Monday, November 26, 2007

Who the Hell are You?

When I originally put together the Four Lives Lost website I had drafted a page that explained in (far too much) detail exactly how I came to be involved in this case. When I finally uploaded the site I decided not to include that page because at the time it felt a little too self-indulgent or something, and I wanted to focus on the women and their plight rather than myself.

The single most common feedback response I get from people who make a critical review of the website is that it should have included some explanation of who I am, and how I came to end up advocating for four women in a Texas prison. That story has much to do with the internet and its incredible ability to establish close connections between people who are geographically quite distant. The page explaining my involvement has already undergone one stiff edit and after I do one more I will relink the page.

Meanwhile, here is the short answer to the first question.

I live a semi-reclusive, self-sufficient lifestyle in the Yukon Territory wilderness in Northern Canada, and teach half-time at Yukon College in Whitehorse to pay the bills. What I really like to do is read and research, but most of all, to think and live in the world of ideas. Living here gives me the freedom and time to do precisely that. I have found that I do my very best thinking standing on the runners of a dog sled moving through the wilderness. So after loading my brain a whole pile of new information I will hook up a team and bugger off into the mountains for the day, to process it all. I maintain a kennel of about two dozen dogs primarily for that purpose. People tend to be leary of anyone who isolates themselves from the "pack". I am well aware of what the locals call me because of my reclusive lifestyle - Grinch.... Unamusher.... they just don't have the cojones to say it to my face.

While my research in graduate school was on the impacts of exogenous sex steroid hormones on embryonic development in salmon, I am interested in a (far too) wide variety of subject areas ranging from environmental toxicology to solar houses to criminal and social justice issues.
I originally trained as a research scientist and had planned a career in the biotechnology field. But a couple of things got in the way. First, I had some serious ethical problems related to the cavalier attitude of industry
toward the possibility of genetically modified organisms getting "off the farm" and interacting with wild species. The final cut to my career plans occurred when I was sent up here to run a one week experiment in June of 1992. It was light all day and night, there was what appeared to be endless open space, and everybody drove a beat up pickup truck. It felt like heaven to me. By the end of the third day I knew I could never live in a city again, and was going to stay. There is no high tech research occurring in the Yukon, and there probably won't be for a long time, which meant I had to find other ways to earn a living.

So now I live way to hell and gone out here in the sticks, and chuck the bulk of my pay cheques into a furry pit, just so that I can enjoy the pleasure of hours of uninterrupted thinking while staring at the east end of a dozen westbound dogs - or some variation thereof.

As I mentioned above I am very interested in criminal justice related issues, and in February 2006 was doing some research on the internet when I first came across, and became interested in Elizabeth Ramirez' and her co-defendants case. But I will leave the details of exactly how I got involved to the next post.

How I got Involved

Continuing from the previous post as to exactly how I came advocate for Elizabeth and her friends.......

In February 2006 I had been doing some research on female sex offenders. More specifically, I was interested in women who offend against young children. Actually I use the word "interested" in the broader sense of the term, as what I really wanted to know is what went on the mind of any woman who would or could, do that to a child. Perhaps it had to do with my preconceptions about women, but regardless, I just couldn't make any sense of it. While there are, as of yet, no clear established profile of female child molesters, there are some general characteristics that are fairly reliable predictors or indicators. In a nutshell, women who offend sexually against pre-pubertal children have major league mental health issues, and social adjustment problems. Also, they almost always act alone, and confess readily when caught and confronted. That information comes from a variety of sources, but the main one I used was a report from the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

In the course of my research on specific cases, I came across a woman in Texas named Elizabeth Ramirez. I found some information about her case on the internet. What was really unusual about this case was that it was a multi-perpetrator and multi-victim assault, as well as having other components all of which ran completely counter-current to what the existing research stated about women who offend against children. When I had exhausted what I could find out about the case on the internet, I wrote her a letter. I wanted to get a sense of who Elizabeth was to make sense of the situation. Her response simply increased my confusion, as she seemed to be happy and well-adjusted, and by no means exhibited any of the characteristics that should have been present. She also told me she was innocent of the charges.

Through my contact with Liz I was able to do more research into the case. As the information accumulated it became increasingly obvious that Liz and her co-defendants had a very strong case for their claims of innocence. What I found most disturbing was that the Texas media had completely ignored them. They were convicted on flimsiest of evidence, primarily because they are gay, and it was like they disappeared off the face of the earth once they entered prison.

