the case of Michael and John Arena, brothers from Bell County accused by a young cousin of sexual abuse amid a bitter divorce battle. The cousin recanted, and still it took more than a decade for the courts to actually make any move to help the Arena family. Even then, it wasn't because the accuser actually recanted – the court simply didn't find that compelling.
And so it also goes for Austin's Fran and Dan Keller. They remain in prison 20 years after they were accused of bizarre, ritual, sexual abuse of children left infrequently in their care. The accusations were unbelievable – and to this day remain so. But their accusers haven't recanted, and they don't have a filmmaker. They remain in prison, unwilling to admit to wrongdoing in order to have a shot at parole. And unless something changes the order of things, they are likely to die in prison, accused of unspeakable things for which there is no evidence and of which they each swear innocence.
Hysteria wrought these cases decades ago. A more measured and modern mind should undertake to undo the damage that hysteria has done.
Read more about the SA4 here.
Read all about the Keller case here.
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