Doctor Nancy Kellogg thought she saw Satan's hand in the unspeakable crimes described by the two young girls. Aged 7 and 9, the pair described in alarming detail a weeklong visit to their aunt's small West Side apartment in the summer of 1994 that devolved into a sadistic, orgy-like nightmare. They described their aunt, Elizabeth Ramirez, with red wild eyes grabbing the girls and forcing them into her bedroom. There Ramirez had three friends — Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez — waiting topless. The women proceeded to hold the girls down by their wrists and ankles, repeatedly raping them with various small objects. The girls spoke of syringes, vials of white powder, guns, and possibly a knife.
Kellogg, a widely respected child abuse expert and local pediatrician, examined the girls, deciding "this could be Satanic-related," according to her exam notes. Based on her research and experience in the field, Kellogg later testified, "If there is a female perpetrator and there's more than one perpetrator involved, there is a concern for [Satanic abuse]." And yet, remarkably, Kellogg couldn't remember if she'd personally seen such a case.
A judge ruled against putting Kellogg's Satan talk before the jury, but then-prosecutor Philip Kazen was free to make his own allusions, arguing in Ramirez's 1997 trial, "[T]he evidence is going to show that young woman over there held a nine-year-old girl up as a sacrificial lamb to her friends. … We're going to ask you to believe a nine-year-old little girl who was sacrificed on the altar of lust."
Before Kellogg ever heard the accusations and examined the girls, rumors of such ritual Satanic abuse around the country had been debunked as a contemporary witch hunt, a mass hysteria that fueled false accusations, imprisoned innocents, and destroyed lives. But it wasn't just the Devil that Kellogg saw. According to a review of the medical literature and child sex-abuse experts who spoke with the Current, Kellogg introduced dubious medical findings before the jury as evidence the girls had been violated, relying on forensics flawed both now and at the time of trial.
Lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas, which took on the case two years ago, say one of the two child victims, now an adult, recanted this summer, bolstering the women's claims of innocence. The now young woman claims that as a child her father coerced and coached her into making false allegations against her aunt and three friends.
"I can say that these four women were convicted and falsely imprisoned for a crime they were completely innocent of," insisted Dallas lawyer Mike Ware, the women's attorney with Innocence Project. Before taking the case, Ware headed Dallas County's District Attorneys office's conviction integrity unit and was responsible for getting the wrongly convicted out of prison. "This is a crime that never even occurred," Ware said. "What the system has done to these women is horrible."
The four women, whom advocates have come to call the San Antonio Four, all recall the visit by Ramirez's young nieces as uneventful, involving things like swimming, basketball, and trips to Walmart. While Vasquez was released on parole early this month, after serving nearly 13 years of her 15-year sentence, the other three remain in prison. Rivera and Mayhugh have served almost their entire prison terms. Ramirez, considered the ringleader, isn't projected to be released until 2034.
Local officials often call Nancy Kellogg the state's foremost authority on physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of children, an expert widely published in the field's top academic journals. Just three years after graduating from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Kellogg joined Child Safe, then known as Alamo Children's Advocacy Center, which acts as a local clearinghouse for child abuse cases where doctors and nurses work closely with child protection workers, police investigators, and prosecutors. Kellogg declined multiple requests for an interview with the Current.
As director of Child Safe, Kellogg has in the past claimed to review as many as seven child abuse cases daily, and she has evaluated more than 10,000 children for abuse. She's currently Division Chief for Child Pediatrics at UTHSC. Testifying in court in the late 1990s, Kellogg explained she's routinely called on by local authorities to testify in criminal cases, some three to four times a month. She couldn't recall ever having testified for the defense.
