by Michael Hall, John Floyd and Billy Sinclair
What, you might ask, would a fictionalized documentary about a child-sex ring at a rural Texas kindergarten and swingers club—a child-sex ring that never actually existed—look like? You can see for yourself at the Austin Film Festival Friday night, when Booger Red, a film by Berndt Mader, makes its North American premiere at 9:30 p.m. at the Spirit Theater, inside the Bob Bullock complex. Booger Red is based on a series of stories about the Mineola child sex case.
“Booger Red,” a film by Berndt Mader and based on a Texas Monthly story, premieres at the Austin Film Festival.
The stories entail a complex and messy series of trials and misadventures involving naive kids, trusting law enforcement, and manipulative adults—including one woman in particular who set the whole scandal in motion and, when it all played out two years ago, fled back to her native California. She plays herself in the movie, as do many of the actual characters who lived the real-life drama, from attorneys to adults (such as Booger Red, a.k.a. Patrick Kelly) caught up in her web of lies. One fictionalized character is the journalist, a fornicating, drug-snorting, bearded wild man who bears absolutely no resemblance to Michael Hall nor anyone else that ever has covered the story. If you cant make it to Austin the film is available on Amazon.com
Let’s travel back a few years to East Texas via Mineola
Once upon a time—actually just a few years ago—A foster mother rescued four young children from the hell of child abuse, molestation, a sex kindergarten, and dancing in live sex shows at a swingers club in Mineola. She pushed local law enforcement to investigate, and the children, three of whom became hers via adoption, testified against their tormentors in a series of trials, from 2008 to 2010. The kids told of adults casting spells, wearing witch outfits, and sacrificing chickens; one child said she had flown around on a broomstick.
Margie Cantrell, a career “foster mom” (27 adopted children over 36 years) who either fled or migrated from California to Texas in 2004, walked into the Mineola Police Department, located in Wood County (just north of Tyler), and informed the police that two of her foster children had been forced to perform “sex shows” at the Retreat Club, a local “swingers’ club.”
Before we get into the core facts of this legal nightmare, let us set the cast of characters who have made it all possible: Judge Jack Skeen, Jr., who presides over the 241st District Court in Tyler, Smith County, Texas, and who has presided over all the criminal trials flowing out the Mineola swinger club case; Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham who has prosecuted all the defendants thus far put to trial in the case; Sergeant Philip Kemp, the Texas Ranger and lead investigator in the case; Shauntel Mayo, Jamie Pittman, Patrick “Booger Red” Kelly, Dennis Pittman, Sheila Sones, and Jimmy Sones, the six defendants indicted in 2007 in the case.
Three of the defendants, Mayo, Pittman and Kelly, were convicted in 2008 while a fourth defendant, Dennis Pittman, was convicted later. All were sentenced to life imprisonment, although the convictions of Shauntel Mayo and Jamie Pittman’s convictions were reversed this last June by the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals.
And, finally, there are the five alleged child sexual abuse victims whose testimony alone—without any physical evidence or adult witness corroboration—produced the four convictions in this case. The children essentially said they had been trained in a “sex kindergarten” to dress and perform in sexually provocative ways before audiences at the Retreat Club.
After Margie Cantrell’s report to the Mineola Police Department, investigators from that department, assisted by the FBI, were unable to find any evidence that supported either Cantrell’s claims based on allegations made by her foster children. Wood County Assistant D.A. Jim Wheeler told Michael Hall, a writer at Texas Monthly, that the case was presented to a local grand jury and it found a “total lack of corroboration for what those kids said happened.”
Case closed, right? Nope. Cantrell was determined to transform what many in the local criminal defense bar have come to believe were child sexual fantasies transformed into reality.
