A prosecutor said that they ‘admitted being gay’. Like it’s this admission of some horrific thing. These little things compounded with a jury hive mind that already had some discomfort about their sexual identity, was the ultimate weapon.”
On trial, when speaking about the details of the alleged sexual assault, the prosecution said: “insertion of objects into the vagina is consistent with a gay sexual lesbian relationship…isn’t it?” Already, homosexuality, child abuse and satanic rituals were being intrinsically linked.
There were claims that the two young girl’s father, Javier Limon, was obsessed with Rivera, offering to marry her when he found out she was pregnant. Rivera refused, and after a strange phone call, the allegations came to light via a homicide detective assigned to investigate alleged sexual assaults, carried out by the four women one night in Rivera’s apartment while she babysat. Five months pregnant, she was told she would lose rights to keep her child, so she cooperated to the fullest extent.
Courtesy of Southwest of Salem
“You believe as you’re growing up, if you tell the truth, everything’s gonna be fine,” says Anna Vasquez, shown in prison at the time of filming. Full cooperation was the “biggest mistake” for the group, their openness about sexuality used as incriminating evidence. Because they maintained their innocence and refused a plea bargain, Rivera was sentenced to 37.5 years in prison, the others 11 years. It was a devastating conviction.
The court case relied solely on the testimonials of children, something that wouldn’t hold up today. “This case is so sensitive, no one would want to be up against it. Back then there was this issue of questioning children, and now it’s a practice we approach with much more care because we understand they can be influenced,” says Esquenazi. “I have a son who is two-years-old. I think a lot about this: some of the kids involved in the satanic panic were as young as 18 months. But I have a child who when I ask something will say the exact opposite five seconds later – you absolutely cannot question children. In the film, you see one of the older girls coming forward with a completely different story.”
Physical evidence also used on trial is something that’s been completely debunked today. It’s what many have referred to since as “junk science”. Southwest of Salem details the nineties body of knowledge that surrounded molestation: Debbie Nathan explains the model of abuse used, which presents what an abused child’s injuries would possibly look like, would no longer stand up in court. An examiner at the time was also quick to point to supposed satanic abuse, despite little evidence.
Whispers of satanic rituals mushroom-clouded the case into the last sinister bang of the satanic panic. Court scripts show prosecution speeches littered with disturbing rhetoric: “sacrificed on the altar of lust”, the women’s “cult-type activity” and the girls as “sacrificial lambs”. Anna Vasquez recounts from prison: “We were told, ‘this is what gay people do’, and it’s not. It’s not.”