Though a leader in her field, when testifying outside the presence of the jury in Elizabeth Ramirez's 1997 trial, Kellogg suggested Ramirez and her friends sexually assaulted her nieces as part of some "satanic or cult based" scheme. It was a notion that had already been widely discredited. A flood of child sex abuse cases alleging Satanic or ritual abuse hit courts across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The headlines and hysteria fueled cases like the now-infamous McMartin Pre-School allegations in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan Beach in the 1980s, where parents accused pre-school workers of dark kiddie-porn photo shoots, twisted rituals in below-ground tunnels, and orgies involving infants and mutilated corpses. McMartin eventually became the face of ritual abuse hysteria, mushrooming into the longest, costliest criminal trial in U.S. history.
Debbie Nathan, one of the country's first journalists to critically examine ritual abuse cases, calls Kellogg's findings in the San Antonio Four case one of the last gasps of the Satanic ritual abuse panic. Nathan describes how the frenzy and institutional zeal to prosecute such Devil-inspired monsters, accused of crimes that often defied logic and reason, locked up innocents in the comprehensive 1995 book Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, which she co-authored.
In court, Kellogg claimed her concerns of Satanism stemmed from published studies on the matter, though she couldn't specify or name any of them. Still, anyone in Kellogg's position should have been familiar with a report by FBI Behavioral Science Unit supervisory agent Kenneth Lanning, written two years before Kellogg ever examined Ramirez's nieces, Nathan insists. That $750,000 study determined that rumors of such Satanic conspiracies were bogus. The panic was so palpable, Lanning noted in his report, that some true believers accused him of being "a 'satanist' who has infiltrated the FBI to facilitate a cover-up."
Worse than her devilish hunches, Kellogg presented medical testimony unsupported by the research both today and at the time she examined the girls, according to experts who reviewed Kellogg's findings in the case.
Many physical signs of abuse identified by doctors in 1980s cases, like bumps, white lines, and other markings on hymens, were found through several studies in the late 1980s and 1990s to appear in both abused and non-abused girls. Signs once considered definitive evidence of child sexual trauma were described as normal variations of child anatomy. But in her exams and testimony at trial, Kellogg noted a thickening of the hymen as a sign of trauma, something listed in widely circulated classification charts as early as 1992 as "normal." Kellogg noted the hymen's increased redness in the younger sister was evidence of assault, but later admitted it could have other causes. Kellogg noted a white line in the older sister's hymen, calling it a scar and clear evidence of abuse.
"The medical, physical evidence does not lie," prosecutor Philip Kazen, now a state district judge, told the jury in Ramirez's 1997 case. "You can't make that tag — you can't make that painful tear, that painful healing, that painful scar up. That's why we brought you Dr. Kellogg." Martin Finkel, an internationally recognized authority in the medical evaluation and treatment of child sexual assault, reviewed Kellogg's notes in the case, calling her diagnoses "an over-interpretation of trauma." Like most experts in the field, Finkel, medical director of the Child Abuse Research Education Services Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said gathering a comprehensive medical history before doctors or nurses physically inspect a child is the most crucial step of the examination process. Finkel said Kellogg's notes on the children's medical history wasn't "as detailed as I think they should be."
"The child's going to provide to someone a history of bleeding and pain, you don't just randomly get scar tissue without a history of trauma," he said.
Tears fell from Elizabeth Ramirez's eyes when speaking of her three friends. "Most of all, they don't deserve to be here," she told the Current in a prison interview. All four women were ultimately convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. All four say they turned down a plea deal before heading into court, believing their innocence would be proven at trial. Pegged as the ringleader, Ramirez was sentenced to 37 and a half years. Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez, who were convicted in a second trial in 1998, were all handed 15 year sentences.
Ramirez had just discovered she was pregnant and recovering from a car wreck, when her nieces' father dropped them off at her apartment that week in July 1994. Mayhugh, who had recently flown in from New Orleans, was once Ramirez's lover. Ramirez and Vasquez were old friends from high school, while she knew Rivera from working at a local H-E-B.
All four women blame homophobia for how their cases were adjudicated. Kazen, the prosecutor, was careful to tell Ramirez's jury that homosexuality had nothing to do with the prosecution's case, but added, "It's only important in the sense that that activity is generally consistent with the activity alleged in the indictment." Meanwhile, the jury foreman in Ramirez's case was a local minister who, when asked what he believed about homosexuality in jury selection said, "I believe it's wrong. … Because that's what the Bible teaches." He insisted his views wouldn't impact his judgment on the case.
