Behind Bars

Four San Antonio women convicted of sexual assault fifteen years ago maintain their innocence and remain in prison.
Behind Bars
(From left to right) Cassandra Rivera; Kristie Mayhugh; Elizabeth Ramirez; Anna Vasquez.

It is 3,700 miles from my home in the Yukon Territory in northwestern Canada to Marlin, Texas. I never imagined that I’d be making that long trip every year. Then I found out about Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera, Elizabeth Ramirez, and Kristie Mayhugh.

I teach Renewable Resources Management at Yukon College, in Whitehorse. Living in semi-wilderness with thirty huskies and gliding over the snow on a dogsled, I know solitude. Dealing with my own personal issues has left me with a deep desire to understand human behavior, both the good and the bad. I’ve been trained as a scientist but one of my interests is psychology, and a couple of years ago, on a library shelf at my college, I ran across an educational video: When Girls Do It: An Examination of Female Sexual Predators . I didn’t even know female sexual predators existed, so I did more research. I learned that some women are forced by men to abuse children, and the rare ones who do it on their own are almost always severely mentally ill. Or they were sexually abused themselves and readily confess when confronted with their crimes.

So I was puzzled when surfing the Internet one day and ran across a Texas case (reported in the San Antonio Express-News in 1998) that sounded illogical. Four young women in that city, acting on their own, had allegedly restrained and, in ritualistic fashion, sexually assaulted two girls, aged seven and nine, over two days. There was no physical evidence tying the women to the assaults, yet the newspaper reported the case against them without a hint of skepticism. It mentioned nothing about mental illness or confessions. Psychology-wise, the only point noted was that the women were lesbians, although academic research clearly shows lesbians are not predisposed to sexually abuse children. I was frustrated by the lack of information.

I wrote to Elizabeth Ramirez, one of the convicted women. Her response was articulate and upbeat. She sounded well-adjusted, not like a psychotic pedophile. She claimed the accusations were fabrications. At first, I didn’t believe her. But she sent me documents and contact information for others involved in the case. I reviewed the evidence and made phone calls. Soon I was convinced these women were completely innocent.

My conscience wouldn’t allow me to walk away from them. I wrote four letters. “I believe in your innocence,” I told each woman. “And I will help you fight this case.”

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time writing to innocence projects and contacting journalists in hopes they’ll do their own investigation. And I make long trips to Texas to visit with the women and their families, collect information, and renew my commitment.

At the Hobby Unit Prison in Marlin, my passport elicits a predictable, “You come all the way from Canada?” In the guardhouse, I am thoroughly searched then buzzed through the double-gated Sally port. A guard assigns a booth in the horseshoe-shaped, non-contact visiting area with telephone receivers on both sides of the glass. Elizabeth comes down from her cellblock. She is taken into a room to be strip-searched, then seated in a chair designed to detect any metal hidden in a body cavity.

Elizabeth is tiny—four feet, nine inches tall—and fine-boned. Her child-sized hands and delicate fingers barely wrap around the telephone receiver. I’m closer to her than to the other women; we seem to communicate easily and deeply. During our visits, I reach into my lifetime collection of stories for a few of the best. Elizabeth’s nervousness disappears. She laughs, a hand partially covering her face. For a short while I am granted the privilege of transporting her out of this awful place. Then the small talk ends.

Liz discusses coming to terms with being innocent and imprisoned. The first four years, she worked in the fields and cried herself to sleep every night. It took that long to decide she would never confess to an imaginary crime. That also meant she wouldn’t be paroled, and barring a miracle, would serve her full, 37-and-a-half- year sentence. Liz had to try to forgive the people who betrayed her. She did this by developing her Catholic faith.

The only part of their lives that Liz and the other falsely imprisoned women still control is their personal integrity and character. Three have passed the halfway point of their fifteen-year sentences. They hold the key to their prison cells—all they have to do to win parole is say they are sorry they sexually abused two children. But at their hearings, they maintain their innocence, knowing they will be denied parole. As Anna Vasquez puts it, they “refuse to take the coward’s way out.” They know what it is to confront injustice.

They also know solitude. In Anna, Elizabeth, Cassandra, and Kristie, I see much of myself. And when I travel to Texas to help them, I see the person I’d like to become.

Read more about this case at Otto’s Web site, fourliveslost.com.

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