But, the self-righteous “foster mom” who, along with her “foster hubby” John (who was arrested in 2005 for sexual abuse of a child in California), made nearly $110,000 during a one and one-half year period fostering three children, was undeterred by the failure of the initial investigations to produce indictments. “I called Smith County, the FBI, and Mineola police several times, as well as CPS [Child Protective Services], the Smith County CAC [Child Advocacy Center], and the Smith County police,” she claimed.
Then Texas Ranger Sergeant Philip Kemp, who gained certain notoriety for his involvement in the 2008 raid on the FLDS ranch in El Dorado and the subsequent investigation of its church members, rode to Margie Cantrell’s rescue—the same foster mom who had been decertified as a foster parent by the State of California in 2003. He employed the Ranger credo, “one riot, one Ranger,” as he took charge of the Mineola swingers’ club case. He was so generous during his videotaped interviews of the alleged child victims that he let Cantrell sit in on the sessions. As a matter of fact, the Ranger developed such a close working relationship with the foster mom that, according to Michael Hall, he let Cantrell take over the interview sessions with her own questions. Hall wrote in his latest Texas Monthly piece: “Her techniques, according to experts I spoke with who had seen tapes or read transcripts of the interviews were dubious at best. Sometimes Margie cajoled the children, petting their faces and once even kissing Sheryl’s hand. Other times she asked variations of the same questions over and over or actually suggested answers to the kids, answers they then repeated. Eventually, Sheryl, Harlan and Callie began talking about a sex kindergarten and club involving various family members and their families.”
And, of course, Ranger Kemp was aided once again by child protective services “experts” just as he had been in the FLDS case. This time it was Wood County’s
Northeast Child Advocacy Center whose workers interviewed the children and reinforced their claims that they had been sexually abused.
The first two defendants to face trial were Shauntel Mayo and Jamie Pittman. The local media, and much of the national media that had paid attention to the case, had effectively demonized the couple long before they were escorted into Judge Skeen’s courtroom, where the only color, according to Hall, was an American flag behind glass on the wall.
The 64-year-old Skeen has a reputation of being pro-prosecution because of his two decades as a “law-and-order” district attorney in Smith County. “He never stopped being the DA,” attorney Thad Davidson told Hall. The judge was indeed prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to allow the prosecution to make its case against Mayo and Pittman—so much so that he made up evidentiary rules as the trial went along and improperly allowed a litany of “other crimes” evidence, all of which prompted the recent reversal of the convictions of the two defendants by the state appeals court.
The State called Sergeant Kemp, Margie Cantrell, and CPS workers to bolster the testimony of the four girls and one boy who said they had been sexually abused by family members and friends. Defense attorneys sought to show that Kemp, Cantrell, and the CPS workers had manipulated and coached the children into giving the fabricated testimony presented to the jury. “I have seen a lot and never in my wildest dreams imagined this,” one CPS worker responded before the jury. “They (the children) were preyed upon in probably one of the most heinous ways possible.”
It took the jury just four minutes to find the couple guilty, despite the fact that all of the alleged child victims gave inconsistent and contradictory testimony which was not corroborated by any other evidence. The third defendant, Patrick Kelly, at least created a little more doubt with his jury. It took his jurors less than two hours to convict him. It seemed like smooth sailing for DA Bingham and Judge Skeen until defense attorneys involved in the case learned that Texas CPS officials had withheld documents showing numerous complaints of abuse and neglect filed against the Cantrells. The case began to unravel.
Defense attorney Jason Cassel who represents Dennis Pittman had the advantage of watching the first three trials unfold, and the benefit of the appeals court ruling rebuking the legendary trial judge, before his client had to face trial. He had a firm defense strategy in mind: he was going after Margie Cantrell. Hall reported that the attorney had discovered the information about her being decertified as a foster parent in California; that she and her husband “gamed the [foster parent] system by claiming to have ‘problem’ children,” knowing it would bring more money from the state; and she had a history of intimidating and misleading her foster children, earning the moniker of “puppet master” by one of the children.