Vasquez and Rivera began dating months before all four women were charged with sexually assaulting Ramirez's nieces. In an interview last month in prison, Rivera recalled how sparks flew when she first met Vasquez. They ventured downtown together for Fiesta celebrations that spring. "We kissed. … At that point, I just thought she was it for me," she said. "The rest is crazy, because right after we got together is when all this happened," Rivera said. "I would have spent the rest of my life with her." Before going to prison in 2000, Vasquez helped Rivera raise her two young children.
Even after witnessing Ramirez's conviction and lengthy prison sentence, Mayhugh, Rivera, and Vasquez maintained their innocence, declined plea deals, and went to trial.
After they were convicted, while waiting on their appeal, Rivera and Vasquez sought to document their final weeks before being torn apart. "We knew those could be our last moments together," said Vasquez from prison in an interview in early October. "We wanted to cherish them, preserve them."
But Rivera and Vasquez had another goal. Between home video footage of family gatherings and birthday parties, of trips to Canyon Lake and Corpus Christi, there's video of Rivera and Vasquez trying desperately to re-investigate their own case. They go back to the small, cramped apartment building where the girls said they were abused. They interview neighbors, people on the street, anyone to see what they could remember. Vasquez tried to track down floor plans to the apartment building, hoping to prove the layout given by the victims at trial was all wrong.
"This, to me, is just not the behavior of guilty people," said Deborah Esquenazi, a filmmaker from Austin who's convinced of the women's innocence. "This is the behavior of desperate people." She's been gathering material for an upcoming documentary on the case since spring.
One of the last home videos Esquenazi obtained shows Mayhugh, Rivera, and Vasquez speaking at San Antonio Pride Fest in July 2000, pleading with the LGBT community to look into their case. Two weeks later, with their appeals denied, the women went to prison. Fighting tears, Rivera recalled telling her children she'd be leaving for a very long time. The kids asked if they could stay with her partner Vasquez. "I had to tell them, 'No, she's coming here, too.'"
Along with faulty medical evidence given at trial, the jury heard a maze of contradictions from the supposed victims. On and off the witness stand, their accounts changed, sometimes in dramatic fashion.
The assaults happened at night, then in the morning, then in the afternoon while "Full House" was on TV. They were assaulted in the living room, or in the bedroom, either together or separate. Mayhugh wasn't there. Or was she? Their father picked them up from the apartment following the assault. Then it was Ramirez and Mayhugh who drove them home. Ramirez pointed a gun at the girls as they spoke to their father on the phone, threatening them to keep quiet. Then, Ramirez and Vasquez each had guns. Then, only Vasquez had a gun.
Only in the second trial did jurors hear of allegations the girls made in 1992: that a mysterious 10-year-old boy sexually assaulted them while living with their mother in Denver, Colorado. The girl's mother, Rosemary Camarillo, in a brief interview with the Current this month, said she first heard of the allegations during the trial. The claims of abuse in 1992 surfaced conveniently just as Camarillo, Ramirez's sister, and Javier Limon, the girls' father, battled for custody of the girls.
According to publicly available records, it doesn't appear police, prosecutors, or the defense ever fully vetted the Denver allegations. Apart from questioning the victims and the four women, San Antonio Police Sgt. Thomas Matjeka appears to have only taken statements from the girl's father and paternal grandmother. The girls testified to screaming throughout their ordeal at Ramirez's apartment, yet it appears police never questioned neighbors to determine whether they heard anything.
The women's defense was simple: the girls were lying.
Ramirez said she knew why. Limon, the girls' father, put them up to it, she claimed at trial and in an interview with the Current. She said Limon would often writer her love letters, and when she became pregnant he proposed marriage. "That's when he said he wanted to father the baby, and I told him he was crazy." Limon, Ramirez claims, was upset she turned him down, and furious to think it was for another woman.
