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A Child-Sex Ring in East Texas

Margie Cantrell has taken a lot of tough cases in her more than 30 years as a foster mother and group home operator: fire starters, the incontinent, children who were locked in pet carriers, girls so tragically abused they'd "hump anyone who walked through the door," she says. But a Texas social worker who came knocking on her door a few years ago warned that the two children she was trying to place this time—siblings with flaxen hair and faces like angels—were "totally out of control," she recalls.

The girl, now 11, and her 9-year-old brother had been living in a trailer four years ago with little food and no electricity in east Texas; their mother was strung out on methamphetamine and cocaine, according to testimony from child-welfare workers. By the time the two children, and eventually another sister, moved in with Margie and her husband John Cantrell, in Mineola, in 2005, they had worn out several foster homes. Margie Cantrell was not daunted. She had faced tough trials before. Her husband had been paralyzed in a construction accident years ago, leaving the family temporarily homeless. Cantrell says she promised God to serve him however needed if her husband could walk again. Her promise became a calling, she says: "Wherever there are broken kids, John and I have tried to fix them. We have never turned a child away when they have asked us."

The Cantrells have raised 27 children in all, including their three biological offspring. But they had no idea what they were getting into this time. "They sent me these beautiful babies," Cantrell says, shooing the siblings out of earshot. But she, and previous foster parents, had noticed the children displayed dramatic psychological scars of sex abuse. The older girl once pulled the straps down on her princess costume and broke into a raunchy pole dance, to the astonishment of Cantrell's relatives. The boy couldn't control his bowels. Both kids would casually flip through porno mags at gas stops like they were playschool primers. Bit by bit, the children opened up about their past, and out tumbled a bizarre and almost unbelievable story that gripped the tiny town of Mineola for the last year, as a parade of their alleged abusers were imprisoned for life.

The girl was among four of five alleged child victims, who testified in court this month that they had been trained at "kindergarten" to dance erotically and have sex with each other. At night they said they were drugged with "silly pills" and were forced to work for food by performing for a paying audience of adults at a new swingers sex club in Mineola, operating out of a former preschool and church.

Cantrell and her husband had recently moved to Texas from northern California and were shopping in Mineola for a new group-home site when they stumbled on the former club on the outskirts of this quiet town, population about 5,100, of bean processors, retirees, and many churches of all denominations.

"If you look in that room, there's big white flowers on the wall and green leaves," the older girl told her foster mother, before they had entered, Cantrell says. "And that's the stage where I had to do all that sex stuff."

Cantrell went straight to the police, who dropped the case after two days when the girl initially refused to repeat the accusation. The Texas Rangers took over a few months later, when the children opened up. After a two-year investigation by the Rangers, the children's mother, her live-in boyfriend and five others were indicted in June 2007 on charges alleging that they were operating a child-sex ring out of the Mineola swingers club which, by that time, was defunct. The children testified against their mother, Shauntel Mayo, and her boyfriend, Jamie Pittman, during their trials earlier this year; both were convicted and sentenced to life. Both pleaded not guilty and are appealing.

Another defendant in the case, Patrick Stephen "Booger Red" Kelly, a weekend beer and barbecue buddy of the children's parents, was accused of running the sex kindergarten out of his home in the nearby city of Tyler and burning the costumes and videotapes of the children to hide the evidence. On Thursday, a jury convicted him on a charge of organized criminal activity for allegedly instructing the children to have sex with each other during a doctor skit, for his financial gain. He was given the maximum of a life sentence and a $10,000 fine. Kelly testified that he was innocent and had never even been to the Mineola swingers club, but prosecutors described him and his actions as nothing less than "pure evil."

Not surprisingly, the case has riveted and revolted east Texans, including the elderly residents who live beside the pale yellow stucco building with painted-over windows, where the children allegedly performed for scores of adults. Gene Bright, 83, says he and others "raised hell" and did whatever they could to shutter the swingers club as soon as it was discovered. "But we didn't know children were involved," he says. When Bright and his neighbors found out, it made some residents of this religiously conservative Bible belt town angry enough to talk about burning the building down. "It's hard to believe something like that would happen here in Mineola," Bright says.