In an August 2009 Texas Monthly article, Hall reported that Cassel had created major legal and political problems in the Mineola swingers’ club case. During a series of pretrial hearings, the defense attorney produced evidence that Sergeant Kemp never visited “some of the alleged crime scenes” and violated basic “professional protocols” in witness interviewing. Even more significantly, Cassel established that Kemp lied during the first trials about two interviews he had conducted with two children on August 17, 2005. He had told defense attorneys in those cases that he didn’t “know anything about those” interviews and that he had never seen videos of the interviews. But Cassel had discovered some of Kemp’s handwritten notes made while watching a video of the interviews. At the pretrial hearing Cassel, said Hall, held up the notes and asked Kemp if it was his writing. Kemp responded it was. Cassel then informed the court that the notes referenced the August 2005 interviews. “So you watched the video from August 17, 2005 [interviews], that you denied ever watching?” Cassel asked. Kemp replied: “I must have.”
What does a district attorney do when the chief investigator in the biggest child sex ring case in state history turns out to have been hiding important evidence? If you were Matt Bingham, district attorney of Smith County, you try to get as far away from the case as you possibly can. You call in the attorney general’s office for help. And you hunker down and hope the resulting investigation doesn’t make your office look like one that casually convicts innocent people, which it did. They all got life too. There was no physical evidence against the adults, and there were no grown-up witnesses—just the inconsistent and often bizarre words of five young children. The leader of the investigation was Texas Ranger Philip Kemp, who never even visited some of the alleged crime scenes and who broke all kinds of professional protocols in interviewing the alleged child victims. Now it turns out that Kemp was hiding evidence. This revelation capped a bad month of hearings for the prosecution, during which all kinds of evidence that never made it into the first three trials was revealed, such as the seven different interviews with those five children in which they either never mentioned a sex kindergarten or sex club or they denied that they knew anything about either one.
Cassel also produced at these pretrial hearings evidence that information had been withheld by Kemp or CPS officials concerning seven different interviews with the five child witnesses during which they never mentioned a “sex kindergarten” or a “sex club” and, in fact, specifically said they knew nothing about either one. Cassel also learned that there had been interviews with eight other children who also said they knew nothing about either a “sex kindergarten” or a “sex club.” This information had all been withheld from defense attorneys in the first trials.
Later, the oldest, Sheryl (not her real name), whose testimony did the most damage at the trials, has fled Margie’s home, claiming physical and emotional abuse that dovetails with accusations made by other children previously adopted by Margie and her husband John, accusations that reveal a domineering, manipulative, violent presence in the lives of her children. CPS has already put her in a new home, having found “there is a continuing danger to [her] physical health or safety” if she were returned. And at nine in the morning on Tuesday, Margie, the driving force behind the prosecutions of the so-called Mineola Swingers Club cases, will be in court again, this time for an adversarial hearing in Wood County looking into the way she raised her daughter.
CPS has been investigating the Cantrells off and on since 2005, when the California transplants began fostering local children, including Sheryl and her two siblings, Harlan and Callie. The first investigation came that year after a former foster daughter of the Cantrells accused John of sexually abusing her in the late eighties; CPS tried to remove the three kids but was prevented from doing so by a Smith County family court. (John would be arrested on those charges three years later, but the case was dismissed because of a statute of limitations violation.) The latest CPS investigation began in October after a series of calls to the sheriff and 911 from the Cantrells, neighbors, and the school district. Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie were interviewed at the Wood County Sheriff’s office on Halloween—and the reports they got weren’t pretty. According to an affidavit filed by Magan Cleveland of the Department of Family and Protective Services, Sheryl told the lawmen that she had run away a couple of times after being “slapped across the face” and “popped in the mouth” by Margie. Harlan said he had been spanked with a wooden back scratcher so hard that it had broken. The affidavit also contained allegations from a neighbor that Callie had recently fled to his house, claiming that Margie “grabbed [her] by the hair and banged her head on the tile floor three times” after she was caught stealing.
