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In 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez was 20 years old and working at an Arby’s in San Antonio, Texas, when a police officer knocked on her door and called her in for questioning. She had been accused by her sister’s ex-boyfriend of molesting her two nieces.

It was a terrible accusation, but Elizabeth was not the only one accused. She and three of her friends, who were all lesbians, had been in her apartment during the week in July that the nieces say the attacks happened.

Known as the San Antonio 4, Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassie Rivera and Ana Vasquez have maintained their innocence since the start of the accusations. But nobody believed them.

The prosecutors who handled their cases claimed that sexual orientation had little to do with the trial, but the women said they were repeatedly questioned about their sexuality.

“I had my defense attorneys telling me to fix my hair and put some makeup on,” Anna said. “Even the people who are supposed to be defending me were telling me to tone it down, because I looked too gay.”

The trial came at a time when the country was going through a period of extreme panic about child sex abuse and satanic rituals mixed with homophobia, a hysteria called the Satanic Panic.

The nieces, aged 7 and 9, testified about being assaulted, locked in a bathroom and being threatened with a gun.

“It was crazy, I couldn’t believe what they were saying,” Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth and her sister, Rosemary, believe that the girls’ father was responsible for making up the accusations, of an obsession with Elizabeth.

“He thought he could change her from being a lesbian,” said Rosemary.

The San Antonio 4 were convicted. Elizabeth went to prison in 1997 and her friends in 2000. It was especially hard for Cassie and Elizabeth, who had to leave behind their children. Elizabeth wrote about her case to every advocacy organization she could, but received no answers.

“There was never a day I just never stopped fighting or looked for strength from God. I never gave up,” Elizabeth said. “I had three friends incarcerated with me and my family, and that was my strength to say I’m not giving up and the truth will one day come forward.”

Then, she struck up a friendship with a pen pal in the Yukon Territory, with a man who believed in her innocence. Soon, an organization called the Nation Center for Reason and Justice had picked up the case, and reporters were paying attention to the story.

Vasquez was released on parole in 2012, and in 2013. The other three women were released on bail after critical pieces of evidence in the case changed. However, their case remains open while they await a decision from Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, a decision that could vacate their convictions and exonerate them.

Featured image courtesy of Elizabeth Ramirez