Exonerated: “Satanic Panic” And The San Antonio Four: How False Abuse Hysteria Ruined Real Lives

Update: It’s official, the “San Antonio Four”, Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh, and Elizabeth Ramirez, have been exonerated. Follow the women on Twitter to get more updates and watch the full documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four on ID Go.

The acclaimed new documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four chronicles the 1994 case of four Texas women — Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh, and Elizabeth Ramirez — who were convicted of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s young nieces while babysitting them.

Beyond the allegations of criminal sex, prosecutors in what is now deemed the case of “The San Antonio Four” played off ritual-abuse hysteria that first arose on a large scale during the previous decade’s “Satanic Panic” and that clearly still held sway in the trial’s deeply conservative, overwhelmingly Christian district.

The documentary contends, however, that what really landed the San Antonio Four behind bars was that the accused women were all lesbians.

In retrospect, the eighties-era “Satanic Panic” can seem almost comical, marked as it was by Capitol Hill hearings on the occult power of heavy metal music; Geraldo Rivera’s Halloween night NBC special, Exposing Satan’s Underground; and even nationally reported claims that the theme song to the sixties talking-horse sitcom Mr. Ed contained backward messages in praise of Satan.

False allegations of Satanic crimes, however, claimed real victims. Multiple educators and other child-care providers, particularly those at preschools, faced charges of outlandish and even impossible acts committed against youngsters in the name of devil worship.

First and still most notorious was the 1983 case of the McMartin Preschool in California.


Claims of bizarre, massive, even globally connected ritual-abuse organizations and practices came up in the trial.

Former students testified to seeing witches fly at the school and traveling from one abuse scene to another by hot-air balloons, underground tunnels, or by getting flushed down a toilet. One boy picked out a photo of action-movie star Chuck Norris as one of the abusers.

Many media outlets reported the McMartin proceedings often without criticism and sometimes with great sensationalism.

Over the next few years, more than 100 other preschools faced similar accusations, and the hysteria eventually grew to be international.

The McMartin case ended in acquittals and multiple hung juries. On the positive side, it forced authorities to reexamine and make changes in how to interview children in legal circumstances and to be wary of “recovered memory” testimony.

Come the nineties, ritual-abuse allegations largely dwindled and the “Satanic Panic” seemed to dissipate from mainstream consciousness — but not everywhere, and never entirely.

Damien Echols, Lloyd Misskelley, Carles Baldwin, West Memphis Police Department

Damien Echols, Lloyd Misskelley, Carles Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]

Most famously, “The West Memphis Three,” a trio of teenage heavy metal fans in Arkansas, were tried and unjustly convicted for the 1993 murder and mutilation of three young boys. After spending more than 17 years in jail, DNA evidence exonerated the now grown men in 2010.

While the West Memphis Three stood trial, ritual-abuse mania apparently struck again in San Antonio.

During the summer of 1994, Anna Ramirez’s nieces, then aged 7 and 9, spent a week with their aunt. Mayhugh, Rivera, and Vasquez stopped by throughout the stay, which Ramirez describes as “a typical week, just [doing] what families do … we went out to the park, we ate, just kind of hung out.”

Shortly after returning home, though, the children claimed the women sexually assaulted them at gun point.

Ramirez and the others believe the young girls were coached by family members who disapproved of homosexuality.


After a trial predicated on what Southwest of Salem argues is a dubious medical exam, the San Antonio Four each received multiple-decade sentences, with Ramirez topping the list with 37-and-a-half years. The women continually refused plea deals, swearing that no such incidents occurred.

Aside from the medical evidence, Southwest of Salem highlights how prosecutors tossed out terms such as “cult-type” and “sacrificed on the altar of lust,” theoretically to paint the defendants as comprising some sort of lesbian witch coven.

Stephanie Limon, one of the original accusing nieces, contacted journalist Debbie Nathan several years ago to recant her allegations, saying, “It didn’t happen. I have no memory of it happening.”

In addition, former Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed has since discredited the once-damning medical evidence which is now widely regarded as “junk science.” She has stated that the photograph of an internal tear in one of the girls that was presented as proof of assualt actually shows a condition that can, and does, occur naturally.

Since 2013, attorneys with the Innocence Project of Texas have worked to get all four women’s convictions vacated. A judge recommended exoneration earlier this year, and a final ruling from the Texas Court of Appeals is forthcoming.

“This case is the last gasp of the Satanic ritual-abuse panic,” Debbie Nathan says in Southwest of Salem. The repercussions of that dark era, however, will echo onward for ages.

Watch the Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four on ID GO. 

Read more:
Southwest of Salem Official Website
Daily Beast
My San Antonio
New York Times
Washington Post
Wall Street Journal
Chicago Tribune

Main image (left to right): Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera [San Antonio Police Department]

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  • Tonnie

    The correct names of the West Memphis Three are: Damian Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin.
    So many got it so wrong for so long, I wanted to make sure to make that, at least, right.
    Celebrating over five years of freedom for the West Memphis Three, and joining the fight to Exonerate The WM3!!

    • Rachell☆Cosgrove

      Tonnie, excellent and thank you. Yes, we are celebrating their freedom everyday. I am proud to say I joined that fight for their freedom many years ago. This case gives me that same feeling I had during the WM3 boy’s long years of litigation for freedom. I am ready to stand for these four women who are NOT actually innocent of a crime….. they are innocent of an event THAT NEVER EVEN HAPPENED. This case is unique in that respect. It’s going to be a mountain to climb, but this case and these women’s lives and good names must be returned to them fully and clean of any wrong doing. I’m searching the Internet for any kind of support groups that exist for them to join and be active in. Does anyone know if any groups exist? Thank you.

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