Limon had custody disputes with all three of the women with whom he's fathered children. Allegations of sexual abuse again surfaced in his family in 2008, when one of his daughters accused her oldest brother of assault during a long custody dispute with his third wife, Carina Hooper, said Hooper's family when reached by phone this month.
The recantation by Ramirez's youngest niece this September corroborates Ramirez's story, say lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas.
"I remember everything he (Limon) coached me to say, as well as my grandmother. I'm sorry it has taken this long for me to know what truly happened," the victim, now 25, wrote in a letter to her aunt, in which she calls her father an "evil monster." Esquenazi, who's filming a documentary on the case, got the recantation on camera. "You must understand," the girl says on film, "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 get my ass beat."
The woman didn't want to talk to the Current, and her Houston-based attorney Casie Gotro insisted the process needs to play out in open court. Gotro claims the woman has faced intense retaliation from her father's side of the family since she went public with her recantation.
"There are some things she's saying that are pivotal if these cases are to be reviewed, as they should be," Gotro told the Current this month. "[She] has specific recollections of being interviewed by police, and having been very clearly coached. That information is going to be pivotal to any court that's going to review these cases."
When reached by phone this month, Limon said his own personal attorney and the Bexar County District Attorney's office urged him not to answer our questions.* In that brief conversation, he would only say his side of the story has been misconstrued and twisted by others. "The recanting of her story, it's not valid because, it's because of her wanting to be vindictive, and that's what it is," he said. "I can tell you that she is not being honest with what she was saying. ...Things are being said, things are being taken out of context, things are being twisted around."
He ended the conversation this way: "I've got nothing to hide."
The case of Frank Navarijo, 73, suggests that Dr. Nancy Kellogg, who validated the critical physical evidence in the San Antonio Four case, has offered questionable medical testimony in at least one other child sexual assault trial.
Accused of molesting his daughter, Navarijo was sentenced to 20 years in prison one year after the last of the San Antonio Four were convicted.
An SAPD officer for 23 years, Navarijo met Delia, another officer 20 years his junior, while working at a South Side police substation. The two quietly began seeing each other, though Navarijo was still married to his second wife. Months after they met, Delia became pregnant with Navarijo's daughter.
Navarijo cut ties, and Delia filed a paternity suit. Eventually, Navarijo divorced his wife and began seeing Delia again. Delia brought Navarijo's daughter to meet him over breakfast at a McDonald's when the girl was two years old. Navarijo testified that things changed for the new family that morning. The girl looked just like him. "I loved her from the beginning," he told the court.
Navarijo eventually left the police department and, after a short stint as an investigator in the DA's office, began contracting with the U.S. Department of Justice to travel to other countries, teaching fledgling police forces the basics of investigation and police work. He made multiple trips to El Salvador.
At trial, Navarijo recalled how Delia's mother, Paula Garza, hated him. The paternity dispute angered Garza, Delia testified. Navarijo took Delia and the daughter on one of his trips to El Salvador. Delia came back sick with typhoid fever, further angering Garza.
Soon after Navarijo and Delia married, Garza began calling him a "dirty old man" and pig (cochino in Spanish) in front of the young girl. When the girl was 3 years old, Garza told Delia that Navarijo had touched his daughter inappropriately. A family member who worked for Child Protective Services questioned the daughter, who told the family member that nothing had happened, according to court records. After that, Navarijo had reservations about sending the girl back to her grandmother's.
But Delia wanted Garza in her daughter's life. The girl loved her grandmother; she called her mamita and would often stay with her overnight, since Navarijo and Delia had odd work schedules.
On January 8, 1998, Navarijo, Delia, and their daughter went out for dinner. For dessert, they came home and helped the girl bake a cake in an Easy Bake Oven she'd just been given for Christmas. That night, the girl left to go stay with Garza, her grandmother.
