When a Panic Puts Four Lesbians in Jail for 15 Years

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.

Go figure.

The man, Darrell Otto, may trod the frozen tundra, but like everyone else, he has Internet access, and somehow he stumbled upon an odd case: Four Texas lesbians convicted in 1998, when they were in their very early 20s, of raping two young girls in a tequila-soaked orgy four years before. By the time Otto was reading about them, the women had been in prison four or five years, but they had at least another decade to go — and one had 30 years to go.

That’s a long sentence.

The more he read about the case, the more Otto wanted someone to dig deeper. At last he got the National Center for Reason and Justice, which identifies false allegations of harming children, to agree to investigate. Here’s what it found:

The girls, seven and nine, 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, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez.

The facts of the story were confounding, at best. First of all, the girls said all four of the women raped them, even though two of the women’s work schedules made that almost impossible. Then, their details differed widely on retellings: Sometimes the girls said they were together during the attacks, other times apart. Sometimes they said they were threatened with a knife; other times, a gun.

But most damning of all: the same girls had told a strikingly similar story two years earlier. That time, it was about their mom. This was when their dad, Javier Limon, was engaged in a bitter custody battle with her.

Javier Limon figured large in this case, too. He had been in love with Ramirez and outraged when she turned him down. He vowed vengeance on her and her family. 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 lesbians in a conservative Texas town, right on the heels 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 toddlers dig up bodies in the graveyard or flying them down to Mexico to be raped by the army — and back by circle time. (See the case of Frances and Dan Keller).

In the end, the fate of the San Antonio Four was sealed when a doctor testified that the lines she saw on one of the girl’s hymens were irrefutable proof of rape. The women entered prison reviled as child molesters — and lesbians.

“Many of these cases were fueled by homophobia,” said Debbie Nathan, the Brooklyn-based author of “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.” Nathan is on the board of the Center for Reason and Justice. Back then, she explained, many people assumed that every gay person was also a child predator.

Nathan urged one of her protégés, Deborah Esquenazi, to keep digging, even as she convinced the Texas Innocence Project to do the same.

A lesbian herself, Esquenazi met 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, a new Texas law that allows people to appeal if their convictions were based on “junk science” brought the case back to court.

Finally: one of the victims, now in her 20s, recanted her testimony.

Then, in 2012 and 2013, after roughly a decade and a half 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.

This week, Esquenazi’s documentary, “Southwest of Salem,” premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. The San Antonio Four will be there, their first time in New York.

It should be sweet, but not as sweet as justice.

“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” has its world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 15 at 5:30 p.m. at the Regal Cinema Battery Park, 102 North End Ave. at Vesey St., where it also screens on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. On April 18 at 3:30 p.m. and April 20 at 8:30 p.m., it screens at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinema, 260 W. 23rd St.. For tickets, visit tribecafilm.com/filmguide.