'Ritual Abuse,' the San Antonio Four, and Public Hysteria

San Antonio case shows innocent are still behind bars

The Austin Chronicle/December 6, 2013

By Debbie Nathan

Fran and Dan Keller are some of the last innocent people to leave prison after being caught in the satanic child abuse hysteria of the Eighties and Nineties. At least we think they're some of the last – no one really knows who's still behind bars. My group thought we knew. Then, five years ago, we received a shocking email.

I'm on the board of the National Center for Reason and Justice. Founded 12 years ago, the NCRJ helps free people falsely convicted of hurting children. We use their stories to expose the terrible things that can happen to innocent people – both children and adults – when society addresses the real problem of child abuse, but exaggerates its extent, and panics.

The Kellers were two of the first innocents we listed. Their case, with accusations of baby slaughter, cemetery rituals, and secret flights to Mexico, fit a pattern of panic that had started in 1983 in California, with the infamous McMartin Preschool case. In the next nine years, over 100 adults nationwide would be falsely convicted of ritual sex abuse. After Dan and Fran were shipped to prison, in 1992, the panic died completely. Or so we thought.

In 2008, NCRJ got that shocking email from a man in Canada, Darrell Otto. On the Internet, he'd discovered a group of four gay women in prison in Texas. They were friends from San Antonio and had been charged with ritually raping two little girls, ages 7 and 9, who were nieces of one of the women. The four defendants had been convicted in 1997 and 1998, and were serving sentences of between 15 and 37 1/2 years.

Otto believed they were innocent. He had evidence that the father of the child accusers had been angry with one of the women (in part because she was gay) and pressured his young daughters to bring false accusations. The case closely resembled that of the Kellers, with bizarre, improbable accusations and intimations of Satanism. It also included medical evidence purporting damage to the little girls' hymens – evidence that research had discredited by the time the NCRJ heard of the San Antonio case.

The NCRJ helped contact the media and educated them about the larger context of the case. Sometimes it felt as though we were running phone seminars for the press: "Satanic Panic 101," "Junk Science Pediatric Medical Evidence: An Introduction." We also contacted the Innocence Project of Texas, which accepted the case for review.

In late 2010, the first big investigative article about the women came out in the San Antonio Express-News. Days later, the NCRJ received a call from one of the accusers, who by then was in her 20s. Tearfully, she said that when she was 7, her father had forced her to lie about being raped by the women. She didn't remember that happening. But he'd threatened that if she didn't say it had, he would beat her and she'd be jailed. Fort Worth attorney Mike Ware, an Innocence Project of Texas board member, took the case, which the media and activists by then were calling the "San Antonio Four." Ware recruited Austin lawyer Keith Hampton (who was also representing the Kellers).

In both cases, the attorneys have lately prevailed with one of those "101" seminar issues: the medical evidence. Claims of evidence of damage to children's genitals, common in ritual abuse trials in the Eighties and Nineties, are now known to be often inaccurate, and a Texas law passed earlier this year allows the reopening of cases flawed by "junk science." The Kellers and the San Antonio Four are the first defendants to be affected by the new law.

Last month, three of the four – Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh – were released from prison pending later review by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Co-defendant Anna Vasquez was already out on restrictive parole, but has now had those restrictions rescinded. The process is being repeated for the Kellers.

No registry exists of old ritual abuse cases. People still in prison may be discovered by chance, as the San Antonio women were. Or they may never be found. That's a chilling possibility. Equally chilling is the temptation to believe the panic is over. It's not. While satanic abuse cases are rare or even passé, the NCRJ hears persistently of less dramatic but common scenarios. Incest, arson, shaken babies – sloppy, unscientific investigations into such accusations can and do railroad many innocent people.

Minors also suffer from child-endangerment panic. A town in Georgia bans kids from trick-or-treating without an adult, in a deluded and – according to research – useless attempt to protect them from pedophiles. Teenagers in some states get prosecuted for "sexting" racy photos of themselves to their teen sweethearts. Sex offender registries make life unlivable for people who've served their time, though research consistently shows that registries fail to protect kids. Meanwhile, needlessly frightened parents forbid their children from playing outside or walking to school.

The NCRJ hopes the San Antonio Four and the Kellers eventually win exoneration. But even if these cases end happily, we'll still have much work to do.

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