Living With Freedom | Kristie Mayhugh, one of the San Antonio Four, is going back to vet school to pursue her dreams of helping animals
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.
Kristie Mayhugh remembers the day she walked out of county jail on bond in November 2013. It wasn't an immediate feeling of excitement, rather it was one of disbelief. After being accused, convicted and sentenced for one-and-a-half decades for a crime she didn't commit, justice seemed like a far fetched dream.
In 1994, Mayhugh and her three friends, 19-year-old Cassandra Rivera, 20-year-old Elizabeth Ramirez and 19-year-old Anna Vasquez were wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting two minor girls while participating in an orgy. They were said to have used a gun and a knife to threaten the girls, while the topless women inserted various objects such as tampons inside them. Curiously, the four women had recently come out as gay, at a time when such a thing was considered to be evil.
For four years, the nightmare continued. "It was hard waiting," she says quietly, remembering the long years between the accusations and the sentencing. "We all knew that we were not guilty. I just kept pushing forward and that fight is what kept all of us going," she shares. Unfortunately, the court finally decided to lock them away. Mayhugh, almost always at the top of her class, was thinking about pursuing her dream of being a veterinarian. "I was actually going to school and had taken a little break at the time, after which I was going to go to the Texas A&M University to study," Mayhugh recalls.
It was only almost a decade later that the San Antonio Four would go on to be exonerated with the charges against them being proven untrue. But by then, prison had already taken a toll on her. "Out here, you're taught to share, be polite, respect your elders, but there, it's not like that," she says letting out a small, sad laugh. "People inside are controlling, manipulative and the only thing I could do was mind my own business." It was just about survival and nothing else, she shares. "See no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil kinda thing," she reveals, noting that it was hard to tell what the day would look like, with both officers and inmates. If an officer had a bad day, you could end up as the punching bag, Mayhugh narrates.
Being raised by a single mother had taught her the importance of education, about how it could help open doors where you see none. Mayhugh kept herself busy while behind bars, learning new skills that would help her get employment. She took a college vocational course, studying at night and using her days in maintenance work. "I learned how to fix the plumbing, electrical problems and all kinds of different things," she says sounding far away for a split second. "It would help the days go by quicker." Even though she had a complicated relationship with her mother after coming out as gay, she had God. She took bible study classes, went to church — anything to keep her strong.
In April 2015, the judge who presided over the second trial in 1998 held a two-day evidentiary hearing on the issue of actual innocence for all four women. Mayhugh made it and so did the press. And the attention the case garnered once more got her "politely fired", she says. The four were only exonerated in November 2016. Employment was another hurdle Mayhugh had to overcome.
"It was like being back to square one," she recalls. The nature of the charge made it even worse. "People don't want to deal with that," she shares. She worked in a lot of temp jobs, working many hours on minimum wage, living paycheck to paycheck. She did, however, land a great job working in Toyota, two years after her release. You just have to keep trying, Mayhugh says.
Starting over wasn't easy, especially after everything had just seemed to pass her by. "I missed out on so much. You see everybody else, they have kids, a house, a car — they're settled and there you are starting your life again at forty." But Mayhugh, soft-spoken and warm, sounds like she's really made her peace with it. Probably because it's the only choice she has. "I'm at peace now, everything happens for reason and this was meant to happen," she shares.
But Mayhugh's story is far from that of resignation. It's one that inspires. She's going back to college in a couple of weeks to the Vet Tech Institute of Houston to finish what she couldn't start all those years ago. "The kids will probably be in their twenties and here I am 46 years old!" she laughs, both nervous and excited. But she's confident that it will work out. "I've always made As and Bs and I've been good at school so it won't be too hard for me I'm hoping," she says.