SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – Sitting in the prison where she’s spent nearly half of her life, Elizabeth Ramirez is stunned by the words that could help exonerate her and three friends of the sexual assault of her two nieces, a crime she said she couldn’t fathom let alone commit.
It never happened, one niece now says of the debauched, orgy-like nightmare that she and her older sister described to San Antonio police in 1994 when they were 7 and 9.
“I want my aunt and her friends out of prison,” Stephanie, 25, said by phone last week. “Whatever it takes to get them out I’m going to do. I can’t live my life knowing that four women are sleeping in a cage because of me.”
Sixteen years into a 37½-year sentence, Ramirez prayed for such a turn of events.
While Stephanie’s recantation may not ultimately lead to the legal exoneration the women are fighting to win, it’s closer to vindication.
Like Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera know they face a long court battle to clear their names. By the time it’s over, the three may have already fulfilled their 15-year sentences, due to end in three years.
Not so for Ramirez. Labeled the ringleader by her nieces and slapped with a prison term more than double that of her friends, who were tried separately, she has the most to gain from an exoneration in that it would free her from a sentence that doesn’t end until 2034. By then, she’ll be 60.
Ramirez and Rivera were just 20 when they were arrested. Vasquez was 19 and Mayhugh 22. None ever had been in trouble with the law.
The women already have missed so much of life and the milestones that come with approaching middle age, they said two weeks ago in individual prison interviews.
Rivera, 37, whose hair is turning gray, never has held her 1-year-old granddaughter. Mayhugh, 39, and Vasquez, 37, have missed the chance to say goodbye to loved ones who died. Ramirez, 38, hasn’t seen or spoken to her son since going to prison when he was 2. She was pregnant at the time she was accused.
“I never want to be bitter and angry,” Ramirez said, from the Hobby Unit visitation room in Marlin. “Regardless, God always says you gotta love and you’ve got to forgive.”
The women expressed that same sentiment more than two years ago when the San Antonio Express-News published a report examining their innocence claims.
Not until their attorney showed each of them a typed summary of his meetings with Stephanie could they believe she had recanted.
“At first I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” Ramirez said, her eyes widening. “I didn’t think they had anything on paper.”
It’s not the only development. Their attorney Mike Ware, who is working with the Innocence Project of Texas, plans to meet soon with the Bexar County district attorney’s office. An Austin crew is filming a documentary.
All of the women said they are cautiously optimistic.
“I know the charges against us are not taken lightly. But can they please keep looking into this?” said Vasquez, who is in Gatesville’s Murray Unit.
“I hate that I can’t talk about this without crying,” she said, wiping away tears. “Maybe it’s been put into (Stephanie’s) heart to finally tell the truth. I thank God that she’s come forward.
“They painted us as monsters.”
Over the years, as Stephanie spoke with family and friends, she came to the conclusion there was no crime.
Her aunt and her friends never violently turned on her when she and her sister were visiting Ramirez’s one-bedroom apartment on Winkle Street in summer 1994, she now says.
As the nieces then described it to the police and later to jurors, the women called them into the apartment, where they were getting drunk and smoking pot, two of them lounging around topless, and held them by their wrists and ankles, repeatedly violated them, threatened to kill them and their families — then let them take a shower and go about their day. The graphic tale later spurred talk of Satanism.
Stephanie now recalls the visit as uneventful.
“I remember going to the store, going to (Ramirez’s) job and being bored, going swimming,” she said. “I remember all of that but something that is supposed to be traumatic in my life I should remember that too.”
The Express-News generally doesn’t name sexual-assault victims, which both nieces are in the eyes of the law. While Stephanie no longer considers herself one, she asked that her full name not be used because of safety concerns.
Attempts to reach the second niece weren’t successful.
Of the two, only the elder niece testified at both trials; Stephanie was just called to the stand in the trial of Ramirez’s friends. On and off the witness stand, the sisters changed their accounts of the timing, the use of weapons, the perpetrators and other basic details of the assault every time they told it to authorities, records show.
