Living With Freedom | Elizabeth Ramirez of the San Antonio Four lost out on 17 years with her son after being wrongfully incarcerated
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.
In 1994, four local women in San Antonio were accused of sexually assaulting two children. The case caught the attention of just almost every eyeball out there. Four gay Hispanic women molesting children was something that seemed to go down everyone's throats quite easily — only, it wasn't true. The women, 19-year-old Cassandra Rivera, 21-year-old Kristie Mayhugh, 19-year-old Anna Vasquez, and 20-year-old Elizabeth Ramirez, unfortunately, had too many years take away from them before the truth came out to the world.
After a process that dragged on for four years and in spite of the women insisting that they were innocent, Rivera, Mayhugh, and Vasquez were given 15-year sentences each. Ramirez however, who was deemed the "ringleader" of the group because the two alleged victims were her nieces, faced a much sterner sentence. Tried separately, on February 6, 1997, the jury convicted Ramirez of aggravated assault of a child and indecency with a child. She was sentenced to 37-and-a-half years in prison.
She recalls that day like it was yesterday.
She was taken to the station to be questioned and she remembers that the official introduced himself as a homicide detective. "When he did that, I thought something had happened to somebody," she says. Little did she know that they were being set up for something else altogether. "Then they started asking me if and how I knew Stephanie," she recalls. And thus, the nightmare began. She was three months pregnant at the time, looking forward to motherhood.
She couldn't believe it at first. She was even convinced, in her heart, that nothing could happen. After all, they had no evidence, she says. But there she was, in Bexar County jail, leaving her life and her baby behind. Her attorney did not help either. What she didn't realize at the time was that it was a military civil attorney who took her case.
"I didn't even stand a chance because he had never tried a high profile case like mine," she shares. She was alone, a baby on the way and facing prison for something she didn't do after spending a considerable amount on her defense. She was arrested two days after she had her son. She says she doesn't even want to imagine what it would have been like had she not given birth before her arrest. "I have seen how they treat them and I have seen how they rip them away from their mothers..." she shares.
Her time in prison changed her. For someone who had never been in trouble with the law, it was as terrifying as it could get. A prison officer paid an inmate to jump her in the shower when she was in county jail, she shares. She was saved by an unlikely friend. "This woman, who had just butchered a family because they had murdered her son, came and rescued me and to this day, I'm grateful to her. If there wasn't a God watching me on every step, I don't think I would have made it," she says.
Thankfully, those days are behind her.
She and her friends were exonerated in 2016 with the help of the Innocence Project of Texas after the witness in the case confessed that she had lied after her father pressurized her.
As it turned out, Liz's brother-in-law Javier Limon, who had made romantic moves at Liz and was turned down, had planned the whole thing. The witness, Stephanie, was seven at the time of the accusations and said that she had been terrified of her father.
The women were released on bail in November 2013. She recalls the day she and her friends walked out of county jail, hand in hand. They just couldn't believe it. "It was going so fast, to be honest," she shares. But the best part of her day was yet to come. Her son, who was 18 years old, had come to meet her. The last time she had met him properly was when he was four during a visit, following which his father had slammed the door on her only window to see him. She did, however, get to see him graduate from afar.
She had to meet him in the corner because they were still registered in the sex offenders registry. He held her, she recalls fondly, the moment tattooed in her memory. "I heard him call me mama for the first time and he said he loved me. It was the hardest and the happiest day of my life," she says. However, she soon realized that they had no bond.
"We really had to work for it," she says, "I didn't know what kind of music he liked, or his favorite color — nothing." Her family couldn't help her because after she went in, they lost contact with him and he was living with his father. Her mum did send her pictures now and then, and even though everything was the same, it was just very different, she says. They went to the movies, ate out, hung out and talked a lot. After all this time, they are in a good place. "I am not angry and bitter. If I hold that against anyone I would be miserable and what good would that be if I was around my family like that?" she shares.
Today, she spends her days taking care of her grandkids and helping with her very own print shop — a trade she learned in prison.
However, the first step towards being independent didn't come easy. She didn't know how to tick the boxes at jobs and with their case, things were much worse. "I didn't know what someone like me, with the skills and experience I had, was getting paid," she says. With the help of friends and family, she did land a job and after just three months went on to a much better opportunity at Toyota, where she was colleagues with Kristie Mayhugh. She advises those in prison to take advantage of the system — to train and learn skills so they can make it out here. She also took a paralegal course inside and advises that while it is important to stick to the truth, it is equally important to understand the law.
On the wall of her office hangs a frame. It contains a letter her son wrote to her when he was eight, back in 2003. In it, he tells her how he saw them together in a dream. He even drew a little hand on it, she tells us proudly. "It reminds me that I'm home," she says and we can almost hear her smile.