At her house, Garza later told child protection workers and police, the girl appeared sad, "rather very deep in thought, tired, thinking about things." Then the girl told Garza her father repeatedly raped her. On some occasions, Garza testified, Delia watched and did nothing to stop it. "So what you're telling us today is that this child told you that her mother would come into the room and see what was going on, and not do anything about it?" questioned defense attorney Therese Huntzinger. Garza responded in Spanish, "That's right."
Garza alerted officials at the girl's pre-school the next day, who then called police and CPS.
When Delia took the daughter home, however, the story changed. "[I]s that lady (CPS worker) going to be mad at me?" the girl asked, according to Delia. "And I said no, she's not going to be mad at you, why would she be mad? She basically told me, my dad didn't touch me.
My grandma told me to say that he did. She lied."
Three days later, while the daughter was alone in another interview with the CPS caseworker, she recanted the story. "Why did you tell me that he had touched you?" CPS asked the girl, according to a transcript of the video-taped interview. "Yea, but grandma told a lie," the girl responds. "Yes, that's not what I'm asking you, but why did you tell me — remember when we talked, you told me he touched you, ok? Can you tell me why you said that?"
"Grandma told me to say that."
Navarijo's defense highlighted that he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer soon after his marriage and had surgery to remove his prostate four months before the allegations surfaced. From September 1997 to August 1998, he was incontinent, unable to even control his urination.
Navarijo was also impotent, reluctantly revealing on the stand that, "From the date of my surgery to this present day, I have not achieved an erection, sir. I am totally impotent due to the surgery."
But the girl again said her father raped her in a subsequent interview with a caseworker, one in which the grandmother was present in the interviewing room. Throughout multiple statements on and off the stand, the daughter says the assault happened once. Then that it happened every night for at least a month. Or that her father assaulted her with a pico. "Can you tell me what you mean by pico?" prosecutor Jeff Mulliner asked the child. "Like — like a little sharp knife," the girl said.
The prosecution and defense in Navarijo's case battled over one crucial element: whether Nancy Kellogg's findings confirmed the girl had been sexually assaulted.
Kellogg testified her examination of the girl showed what she called an "attenuated hymen," or, "[W]hat I saw was very little hymen," which she stated was sign of repeated assault.
Upon reviewing Kellogg's exam notes from the case this month, Martin Finkel, a pediatrician and expert in the field, told the Current that based on the medical literature both then and now, he would have never called Kellogg's findings definitive signs of sexual trauma. But Kellogg did. Or to be more precise, the prosecution offered the possibility and Kellogg confirmed it.
At trial, prosecutor Chris DeMartino stated, "And are your findings such that in the area of vaginal penetration such that it's definitive, in your opinion, of that?" Kellogg responded, "In my opinion, that's correct."
The defense called Paul Navar, a Texas pediatrician who regularly evaluated children for child sexual assault for law enforcement in El Paso County. "It's kind of like fingerprints, or people's noses," Navar testified of hymens. "They're all individual, they look different."
Navar also cited a study published in Pediatrics in 1987 examining three groups of young girls: group one contained cases of confirmed abuse; group two was comprised of girls who had not been abused, but had experienced some sort of genital irritation, like an infection or rash; group three contained girls that had never been abused and had no complications. The study found 20 percent of abused girls had what Kellogg called "attenuated" hymens; 10 percent in the second group had the condition; and 5 percent of non-abused girls had the condition.
Kellogg disregarded that study on the stand, questioning whether the non-abused sample group actually contained abused children. To dispel any doubt over the meaning of her findings, Kellogg even claimed that a thin, or attenuated, hymen had never been confirmed as normal variation in non-abused children.
But Kellogg's findings appear to have evolved throughout the case, according to Sonja Eddleman, clinical coordinator of a child-abuse evaluation team who directs the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Corpus Christi's Driscoll Children's Hospital. Kellogg writes in her report she "briefly told the mother I had strong concerns and that her exam was not normal," before writing her findings are "highly consistent with abuse." By trial, Kellogg calls the girl's exam evidence of "a form of a scar," something Eddleman says is completely unsupported by the medical literature.