It was one of several red flags raised in the Express-News investigation published in December 2010 that also delved into concerns about the scientific legitimacy of medical evidence used against the women, whether anyone looked into a previous rape allegation made by the girls and if anti-gay views prejudiced Ramirez’s jury.
All four women believe their same-sex relationships hurt their case. Mayhugh and Ramirez had dated. Vasquez helped raise Rivera’s two children and they lived together until they were imprisoned.
When the women were tried, their defense was that the nieces were lying.
Ramirez testified that she had turned down marriage proposals from her nieces’ father, who was her sister’s former boyfriend. That could have angered him, she said.
When asked about that in 2010, Stephanie’s father, Javier Limon, vehemently denied being in any way involved in the accusations and making any advances toward Ramirez.
Calls made last week to a number listed for Limon were not returned.
Jurors at both trials rejected the women’s claims and convicted them of aggravated child sexual assault and indecency with a child.
When she was in her late teens, Stephanie said she saw a counselor and talked about the case.
Her change of heart has ruined her relationship with her sister, Stephanie said.
Mayhugh, who is in Gatesville’s Mountain View Unit, said in an interview that Stephanie’s recantation gave her some relief.
“After the shock, I was happy because it was good to hear the things she was saying were the things we said all along — nothing happened,” she said.
Every time Rivera has come close to giving up hope, she gets a sign to stay strong. Stephanie’s reversal was the latest.
“It basically tore my world apart,” Rivera said, sitting in the same visitation room as Ramirez.
Ware, who said Stephanie requested to meet with him, wasn’t counting on any recantation, but it bolsters what he said is significant evidence strongly suggesting innocence, though he wouldn’t elaborate.
“It’s very clear she believes the right thing for these four wrongfully convicted women is that they be exonerated,” Ware said.
The first step is filing for a new trial in state district court, he said. That court would hear evidence, then give recommended findings and conclusions to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a final decision.
Ware and DA office spokesman First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said a congenial start is in the works although extensive legal wrangling might follow.
“What I would hope,” Ware said, “is that they will be open with me in the information they’ve got in their files and say, ‘We’ve got nothing to hide; here it all is.’”
Herberg said it’s too early for the district attorney to take a position on the case or to know whether the office or a special prosecutor would handle it.
“We are more than willing to listen to anything they have to say,” Herberg said. “It’s paramount that justice is done, whatever that is.”
Neither side commented on the physical evidence presented at both trials from pediatrician Nancy Kellogg, then as now the medical director of Child Safe, formerly the Alamo Children’s Advocacy Center.
Kellogg twice has declined to comment, including on medical studies that show at the time of the examination of the girls and the trials, three of the signs she noted as sexual trauma were not classified as such. At most, the signs only could be deemed inconclusive because Kellogg didn’t examine the girls until months after the reported crime.
Kellogg’s exam report also showed she spoke to police about “my concern that this could be Satanic-related.” Satanic rituals, cited as reasons for a wave of child sex-abuse cases in the mid-1980s to early 1990s, were widely discredited before she saw the girls.
Walled off from their loved ones and largely from each other for more than a decade, the women have heard only snippets of information about efforts to free them.
None has seen Facebook, Twitter, You Tube or other social media used by their supporters.
When she gets out, Rivera hopes to help raise her granddaughter to make up for lost time with her own two children.
Mayhugh, who at the time of the accusations was studying at Texas A&M with the goal of becoming a veterinarian, said she’d like to think she would have had a little business by now.
Vasquez wrote in a letter the day of her interview: “It’s hard seeing mom getting older and not being able to be of any help to her.”
As they headed back to the dorm from the prison visitation room, Rivera put her arm around Ramirez’s shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze and pat on the back.
Stephanie hasn’t spoken to her aunt since she accused her. She sent her a letter about two weeks ago. As of Sept. 5, Ramirez hadn’t received it.
“Does she know I’m trying to help?” Stephanie asked a reporter. “I can’t take back what I did, but if I could talk to all of them in one room I would just say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for ruining them.”