Because I truly believed they were innocent, and it was obvious that nobody else gave a damn if they rotted in prison, I felt an ethical obligation to do what I could to help them. So I have established the website and this blog, and am advocating on other fronts to earn them the freedom and exonerations they so richly deserve.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

One More Twist to the Story

There are many aspects of this case that have caused me to shake my head in complete disbelief. When I first heard the stories of what had taken place during the investigation phase and trials of these women I was amazed, and at times thought they were exaggerating the situation. Now that I have source documents supporting much of what I was told, I am finding that they in fact often understated the reality of the situation.

Here is the latest twist to the story. Karen Clos was the social worker from the Alamo Children's Advocacy center who initially interviewed, and helped the girls with their story to prepare them for their testimony in court. During the trials Ms. Clos was allowed to sit in plain view of the girls while they were on the witness stand. While everyone in the courtroom watched, the social worker made eye contact with the witnesses and would nod yes, or shake her head no when the defense attorney was questioning the girls. When the defense objected to this and asked that she be removed from the court the judge overruled the objection. The court seemed to think that coaching the girls through their testimony was an acceptable practice.

If that isn't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another Explanation

At this point I have read through over a thousand pages of documentation, and spent several hundred hours researching, and talking to those involved in this case. I think I am starting to get a clear idea of exactly what went on.

The most common belief of everyone involved in this case is that Javier Limon coached his daughters into making allegations of sexual abuse against Elizabeth and her friends as retaliation because she refused his offer of marriage. Based on Javier's character and history that scenario is easy enough to believe. He certainly had motive and he also had a history of making false allegations of sexual abuse against his daughters as a method of intimidation. He had earlier accused Rosa's new boyfriend of molesting the girls when he wanted to get custody and take them back to San Antonio. However, in spite of all that he still deserves the presumption of innocence until there is direct evidence of his having actually done the things people are accusing him of. Just because he is capable of doing something doesn't make him guilty.

The possibility that has not been considered in any depth is that the girls spontaneously made up the story. As I continue to learn more about this case that option becomes increasingly plausible. Remember that they had previously been sexually assaulted by a 10-year-old boy who was babysitting them, several years previously in Colorado. These girls were by no means naive about details of what sexual assault entailed. Also, while in Colorado they had seen their father threaten their mother by holding a gun to her head. The two major elements of their allegations against Elizabeth and her friends, the sexual assault and being threatened with a gun, had been part of their life experience. When their grandmother caught them acting out sexually with their dolls she scolded them for their behavior. In her statement the grandmother says the first thing she asked the girls was "Did something happen to you at Aunt Liz' house?" That was certainly a leading question, and is probably homophobically motivated and related to the fact that most of the family did not approve of Elizabeth's friends or her "lifestyle". As a guilt response to their behavior the girls could well have responded to their grandmother's leading question by making up a story about being sexually assaulted by Elizabeth and her friends. Despite their innocent appearance, these two little girls were street-wise and grew up in a very dysfunctional home with a father who was a chronic liar. According to their mother both girls were persistent and accomplished liars for their age.

This certainly wouldn't be the first time that children have made up stories about being assaulted. Oftentimes in follow-up interviews children are "helped" with the details of their fabricated story by well-meaning interviewers, until the child can no longer distinguish the truth from the story. It is now standard procedure in these cases to videotape initial interviews with children to ensure that no leading questions are asked. Unfortunately in this case the initial interviews were conducted by the San Antonio Police who stated at Elizabeth's trial that videotaping interviews was not their policy. So we may never know what happened in that crucial first interview.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Best Solution

Attempting to gain exoneration for these four wrongfully convicted women through the legal system is a daunting task to say the least. Post-conviction relief is time-consuming and expensive, and often there is great effort with no result. The system is designed to keep people in prison once they have been convicted, and does not like to acknowledge or deal with it's own shortcomings, even, as in recent years with the rash of convictions overturned by DNA evidence, when it is painfully obvious.

For Elizabeth and her co-defendants, and in fact for everyone involved in this case, the best solution would be for V.L. and S.L. to come forward with the truth and acknowledge in a signed affidavit that the assaults were a fabrication and never occurred. Since becoming legal adults both girls have admitted at different times, and to different family members that nothing happened at the apartment during their stay. But they will not go to the police or make those statements official. In a 2005 phone call to Dan Martinez, Anna Vasquez uncle, V.L.'s fiancee stated that he was aware of the situation and was looking out for V.L.'s best interests because she was "scared to death" they would come after her if she recanted her testimony. He would not elaborate exactly on who "they" were.