Hall reported that DA Bingham had enough. He tried to throw in the towel on the case. Longtime and highly respected Tyler defense attorney Bobby Mims told Hall that the DA informed the Judge Skeen in the wake of the Cassel revelations that he wanted to recuse his office because of ethical implications involved with the withholding of favorable evidence. Bingham asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to take over the prosecution of Dennis Pittman. The AG refused, although his office did inform Judge Skeen that it would “assist” in the Dennis Pittman prosecution.
Perhaps Cassel’s vigorous defense and investigation of the Mineola swingers’ club case explains why Judge Skeen effectively prevented the attorney from being able to present a defense for his client. Cassel had sought to bolster his defense that the child victim’s abuse statements had been coached by Kemp, CPS workers, and Margie Cantrell in particular with testimony from experimental psychologist Marc Lindberg who is a professor at Marshall University in West Virginia. Lindberg is an expert in the study of how false memories can be suggested to young children. “If you keep asking the same questions,” Lindberg told Hall, “kids change their answers.” Cassel planned to present Margie’s videotaped interviews with the children while “Lindberg explained how her techniques could have led to false memories and answers,” Hall reported.
But if Judge Skeen had been professionally stung by the court of appeals rebuke of his handling of the Mayo/Pittman trials, he was not about to let it interfere with his determination to aid the prosecution and hamper the defense in the Dennis Pittman trial. The judge refused to let Lindberg testify. “I’ve testified all over the country,” the psychologist told Hall, “and I have never had this sort of testimony excluded.” The judge added proverbial insult to injury by ruling that Margie Cantrell did not have to answer questions from Cassel by invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; in other words, the State’s principal witness in the first three trials obviously had self-incriminating evidence to conceal about her role in the case or she was afraid of admitting perjury.
A reasonable assumption can be made that Judge Skeen penalized Cassel for the aggressive pretrial investigation he put forward in his client’s case. These two outrageous evidentiary rulings—both of which will almost certainly be reversed on appeal—are similar in nature to the same kind of rulings the judge made in the Mayo/Pittman cases. The judge certainly paved the way for the following opening remarks by Assistant DA Joe Murphy: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the testimony you’re going to hear, summed up in two words, is pure evil.”
It proved to be an easy sale to the jury. All six defendants in the Mineola swingers’ club case had zero chance of winning a “parent of the month” award. They all resided in a local trailer park, most had criminal histories, and all had been accused of some form of meth or drug use. They have tattoos on their faces or other inappropriate places on their bodies—for example, Dennis Pittman has a “dew drop” hanging under one eye. In the piney woods of East Texas, the defendants presented the faces of “pure evil” even absent any child sexual abuse allegations.
Judge Skeen allowed Pittman’s 17-year-old stepdaughter to testify that the defendant had raped her when she was just twelve—the kind of extraneous evidence wrought with the possibility of being a false allegation. Then the children took the stand and recounted all sorts of “bad things” done to them or that they were forced to do at the swingers club. Except one little girl who sent the prosecution reeling when she said she had never “attended sex kindergarten” but admitted she had danced at the club. Hall reported the jury foreman was wiping away tears when the little boy testified and other jurors were brought to tears when one of the girl witnesses cried as she described being forced to play doctor with her brother.
“Remember why you’re here,” Murphy encouraged the jurors. “You’re here because of what [these children] went through.”
Hall reported that Cassel put up a courageous effort by showing that “the stories the children told were contradictory, inconsistent, and simply too strange to believe.” He got each child witness to admit that they had denied anyone had either inappropriately touched or sexually abused them in any way until Margie Cantrell churned the stew of “child sexual abuse” hysteria. Cassel also called adult witnesses who regularly went to the Retreat Club and never saw children there, including a police officer who regularly patrolled the club’s parking lot.
