It almost came as a relief when, in 2000, Anna Vasquez went to jail for a horrific crime she didn’t commit. The soft-spoken San Antonian had spent years battling false allegations and appealing her wrongful conviction. She had lost the fight, yes, but at least it was finally over. Or so she thought.
The nightmare had started back in 1994. Vasquez, a year out of high school and working at Little Caesar’s to save for college, was living with her girlfriend, mother-of-two Cassandra Rivera, and their best friends Kristie Mayhugh and Elizabeth Ramirez, who was pregnant. Ramirez’s two nieces, ages 7 and 9, came to stay with the women for a weeklong visit, during which they did routine things like visit Walmart and go swimming.
Afterward the four were accused of brutally gang-raping the girls.
The charges against the friends—soon to be known as the San Antonio Four—became front-page news. This was, after all, the era of the “satanic panic,” when dozens of people across America, many of them gay, were accused of molesting children as an act of satanic worship in stories sensationalized on TV shows like Sally Jessy Raphael and Maury Povich.
Vasquez, Rivera, and Mayhugh’s trial took place in 1998. The jury was openly homophobic, and prosecutors built their case around the highly inconsistent testimony of the alleged victims, who smiled at their aunt—the accused “ring leader,” Ramirez had a separate trial—in the courtroom and confused numerous details of an increasingly preposterous story.
The prosecution also relied on now-debunked scientific evidence. The state’s pediatrician, Nancy Kellogg, testified that scarring on the hymen of one of the girls was evidence of sexual assault. “That was a myth,” says Vasquez. “They believed if there was a woman or girl that never had sexual penetration, that it should be perfect, no scarring or anything like that.” In her exam notes Kellogg had even jotted down, “This could be Satanic-related.”
As the defense noted, the girls’ father, Ramirez’s sister’s ex, had been writing Ramirez love letters and making other advances she’d denied. He also had a history of accusing people of abusing his daughters.
Nevertheless, over two trials, all four women were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. Ramirez received 37 years, while the others each received 15.
In prison Vasquez was scared but pretended to be fearless. She never wavered in maintaining her innocence, even doing time in solitary for refusing to participate in sexual-offender classes. Although she came up for parole three times, she was always shut down because admitting guilt is a requirement for early release.
“I remember the day, three years into prison, I got down on my knees in my cell and prayed wholeheartedly,” Vasquez says. “I forgave everyone who had a hand in putting me there. The alleged victims, we never blamed. But I’ve prayed for that family.”
As it turned out, the fight had not gone out of Vasquez. She began to write letters to lawyers and others who might be able to help. At first her efforts went nowhere. “People would write back and say, ‘I can’t help you because you have nothing new to present as evidence,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘How am I supposed to produce new evidence when I’m sitting behind bars?’”
Finally, in 2008, the National Center for Reason and Justice, in communication with Ramirez, took up the cause. In 2011 the Innocence Project of Texas began representing the women. And in 2012 one of the alleged victims in the case recanted, admitting that her father and grandmother had pressured her into making the allegations and coached her testimony. Months later Vasquez was released on parole. She had spent almost 13 years of her life incarcerated.
After her release Vasquez was required to register as a sex offender. She got a job at her brother’s auto shop but had to quit because it was too close to a school. By increments, though, things began to improve. A high school friend landed her a job at Mission Tortilla, and Vasquez settled into life at her mom’s house—her family was extremely supportive—and even started seeing a new girlfriend.
She was free, but not really. “I just didn’t feel complete without my three friends,” Vasquez says, “knowing they were sitting in prison for a crime that never even occurred.”
So she fought some more, appearing on news networks and at community gatherings. Once regarded as the quiet friend, Vasquez became the group spokesperson. “When you’re fighting for your life, you’ll do anything,” she says. “I’d come home from work. I’d have interviews scheduled for 20 minutes later.”
In 2013 Kellogg admitted, in court, that her forensic evidence and testimony had been flawed. The three other women were released on bail, but they, too, had to register as sex offenders. Vasquez continued to speak out about the case until 2016, when all four women were exonerated.
But as the others started to move on, Vasquez says, “I almost had a breakdown.” She had been fighting for justice since 1998. “It was all I knew,” she says. “It was all I needed to do. I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’”
The answer? The same thing. By then a skilled public speaker, Vasquez joined the Innocence Project of Texas as director of outreach and education. In that capacity she speaks with the public, cultivates community among Texas exonerees, and pushes for bills to improve our judicial system. As of July she also has joined the board of the Houston Forensic Science Center—which provides independent forensic services to HPD—replacing the center’s first exoneree appointment, Anthony Graves. “We oversee the center,” she explains, “and make sure that everything is done right.”
Although the San Antonio Four all received compensation from the state for their ordeal, there are things that will never be addressed, like this: “Still to this day, my partner will grab my hand in a public place, and I’ll shy away,” Vasquez says. But she’s found healing in continuing to fight the good fight—“to help those in prison come out of prison,” she says, “but not only that, to prevent wrongful convictions, period.”