We can only speculate on exactly who the girls are so afraid of. For those involved in the case who know the characters of everyone involved, the most obvious guess is that "they" is the girl's father and grandmother. The most likely scenario is that the father, and possibly the grandmother as well, coached the girls into a story and told them to keep their mouth shut or there would be serious consequences. Remember that as small children the girls witnessed acts of violence by their father against their mother, including the time he came to Colorado to collect his daughters and with them watching, held a .22 calibre pistol to their mother's head and told her he would kill her if she ever came back to San Antonio.

One great irony is that the laws surrounding the reporting of child abuse have been constructed to encourage reporting and there are no criminal charges that can be laid for making false allegations. This was done so that those who "suspected" a child was being abused would not be reluctant to come forward with that information. Unfortunately what happened is that people who lacked ethics discovered they could make malicious false accusations of child abuse as a vendetta against a former spouse, family member or others, and do so with total impunity.
So the irony in this case is that whoever coached these girls into the story cannot suffer legal consequences for doing so.

There is also the possibility that V.L. and S.L. fear retaliation from the women who went to prison because of their testimony. That fear however is totally unfounded. While the convicted women are angry about what has happened, they also possess enough maturity to realize that the girls were children when they gave their testimony, that they were raised in an extremely dysfunctional home, and didn't recognize the consequences of what was happening.

A third possibility is that the children were coached by prosecutors or someone at the Children's Advocacy Center, although there is no direct evidence of that occurring at this time.

The one scenario that is entirely plausible but no one seems to have thought about is that the girls made the story up on their own. All the elements of what they claimed happened had been part of their experience growing up. They had previously been molested by a 10-year-old boy, and they had seen their father threaten their mother with a gun. These two girls had not led a sheltered life, and were very much street-wise and familiar with the things they testified about at the trials.

The best solution for everyone involved in this case is for one or both of the girls to come forward with the truth in a signed affidavit. What we need is someone who can facilitate that process - to talk with them and discover exactly who or what they are so afraid of that they will not come forward, and find a constructive way to alleviate those fears.

Enough people have been hurt by what has happened in this case, and the best solution is one consisting of recantation and reconciliation for everyone involved.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Marlin's Other Problem

Before I move away from the whole Texas theme altogether there is one other problem in the Marlin area that should be mentioned. This little problem is much less visible than the effects of the Free Trade-driven economic downturn and easier to deny.

Although now banned, Atrazine is a broad-leaf pesticide that was used extensively throughout the Southern US on sorghum and a variety of other crops. Atrazine is also one of a number of chemicals classified as Xenoestrogens (pronounce the x as z). For reasons not completely understood these compounds mimic the effect of female sex hormones. Fish are extremely sensitive to sex hormone impacts and that is where much of our early knowledge of the effects of xenoestrogens came from. Some fish populations in the Great Lakes were found to be over 70% female but testing showed that these populations started out at the normal 50:50 male:female ratio but up to 30% of the males had been "feminized" to the point where they were functionally female. They had developed ovaries, and no longer produced sperm but eggs instead (I did a Master's degree in this area).

These feminizing effects also occur in human beings although to a lesser extent. Men who grow up in environments where there is chronic exposure to even extremely low dosages of xenoestrogens show feminization, which manifests in adulthood as loss of muscle mass, decreased penis size and low sperm counts, sometimes to the point of infertility. Chronic exposure to xenoestrogens in women produces a number of health problems and long term effects include increased risk of breast and reproductive tract cancers.

Once Atrazine enters the water table as runoff from agriculture it is incredibly persistent. It has been a problem in the water in the Marlin area for many years. While there are constant reassurances that the levels in the drinking water are now safe, many of the women in the Hobby Unit prison have no option but to drink the water. The Unit rules allow the inmates to purchase only one half litre of bottled water per day, if they can afford it. In central Texas where temperatures regularly exceed 35C lots of good quality drinking water is a necessity. This means that many of the women serving long sentences are forced to drink large quantities of this questionable water daily for decades. There are legitimate questions surrounding the long term health effects of this. Currently there are numerous health problems occurring amongst women on the Unit that are blamed on the water.

But nobody seems to care or is ready to do much about it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

San Antonio

On Monday I met up with Dan Martinez who is Anna Vasquez uncle. He is involved in local politics here in the city and has followed this case closely, and tried to help Anna from the outset. Dan had two bins full of documents related to the case complete with an index. We took the majority of that paperwork to a copy place and began the arduous process of pulling staples, photocopying and re-stapling so that everything remained in order. I have a very impressive file accumulated already, and still don't have the transcripts for the second trial. My goal at this point is to start writing a report on the accusations and the trials that is fully documented. I certainly have enough information to sort through that will keep me busy for a while, but eventually I will need the second transcript. Also there is some stuff missing. That may need to be collected from the Bexar County courthouse at some point. Nevertheless it is good that we are able to prove all of the claims we have been making. In some cases some of the statements made at the trials were even more outlandish than I had been told. I sat and read Liz' trial transcript yesterday where Dr. Nancy Kellogg claimed that Satanic-related sexual abuse was a medical diagnosis supported by research reported in journal articles. How the hell this woman obtained or maintains a license to practice medicine defies imagination.