But the defense attorney’s valiant effort was not enough. In his closing, DA Bingham told jurors: “This is the children’s day. This is their day for justice.” Not even rational, everyday human logic can offset that kind of emotional appeal. But Cassel tried anyway, telling jurors: “[Think about] a sex club across the street from the Mineola newspaper at a busy, busy intersection and a nursing home in a residential neighborhood off Highway 80 with … the police patrolling the parking lot, people installing cable, strangers able to gain entry by knocking on the door. Does it make sense?”
It apparently made sense in East Texas where political and social conservatism dominate everyday life in counties like Smith County. One local defense attorney told Michael Hall: “I suspect those jurors made up their minds during jury selection.” It certainly did not take them long to reach a unanimous “guilty” verdict—just 90 minutes. Judge Skeen then instructed them to return to deliberate the punishment. It took them only twenty minutes to return with a “life sentence” verdict. Hall reported that Margie and John Cantrell, along with their eight foster children, were in the courtroom to celebrate the moment of victory.
Hall also reported that before Judge Skeen sent the jurors back into their regular lives he gave them a four-minute speech about the “wonder of the American justice system.” He informed them, in a down home Texas drawl, that “there has been a real, a very deep price paid for us to be in this courtroom” by other men and women who have paid the ultimate price for our system of justice, At that point, Hall wrote, the judge’s voice “cracked” and “with difficulty” he managed to conclude: “It’s one we always want to keep, and it’s provided by people like you who pull the heavy wagon, share the burden, and make the tough decisions.” He finished the emotional discharge by telling jurors that the American flag which hangs in his courtroom “formerly flew at ground zero, where the Twin Towers once stood.”
What possible chance did “dew drop” Pittman have in that kind of judicial setting? Not very much. And Hall, who has as much or more knowledge about the “Mineola swingers club” case as anyone, said he fully expects the same verdict in the remaining two cases “largely because [they] will be overseen by the same judge.” Attorney Mims confirmed as much, telling the Texas Monthly contributor: “Due process demands that the defense gets to put on a case. Cassel was prevented from doing that. Don’t get me wrong. Judge Skeen is a great guy.
I love him. He’s one of my best friends. But he’s been a terrible judge on these cases … Cassel proved that what those children said happened could not have happened. They were never in that swingers club. The problem is that juries don’t always make decisions based on logic. In this type of case they make them on their hearts or fear. That’s a hazard of a jury system. Still, they should have all the evidence. If they then decide the defendant’s guilty, that’s fine. But in these cases I don’t think they would have. I believe these people are innocent.”
We don’t have the same “friendship” point of view about Judge Skeen as attorney Mims. Our point of view is that the judge very methodically and deliberately engaged in the same kind of evidentiary decision-making in Dennis Pittman’s trial that was so roundly rebuked by the appeals court in the Shauntel Mayo and Jamie Pittman cases—and as Hall pointed out, the only reason the appeals court did not reverse Patrick Kelly’s conviction is because his attorney did not raise those evidentiary issues on appeal.
We also believe in the same justice system that Judge Skeen praised to jurors in the Dennis Pittman case. And that’s why we believe that same system will inevitably reverse the judge once again on appeal. Thankfully the appeals court system exists to protect criminal defendants from judges who get so emotionally and personally involved in cases that they deny those defendants the fundamental opportunity to present a defense. Cassel had a good defense prepared: evidence about Margie Cantrell’s abuses of the “foster parent” system and her propensity for manipulating her own foster children. Marc Lindberg would have given jurors a chance to see the “whole picture” in the Mineola swingers club case—not just the children’s coached testimony based on fabricated stories elicited by Sergeant Kemp, Margie Cantrell, and a host of those “child advocate” experts.
