When filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi watched home videos of Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez taking trips to the beach, making dinner and playing video games, she felt compelled to tell their story. Along with Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh, the women made up the so-called San Antonio Four, Latina lesbian women accused of gang raping two little girls -- Ramirez's nieces -- in San Antonio, Texas in 1994. Esquenazi's investigation into their story led to the documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, opening Monday as part of Frameline40.
“It illuminated something for me,” Esquenazi says of the VHS tapes. “Why was it omitted that they were a loving family raising two kids? It made me feel like people have to see this -- not just that the case is so horrific, the way the women were railroaded by the state, but they’re so joyful on camera.”
Horrific understates it. The women were accused of pinning down and sexually assaulting Ramirez’s nieces in what one investigator speculated was “Satanic–related sexual abuse.” Ramirez, considered the ringleader, was sentenced to 37 years, 6 months in prison, while the other women each received 15 year sentences. Maintaining their innocence throughout, all the women refused plea bargains.
Over a decade later, the accusations -- unlike anything he’d ever heard -- caught the attention of Mike Ware, an attorney who works with the Innocence Project of Texas. Even though his office gets about 120 letters a week from people claiming to have been wrongfully convicted, he made time to visit each of the women in their different prisons.