On Tuesday I met with Anna's mom Maria Vasquez, and Cassie's mom Margaret Rivera and Cassie's brother Robert and her son Michael. We went out for dinner and later went back to Margaret's house and talked about the case and our plans for the near future. I think meeting them was very useful as it gives them a sense of who I am, and also helps to establish some basic trust. Hopefully in the future we can build on that. I was unable to contact Liz' mom or any of her family members while I was here.

Well it is 5:30 on Wednesday morning and I need to get it together to catch a flight in 2 hours. It will be good to get back home to Canada and sleep in my own bed, but it is also going to be a long day as I don't get home until after midnight. I'm sure the mutts will be glad to see me again and to get out and run again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Images of Marlin, Texas

These are photos of Marlin, Texas taken on Sunday November 11, 2007. On the main street most of the commercial buildings are occupied, but once you leave there things get pretty grim. Marlin is a classic example of a rural southern US town financially gutted by Free Trade.









And when you turn onto FM 712 the road to the Hobby Unit women's prison
there is a sign. Someone has decorated it with birdshot.


State of Texas waffles. What will they think of next.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Texas Day 2



Gatesville was an interesting place. Bigger and more prosperous-looking than Marlin, but definitely another Texas prison town. There are something like 6 major Units here. One is a men's Prison (Hughes) but the rest are women's prisons. Maximum security Mountain View is here, that is where Cassie is, and also where the female death row inmates are housed. Woodman Unit is a State Jail for women serving shorter sentences, and when I drove by at night it was completely lit up with pastel-yellow sodium lamps. Kind of a strange sight on the outskirts of a sleepy little town. The lady at the hotel desk told me there are 16,000 people living in Gatesville and over half are in prison. I tried to take pictures but the batteries died in the camera and the replacements I bought were also dead, right in the package. Then I bought a UHB stick to put all my photos on and promptly lost it.

I would tell you that I woke up early Sunday morning, but the fact is that I didn't sleep much at all. I was sick as can be. One side of my throat was and still is badly swollen, and I am feverish. I tossed and turned and poured sweat all night. I was worried I wouldn't be able to talk but thanks to modern medicine I was able to solve the problem pharmaceutically. I drove through Marlin again and took some pictures of the town. I got some funny looks but nobody shot at me. Then back to Hobby Unit to visit Liz. There is a field where horses graze in front of the institution. They also keep a kennel of tracking hounds to be used in case of escapes. The horses are used by the guards who sit on them while they oversee the "hoe squad" working the fields. Just like in the movies inmates refer to the mounted guards as "Boss" and the mounted guards all carry shotguns across their lap.

The gate guards recognized me this time, but they absolutely tore the vehicle in front of me apart. The had the seats and carpets pulled out and were doing a thorough search. The visit went much better this time but it took almost 45 minutes for them to bring Liz down from her dorm to the visiting room. The inmates are strip searched on the way in and out of the visiting area. It is all clothes off, and sometimes they do a cavity search as well. On the way back in the inmates have to sit in a special metal detecting chair. Apparently they have had recent problems with the women slipping contraband into the Unit - namely jewelery. The other restriction that has been made in Texas prisons of late is that colored stationary has now become contraband. Do you know why? The inmates dress all in white, all the time. Those damned women were taking their colored writing paper and soaking it in the sink to remove the ink, and then dyed their underwear in the water.

Liz was much more relaxed the second day and the only incident that occurred was me getting ripped of by a vending machine. You are allowed to bring up to 20 dollars in coins into the visiting area but not cash. Then you go to the vending machines and make your purchase and you have a guard pass it off to the inmate. We had a second 4 hour "special" visit because I came from such a long distance. Normally people coming from within the State are only allowed a two hour visit for one day on a weekend. The four hours went by quickly and Liz talked more about how she had changed since she first came to prison, and had to learn how to survive. There are 1350 inmates in the Hobby Unit and she is the smallest one, so it makes it tougher. Believe it or not some of those women are genuinely bad. The "close custody" inmates are handcuffed and shackled and led to and from their units by a corrections officer. Liz says those are the really bad ones. Her current classification is G3 but she can't move higher to Trusty status because she was convicted of an aggravated offence.