Mark this warning: the Mineola swingers’ club case has the same earmarks as the infamous California “McMartin preschool” child sexual abuse case in the 1980s which ultimately unraveled in the 1990s. DA Bingham faces not only two more untried defendants but must decide whether to retry Mayo and Pittman—and before all is said and done, he will face decisions about whether to retry Patrick Kelly and Dennis Pittman as well because their convictions will also be reversed. Judge Skeen has guaranteed as much. The Mineola swingers’ club case began and evolved through the imaginations of Margie and John Cantrell, both of whom have proven to be irresponsible “foster parents” who have suckled off the state for decades while abusing foster children in the process. And these “career foster parents” had a lot of help in creating this legal nightmare from a lying Texas Ranger and overzealous “child advocate” experts who somehow always manage to weasel their way into the wrong side of major child sexual abuse cases that capture massive media exposure, like the FLDS case.
While the “Mineola swingers club” case is an injustice for the indicted defendants and their attorneys, it will ultimately prove to be a “mud in the eye” case for the officials and jurors in Smith County, Texas.
Then there is Gabby. A decade ago, Gabby Sones accused her parents and five others of running the most depraved child sex ring in Texas history. Now she’s ready to clear their names.
It was claimed that Gabby’s parents, Jimmy and Sheila, as well as five other local adults, had committed a series of depraved, almost incomprehensible sex crimes. The defendants, the children testified, had set up a “sex kindergarten” in a trailer outside Tyler. Then the adults had put the children on a stage at a swingers club in nearby Mineola, where the kids were drugged and forced to dance and have sex with one another.
It became one of the biggest scandals to ever hit East Texas. “Mineola Child Sex Ring: ‘Indescribable Acts,’ ” blared the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Across the country, people read in Newsweek about the case “that has riveted and revolted east Texans.” A war would rage for eight years, pitting children against parents, social workers against cops, and one district attorney against another. But above all else, it would pit a woman named Margie Cantrell, a lifelong foster parent and devoted person of faith, against a group of people portrayed as redneck deviants. In 2008 and 2010, based on the testimony of Gabby and the other children, four of the defendants were put on trial and sentenced to prison for life.
As a young child, Gabby hadn’t questioned her role in the cases; she’d accepted whatever law enforcement officers told her. But she was an intelligent kid, curious and hardheaded, and the older she got, the more she tried to make sense of what she’d supposedly been through. As a teenager, the questions in her mind became more difficult to suppress. The stories just didn’t add up.
Gabby allegedly made an accusation. According to her foster mother, the girl told her about taking silly pills to make her “dance sexy for the boys.” Combined with the outcries of Shelby, Hunter, and Carly, officials at the Smith County DA’s office felt they had the makings of an extraordinary case.
Texas Ranger Philip O. Kemp was reassigned to Compay E which is headquartered in El Paso. Kemp is currently stationed in San Angelo Texas. Curiously almost any mention of him has vanished from the internet. Coincidence?
One Correction to the story above; Patrick Kelly’s conviction and life sentence was reversed and thrown out by the 14th Court of Appeals in 2010 in a published opinion which crucified Judge Skeen and the prosecutor in the case, Joe Murphy. The conviction and sentence was tossed because the defense team made the right objections, preserved issues for appeal, and never retreated.
submitted by T.W. Davidson
Patrick Kelly’s trial lawyer
In closing this article it is important to note this case has many moving parts and we want to close with this.
“The wrath of God is his settled anger toward sin expressed in the repayment of suitable vengeance on the guilty sinner.”
The Smith County Prosecutor Joe Murphy was arrested for DWI a few years ago. Here is a link to his mugshot.
Jon and Margaret live in Vacaville California now where she recently began a new career as a counselor, has suffered some serious injuries and got the shingles almost simultaneously. When it rains it pours right?
With everything that took place we were surprised that Jon can be seen drawing sexual images in the sand along the beach that he posts on social media.
Judge Skeen will leave the bench in 2018. He is notorious for having sentenced a 17 year old high school student to 8 years in prison for a threatening phone call. In 2015 he ordered a defendant in capital murder case, who was representing himself, to wear a ‘shock belt’ so that he could punish him for non-compliance, or in this case not standing up when addressing him.