Shirley Brooke, 72, lives next door to what was a vacant lot beside the site of the club. She was at a neighborhood meet-and-greet with the building's owner when the landlord learned of the sex club. The owner later testified that she immediately evicted the tenants, who had told her they were setting up a center for disabled children. "That's not good for any neighborhood. Maybe in a rundown, secluded area … but not here," Brooke says.

The question that haunts them still: Why would anyone choose a quiet neighborhood to start a sex club featuring a pedophile act, right next to the town newspaper? Few in east Texas seem to doubt the state's case. But none of the sex tapes the children were allegedly forced to produce weekly have been found, nor have any of the child sex act patrons been identified. But a Texas Ranger, who interviewed the children, said in court that he believed them because their accounts were consistent. "Maybe that's truly how bad the facts are," said Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney, arguing in court against the defendant's position that biased media coverage had poisoned the jury pool. But one witness who testified on behalf of the defense, reached another conclusion: The defendants were being railroaded in what amounted to "a Salem witch trial," said the woman, Angel Hendricks.

The idea that Kelly, a 41-year-old married auto-body sandblaster with an 18-year-old son, had run a "sex kindergarten" out of his home, right under the noses of his wife and neighbors, who have not been charged in the case, is ludicrous, his relatives said. His 22-year-old niece April Corrao told NEWSWEEK that her uncle had never acted inappropriately toward her or any other children. Kelly's sister Latricia Fulkerson, 44, of Tyler, said "it's all lies. I know my brother, he didn't do stuff like this. It's been horrible."

Thad Davidson, Kelly's lawyer, says his client, who will appeal, is innocent and had even passed a lie detector test. Davidson suggested Kelly was done-in by a right-wing jury swayed by their emotions against someone they likely viewed as trailer trash. During the trial, Davidson presented eight former members of the swingers club, each of whom testified that no children were ever present at the adults-only venue. And an expert psychological witness said he saw evidence that the children's foster mother, Margie Cantrell, had coached them during some of their videotaped interviews with authorities, and could have encouraged the children to believe implanted memories of events that never happened. "Just because you're a swinger it doesn't mean you're a pedophile," Davidson says. "But for Margie Cantrell, there would not have been these indictments and there would not have been these convictions. She started the fire."

Cantrell, now the children's permanent guardian, says the legal battle has taken a terrible toll on her family as well. In July, her husband John, a jolly man with a long white beard and uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus, was arrested and charged with sexually abusing one of his foster children in Solano County, California, 18 years ago. Law enforcement officials surrounded their home on a private lake in Mineola and took him away, just as he was settling down in front of the TV with a tuna-fish sandwich and his current brood of 10 children and assorted Pomeranian Chihuahuas.

John Cantrell invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to speak when called to the stand during Kelly's recent trial over the Mineola sex club. But Margie Cantrell insists her husband is innocent of the unrelated molestation charges, which she sees as retribution for their outcry against the swingers, and says her husband plans to enter a not guilty plea. They were so wary as career foster parents of false accusations they removed the closet doors in their former home and put glass doors on their bedroom, she says. "I'm fighting with my life and John's life for these babies," she said, sobbing. "It's huge. There are so many other people involved that haven't been found. So they want us to shut our mouths," she told NEWSWEEK.

Cantrell says it's overwhelming sometimes, but she won't give up on the Mineola sex club survivors. "I can't. My life means nothing compared to the pain they've gone through. They're heroes," she says, grabbing the lithe arm of the eldest girl as she drifts into the room for a moment. The girl, who was seven or eight when she says she was forced to perform as a sex worker, gives her foster mother a tight-lipped, embarrassed smile at the compliment. "She saved so many other children's lives who are still out there, and we can't find them," Cantrell moans.