When our visit was over we waved goodbye and I made my way out and headed back to San Antonio. I started nodding off just north of Austin and had to pull over for an hour of sleep. From Austin to SA it was bumper to bumper and 75 miles an hour, but I made it back alive. I had another night of sweating and tossing and turning. But I didn't have to be anywhere too early this morning. My next task is to gather together documentation for the case.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Texas- Day 1

I arrived in San Antonio late last night and after dealing with the difficulties of renting a vehicle, got to my hotel and caught some much-needed shuteye. I set out early this morning and made my way up I-35 from San Antonio past Austin and on to Marlin, Texas to visit Liz. Traffic was heavy especially considering it was early on a Saturday morning. There really isn't much of a break from SA to Austin in terms of urban development, as it is all built up with only the occasional farm. Moving north past Austin the scenery began to steadily change to rolling hills and mixed agriculture farms, with occasional herds of mixed-breed beef cattle and successful suicidal opposums along the roadside. The scenery is somewhat reminiscent of Ottawa Valley dairy farming areas except that the fields are much larger and there are more "scrub" trees. The scenery changed even more dramatically once I turned east off of I-35 onto the county roads into Marlin. There were a few farms that appeared to be well-kept and prosperous but the majority of houses were bare wood clad and in disrepair. The fields often had piles of dry brush along the fencelines. The small town of Clinton was absolutely devastated - with the majority of buildings boarded up, abandoned, and many were caving in. Marlin itself was also quite a shock. It is obvious that once upon a time Marlin was quite a pretty little place but the economic downturn in rural Texas has definitely taken it's toll on the citizens of this town. Many of the prime commercial buildings in the downtown area are closed, the majority of business seems to occur at the gas stations and a few fast food joints. The place of employment for a majority of people in the Marlin area is the Hobby Unit Women's Prison. With the advent of the Free Trade Agreement many jobs left rural Texas, and other areas. In Texas and other States the "tough-on-crime" spree of the late 80's and 90's took advantage of this situation by locating many of the new prisons in rural areas where there was high unemployment. The former farmers and factory workers became prison guards. The problem is very few people want to be prison guards. It is dangerous, underappreciated, monotonous and low-paying work. But there are few options. Texas currently has approximately 3800 positions open for prison guards. Turnover is high and morale is low. In the past I have been quick to criticize Texas prison guards, but after today's experience suspect I will be much less so. It is not an easy way to earn a living.

The great irony in all of this is that many of the people that live in rural Texas blame the Free Trade agreement for their current situation, and rightly so. What they would probably be surprised to know is that many Canadians feel exactly the same way. Free Trade has been a great success for some portions of the population, but has negatively impacted a large number of others.

When I arrived at the prison they had me open the hood of the SUV and the back door. The problem was I couldn't find the damned latch for either. I explained that it was a rental and they asked me "where are you coming from". When I told them Canada their demeanor seemed to change suddenly and they were much more accommodating.
At the inside guardhouse they checked my passport against Liz' registered visitor's list. There were two female guards there. One asked me "so what was your first impression of Marlin"? The second guard, who seemed to be her superior said, Don't put the guy on the spot like that". But I answered the question anyways. I just told them how we are living in one of the most prosperous times in history yet the money doesn't seem to be evenly distributed, and rural areas are definitely being shortchanged. I left it at that, although I was quite capable of launching into a full rant. Inside they sat me in a booth with a glass face and a piece of crap telephone receiver, while I waited for Liz. When she first arrived she was so nervous she could hardly control her shaking. I was also surprised by hard "edge" that she had about her. That certainly didn't show in her letters, but is more likely related to 10 years of surviving in prison.
We talked for three and a half hours about a wide variety of things, mostly related to her case. It was certainly much easier to talk in person instead of using the postal service and waiting nearly a month to get an answer to a specific question. Although we were slated for a four hour visit, I had to leave half an hour early. I had to use the washroom but couldn't. It was a claustrophobic little closet with a sheet metal toilet affair and I just couldn't "perform". I live in the woods and hate pissing indoors at all, so I just couldn't deal with that. So I had to leave a little early. We are slated for another four hour visit tomorrow, and I will make sure I am empty beforehand.

I am spending the night in Gatesville, Texas about 40 minutes away from Marlin. There are 5 major prisons located here.The lady at the hotel desk told me that there are 16,000 people in Gatesville, and half are prisoners. It is however much more prosperous looking than Marlin.