"My concern here is that it seems from the examination and then the trial, there was an evolution or a dramatic change in what her findings were and how concerning they were for abuse," Eddleman said. Upon evaluating Kellogg's exam report and trial testimony, Eddleman also questioned why Kellogg never took a medical history of the child.
The science, both then and now, "does not support the statements that were made under oath," Eddleman insisted.
Navarijo's daughter is now a 20-year-old college student who lives on her own. In a court hearing this month in which Navarijo's attorneys asked state District Judge Maria Theresa Herr to recommend that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturn Navarijo's conviction, the daughter recalled, "My grandmother, as early as I can remember did not like my dad, for whatever reason. … She hated my father."
In August 2011, Navarijo's daughter signed a sworn affidavit saying her grandmother, Garza, "made me make these false allegations against my dad," who by that time had served 12 of the 20 years he'd been sentenced. "She would call my dad a 'pig' and other derogatory names," the affidavit states. The girl says she was too afraid to disobey her grandmother, who would often beat her with a belt for punishment.
Attorneys say Garza is still alive, though attempts to reach her for contact were unsuccessful. Navarijo's daughter and other family members declined to comment outside the courtroom this month.
Garza fought for custody of the child during Navarijo's trial, court records show. After he was convicted, the girl lived with Garza for much of her childhood, seeing her mother only during supervised visits. When she was around 11, the daughter says she recanted to a counselor, who's since moved out of state. If the counselor had any record of the visit, it was lost in a flood some years ago, according to court records.
At this month's court hearing, Navarijo's attorney, Michael Gross, called forensic psychologist Joann Murphey, who conducted two lengthy interviews with the daughter last year, to testify.
Murphey reviewed both videotaped interviews the daughter gave to CPS in 1998. Noting differences between the two videos, in which the girl recants and then confirms the abuse, Murphey remarked, "This does not look like the same child."
Video of the second interview, where the daughter repeats the story of assault, shows "the grandmother glaring at [the girl] behind the interviewer's back."
Murphey called the investigator's questions "inappropriate," saying, "They are misleading, and as a matter of fact, the investigator tells her, 'Your father hurt you.'"
Asked if she was surprised by the lack of professionalism on the tape, Murphey said, "I'm outraged, quite frankly."
Outside Navarijo's court hearing this month, Rico Valdez, chief of the Bexar County DA's appellate division, confirmed he is in discussions with Mike Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas regarding the San Antonio Four (though Ware has yet to file for a court hearing re-evaluating the case). But he contends there are "types of situations that can cause a victim to recant untruthfully," and that Kellogg's testimony in Navarijo's trial was "strong scientific evidence" that was heavily litigated. "I haven't heard anything yet to make me question it." The real question is whether the judge, and, ultimately the Court of Criminal Appeals, believes the daughter's testimony was more credible this month, or when she took the stand as a child in 1999.
Jeff Mulliner, a prosecutor on Navarijo's case, disagrees. Now a criminal defense attorney, Mulliner doesn't give much weight to the recent recantation. "If the only thing was [the daughter] recanting, I'd be like, well, no," he said. "I talked to her at the time, I believed her, and I can think of a hundred reasons why somebody within the last 14 years, with all that family pressure, would come out and say this evil grandmother is the reason I said everything that I said."
Mulliner's more troubled by questions over Kellogg's testimony, which labeled the forensics definitive evidence of child sexual assault, when the science both then and now may not support it. "If the jury had not heard with such clarity from Nancy [Kellogg] that this was definitive, then all the other inconsistencies and arguments the defense made didn't have a fair opportunity of being considered," Mulliner said.
There's indication Kellogg's testimony carried enormous weight as jurors struggled with their decision. A note from jurors during deliberations shows they questioned whether Garza coerced the girl into making the charges. But it was the physical evidence that swayed the jury, recalled juror Monica Moreno in an interview last month with the Current. "That just showed us the real damage that had been done to that poor little girl."
