When dealing with home-run records and financial opportunities, a reliable rule to follow is this: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When dealing with child-sex-abuse allegations, a reliable rule too follow is this: if it sounds too bad to be true, be very, very skeptical.
Over the past week in Texas, we have seen this rule come to life, not once but twice. Last Tuesday, there was a hearing in Quitman regarding the so-called “Mineola Swinger’s Club” cases, which involved four children, aged four through seven, claiming that seven adults from Tyler made them go to a sex kindergarten and dance in live sex shows onstage at a swingers club in front of dozens of people. The kids testified that grownups cast spells and wore witch outfits, and one child even claimed to have ridden in the air on a broomstick. Though no evidence was ever found, seven adults were sent to prison based on these outrageous claims; six were eventually freed, and one remains there—for life. The star of last week’s Quitman hearing was Margie Cantrell, the adoptive mother of three of the accusers. She stood accused of physically abusing her children, and in the end, CPS removed four of her kids, including the three accusers. Finally, it seems, the citizens of Smith and Wood County are treating the bizarre claims made by these kids—which were made only after entering Cantrell’s care—with skepticism.
Yesterday in San Antonio there was a hearing for the so-called “San Antonio Four” cases, which involved two sisters, aged seven and nine, claiming that four topless lesbians (one of whom was their aunt) held them down in apartment and raped them using a tampon coated with gel and white powder, while holding a gun or a knife to their heads. None of the four women—Elizabeth Ramirez (the aunt), Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh—had a criminal record. All of them were young (19 to 21), respectable members of the community, with jobs and plans to go to school. Each proclaimed her innocence and turned down plea bargains. Each was convicted. Ramirez, the supposed ringleader, was given 37 and a half years; the other three got fifteen. They went to prison in 2000.
And now, finally, after the San Antonio hearing, all are free. Vasquez had been paroled last summer; yesterday the other three joined her after posting bond. According to Michelle Mondo of the San Antonio Express-News, who has written extensively about the case, the three walked out of the county jail hand in hand and then were engulfed by family and friends before going home.
Supporters had been increasingly hopeful for this day, especially since last summer, when the younger sister recanted in a letter to her aunt Elizabeth. The girl said that her father had coached her—it was all lies. “I’m sorry it has taken this long for me to know what truly happened. You must understand I was threatened and I was told that if I did tell the truth that I would end up in prison, taken away, and even getting my ass beat…I’m sorry for everything I put you through. I was only seven and I was scared.”
In retrospect, the family’s history should have made prosecutors more skeptical of the girls’ stories back in 1997. Just two years before, the girls had alleged that a ten-year-old boy had sexually assaulted them, and they also revealed that they had once seen their father hold a gun to the head of their mother. According to Ramirez, the whole drama could be blamed on the father, who was married to her older sister and who had been making passes at her since she was fifteen, including sending love letters and proposing marriage. When she denied him, she claimed, he fought back by coaching his daughters. Indeed, in hindsight, the allegations seem like the bizarre fantasy of a middle-aged man. “The girls’ version of what happened was like the male version of what women do,” Mondo told filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi, who’s making a documentary on the case. “It was like porn.”
The only evidence, besides the stories, was science, or what passed for science in 1997. Nancy Kellogg, pediatrician and director of Child Safe, a San Antonio child-advocacy institution, testified that a 2-3mm white “scar” (about the width of a quarter) on the hymen of the nine-year-old could have been evidence of sexual assault, though she couldn’t say when it had been made.
But things have changed since 1997. A 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics said that “torn or injured hymens do not leave scars as a matter of fact.” It was changing science—and a new Texas law—that led to the women’s release. Last month Mike Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas filed a writ of habeas corpus on their behalf based on a new state law that allows inmates to contest convictions based on old forensic methods we now know are unsound. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed said her office had talked with Kellogg, who “explained that there has been a shift in the medical philosophy.” Bexar County prosecutor Rico Valdez agreed to vacate the sentences. After bond was posted today, the women walked outside for the first time since the end of the millennium.
The four might still be behind bars if it weren’t for the work of Darrell Otto, a research scientist and professor who lives in the Yukon Territory, more than 3,000 miles away. In 2006 Otto was doing research on female sex offenders when he came upon a story about the San Antonio case. Otto had learned from his research that females rarely engage in sex abuse—and when they do, they always act alone. The idea of four women doing this together made no sense, especially considering there was so little evidence in the case. He began writing Ramirez, which led him to become convinced she and her friends were innocent. He put up a website, Four Lives Lost, and eventually began making pilgrimages to the central Texas prisons where they were living. He even wrote a short piece for us in 2009. Otto also contacted the National Center for Reason and Justice, a group that investigates false allegations of child abuse. Debbie Nathan, author of a 1995 book called Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, took a close interest in the case, and the NCRJ began working with the women. In 2010 she contacted the Innocence Project of Texas, which began exploring legal remedies to free the four.
The San Antonio trials took place more than fifteen years ago, but it’s never too late to use common sense, or a high degree of skepticism, to bring justice in cases involving outrageous allegations of child-sex abuse. Maurice Chammah wrote an excellent piece in the Texas Observer last month about several of these cases, in Killeen, Hudson, and San Antonio. One of the most egregious Texas cases still awaiting remedy is that of Dan and Fran Keller, who ran a day care center in Oak Hill, just south of Austin, until 1991 (Gary Cartwright’s comprehensive story on the case is a must-read). Three children claimed that the Kellers were members of Satan’s team, along with some “bad sheriffs,” and that they defecated, urinated, and ejaculated in their hair; put spells on them; baptized them in blood; killed people and cut them up with chainsaws; and made them sacrifice babies, one of whom had been cut open so the Kellers could make the kids drink her blood and hold her heart in their hands. The children said they had been filmed over and over. However, no evidence of any of these things—done in around a day care center—was ever found. Still, the Kellers were convicted and given sentences of 48 years each. They remain in prison (the NCRJ is working with them as well). Dan is 72, and Fran is 64.
The Kellers, like the seven defendants in Tyler and the four women in San Antonio, deserve the benefit of all the skepticism we can give them.