October 13, 2016 12:06 PM

The allegations that arose in 1994 stunned Elizabeth Ramirez.

Police were on the phone, saying her two nieces — then ages 7 and 9 — had accused Ramirez and three of her friends of sexually assaulting them months earlier over a two-day period while Ramirez cared for the young girls at her apartment in San Antonio, Texas.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Ramirez tells PEOPLE. “I was like, where did they even come up with that? I was like in shock.”

Ramirez, then 19, was a fast-food restaurant worker who’d recently learned she was pregnant. Her friends, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, were a lesbian couple raising Rivera’s two young children from a prior marriage. Like Ramirez, the fourth friend, Kristie Mayhugh, also was gay.

The women’s sexuality figured at trial, when prosecutors accused them of cult-like ritual abuse of the victims. Rivera was convicted in December 1997 of sexual assault and sentenced to 37 years; her friends each were each sentenced in February 1998 to 15 years.

What happened next — and the women’s still-ongoing battle to clear themselves of a crime that never happened, according to one of the alleged victims who later recanted — is told in the new documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, which airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Investigation Discovery.

Each woman spent years behind bars. Although they were freed — Vasquez in 2012, the others in 2013 — a judge earlier this year refused to void their convictions while ruling that each was entitled to a new trial. Their fates are currently uncertain, pending the weigh-in of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which could declare them not guilty, have the charges against them dropped or possibly send the case to trial again.

Of the myriad possibilities, Ramirez, now 42, says, “We still have that in the back of our minds.”

Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas “Nico” LaHood told, “We have the option to try all four of those cases again, but at this point, I do not forsee that.” He added, “I have some serious reservations about this case, and I don’t believe pursuing these cases would be in the interest of justice.”

Charges an Act of Retaliation?

Director Deborah Esquenazi begins her film with the lives the women led prior to their trials, portraying the women as law-abiding. She then introduces the rise of Satanic panic that fueled prosecutions of child care workers and others in the ’80s and ’90s, most infamously in California’s McMartin preschool case that led to years of trials before charges were dropped.

The lesser-known San Antonio convictions echoed aspects of that case after a pediatrician noted to authorities “possible Satanic ritual abuse” as the cause for apparent scars on the alleged victims’ genitals. The evidence later was debunked as “junk science” — studies reveal the apparent trauma appears on the tissue of all women, says Esquenazi — and Texas law was rewritten so that convictions based on such evidence can be revisited by the courts and when appropriate, relief granted.

“The accusations were inherently preposterous,” attorney Mike Ware, of The Innocence Project of Texas, tells PEOPLE. Ware is one of four attorneys representing the women in their efforts to win exoneration. He says the pediatrician’s theory that this was the result of Satanic ritual abuse “was her way of saying, ‘I don’t understand the accusations; these accusations would otherwise seem preposterous.'”

Ware believes the sexual orientation of the accused also contributed to their convictions. “They were young, they didn’t have a lot of money, and they were gay, and therefore they were vulnerable targets for the police and the prosecutor, who would not have dared to pursue such an investigation against members of more mainstream society.”

The film suggests the allegations were an act of retaliation against Ramirez by the alleged victims’ father, her ex-brother-in-law Javier Limon, after Ramirez spurned Limon’s advances and declined his offer of marriage.

The film shows letters Limon allegedly wrote to Ramirez; one is addressed to “My Little Angel.” But Limon denies on camera that he sent them, and says he did not perpetuate the accusations raised by his children. “I never questioned my daughters at all,” he says. “I did nothing other than take them to where I was instructed. They did the interviewing and they did the questioning and they did the examining. … I did nothing else other than what a dad would do in this situation.”

The slow improvement in the women’s fortunes began after Ramirez posted on a “write a prisoner” website. A Canadian biologist and teacher, Darrell Otto, responded and researched the case, and became convinced of the women’s innocence. Otto alerted the National Center for Reason and Justice, which in 2010 attracted the attention of the Innocence Project of Texas.

"Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four," courtesy Investigation Discovery Films.
"Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four," courtesy Investigation Discovery Films.

Director Esquenazi jumped on board in 2011 after watching a VHS tape that showed Vasquez and Rivera engaging their kids at the beach, at the park and at home.

“They were portrayed as these gang-raping witches, essentially,” she says. “The notion that these women were part of a cult and banded together to rape these little girls was absolutely ridiculous, and the home video footage showed that.”

She also read a trial transcript and “very clearly there was quite a bit of homophobia at play,” she alleges. 

Esquenazi found her subjects to be “incredibly earnest, very profound women, with a deep sense of justice.” The filmmaker was in the process of coming out as gay herself when she met them, and sensed their alleged persecution. “So much of the feeling of sort of wanting to push for justice on this was, in a way, an internal story, too,” she says.

“My goal was to give these women the voices that were stolen from them,” she says. “If they don’t get exonerated, what does that say about our justice system?”

She adds: “I hope and believe we can ask deeper questions about a system that I know is not working.” 

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‘I Was Never Going to Admit I Had Committed a Crime’

For Ramirez, who still lives in San Antonio and works in an auto factory, there is an opening now to correct the wrong that she says haunts her after watching her friends’ lives thrown into chaos. She lives with her son, Hector, now 21 and bound for the Marines; he had just turned 2 when she went to prison.

“I figured I’d be 62 years old when I got home,” she says. Although she and the others were offered plea deals with lesser sentences, “I was never going to admit I had committed a crime, because the crime had never happened.”

She still holds onto guilt after watching her friends go down with her. “Here they were, friends hanging out with me, and I feel like because of that, their whole life was taken from them,” she says. “I feel so responsible for that. And I feel like that alone, and me trying to get back to my son, was my strength. I don’t think I will ever be at peace until I know they’ve all been exonerated.”

“We try to live today and enjoy our families and our freedom, and also our friendship,” she says of the four women today. 

Behind bars, “I got into my Bible a whole lot. My peace of mind came from praying. I just had to focus on trying to stay strong and not getting hurt in there. Charges like ours, people do not accept. When they have you labeled as a child molester, it’s not something you go to prison and people are okay with.”

Having served 17 years of a 37-year sentence, she knows that if she’s somehow sent back, she faces 20 more years. “We just don’t know what the next step will hold. It’s scary,” she says.

There is no timetable for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to issue its decision.

“It’s like I’m free, but I’m not free,” says Ramirez. “It’s like a prison without bars.”

“Because of the allegations and everything, people can’t assume that it did happen. But at the same time, your life can change in an instant,” she says. “From hearsay, a statement, my whole life changed.”

“We hope to save someone from experiencing what we experienced.”

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Investigation Discovery.

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