In the Navarijo case, Eddleman, who directs the child abuse evaluation team at Driscoll Children's Hospital, contends Kellogg "stepped away from providing the medical findings to providing an answer for the prosecution's case."
"Certainly the defense community over time has come to form at least a general opinion that Nancy Kellogg is really an advocate as opposed to a scientist," said Mulliner.
"You know, it seems to me, and many of us, that she's too personally involved in the cause that she's supposed to be examining clinically. And perhaps she has been doing that all along and it's only coming to light now."
At Navarijo's trial, Kellogg even acknowledged that small white lines in the hymen were no longer used as clear evidence of child sexual assault after studies, some in which she herself had participated, showed those lines were normal variation and present in children that hadn't been abused – they confirmed nothing. At one point, a defense attorney asked her, "So at one time we were using that fact as an indicator of sexual abuse, until there was discovery that that occurred in newborns and wasn't necessarily an indicator?" Kellogg's response: "Yes."
In fact, Kellogg had presented the very same finding as evidence to convict the San Antonio Four a year prior.
Although a troubling set of circumstances led to the convictions of Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez, an equally strange chain of events may have begun to pave the way for their exoneration.
Darrell Otto, a professor of renewable resource management in Canada's Yukon Territory, first stumbled upon the case in 2006 during a web search. The story "was just so far off the rails," he recalled in a phone interview.
He corresponded with Ramirez for 18 months, asking her to explain the case. Ramirez mailed Otto court documents. Once he read through them, he was convinced of the women's innocence. "I mean, ethically, what do I do? I can't just leave them there," he said. He made the 3,700-mile trip to visit the women in prison.
Otto contacted the National Center for Reason and Justice, an advocacy group that investigates cases of those wrongly convicted, particularly falsely accused pedophiles. There Otto found journalist Debbie Nathan, a Current reporter in the late 1990s who went on to help found the NCRJ, and who has since become an avid advocate for the San Antonio Four. "I made it my business to help those women because I feel terrible that I didn't know about them when I was in San Antonio," she said.
With Nathan's prodding, the Innocence Project of Texas eventually took the case. Support from both groups eventually led to an in-depth December 2010 piece from Express-News crime reporter Michelle Mondo, the first reporter to critically evaluate the case.
The same day Navarijo's daughter recanted her allegations in a San Antonio courtroom Vasquez left prison after nearly 13 years. Vasquez, like Mayhugh and Rivera, refused to take part in mandatory counseling sessions that would have required her to admit to and talk about the supposed crime. Mike Ware with the Innocence Project of Texas suggests a polygraph Vasquez passed last year may have swayed the parole board's decision, despite Vasquez's refusal to enter counseling.
"I think as this travesty becomes more and more obvious and more and more publicly known, the big question is how will people in power react to our efforts to make it right?" Ware said.
Vasquez was visibly shaken in an interview with the Current last week, having registered as a sex-offender the day before. "Yesterday was very upsetting," she said, fighting tears. "The thought, the reality that I am a registered sex offender, that's real hard to deal with." She's barred from going online, and can't be around or even talk of children younger than 17 — including family members. "My parole officer even looked at these photos on the walls," Vasquez said, pointing to a cluster of family photos inside her mother's West Side home, where she's now staying. "We might even have to take those down as a condition of my parole."
Vasquez still views Rivera's children as her own, having kept in contact with them throughout her time in prison. But Rivera's daughter just had a child of her own, and Vasquez worries the conditions of parole might keep them from ever truly re-connecting. "I will be devastated if that happens," she said.
Vasquez sat in her new, small room, reading from a journal she started keeping in prison. She's afraid to go outside. "There's just this terrifying feeling that something will go wrong," she said, before adding: "I just want to be able to breathe again."
*The DA's office denies Limon's statement. On Monday, November 19, Rico Valdez at the Bexar County District Attorney's office told the Current: “I haven't and nobody in this office has urged Mr. Limon to not talk to the press or to not cooperate with the defense. That's not our place. We would never do that.”