This will sound strange but it only gets stranger: A man in the Yukon who lives in a hut and has a team of 30 mush dogs got interested in the topic of female sex offenders.
The man, Darrell Otto, may trod the frozen tundra, but like everyone else, he's got Internet access, and somehow he stumbled upon an odd case: Four Texas lesbians convicted in their very early 20s of raping two young girls in a tequila-soaked orgy. By the time the man, Darrell Otto, was reading about them, they'd been in prison four or five years, but they had at least another decade to go. One of them, in fact, had 30 years to go.
That's quite a sentence.
Otto wanted someone to dig deeper and at last he found the National Center for Reason and Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to identifying false allegations of harm to children, which agreed to investigate. Here’s what they found.
The girls, 7 and 9, had been staying with their aunt, 20-year-old Elizabeth Ramirez, for a week. Two months later, they told their grandmother they'd been raped by Ramirez and her friends.
The girls changed their facts — sometimes they were threatened with a knife, other times a gun; sometimes separately, sometimes apart — but most damningly: they had told a strikingly similar story two years earlier. That time, it was about their mom. This was when their dad, Javier Limon, was in a bitter custody battle with her.
Javier Limon figured large in this case, too. Allegedly, he had been in love with Ramirez and outraged when she turned him down. He vowed vengeance. Slate reports that Ramirez had love letters from Limon.
She was not allowed to enter them in her defense.
Instead, the trial was about four gay women, in a conservative Texas town, at the tail end of the "Satanic Panic." That's when Americans across the country became convinced that day care workers were dismembering babies, drinking blood and ritually raping preschoolers. It sounds outrageous now, but people went to prison, sometimes for decades, for ostensibly making their toddler students dig up bodies in the graveyard, or flying them down to Mexico to be raped by soldiers -- and back by circle time. (See the case of Frances and Dan Keller.)
In the end, the women's fate was sealed when a doctor testified that the lines she saw on one of the girl's hymens were irrefutable proof of rape. The San Antonio Four entered prison reviled as child molesters — and lesbians.
"Many of these cases were fueled by homophobia," says Debbie Nathan, author of "Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt." Nathan is on the board of the NCRJ, the group that took on this case. Back then, she says, many people assumed that anyone gay was also a child predator.
Nathan urged one of her proteges, Deborah Esquenazi, to keep digging, even as she convinced the Texas Innocence Project to do the same. As a gay woman herself, just coming out, Esquenazi went to meet the women in prison and was shocked to find, "They were no longer angry. They just wanted to tell their story.”
So she brought along a video camera, and bore witness over the next few years to an extraordinary turn of events.
First, the doctor who had insisted the physical evidence "proved" rape admitted she'd been wrong. It turns out that hymen lines are a normal variation.
Second, Texas passed a bill that allows people to appeal if their convictions were based on "junk science."
Finally: One of the victims, now 20-something, recanted her testimony. She said she’d felt guilty for ages.
After more than a decade in prison, the women were released ... but not exonerated. They're in legal limbo, working factory jobs as they await what happens next.
Which is the red carpet.
Esquenazi's documentary, "Southwest of Salem," is premiering at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. The San Antonio Four will be there. It should all be pretty sweet.
But not as sweet as justice