Well, it’s finally over, and if you didn’t look too closely, you’d think the good guys had won. Today at a pre-trial hearing in Smith County, six of the seven so-called Mineola Swingers Club defendants—accused of unbelievable acts of child sexual abuse—pled guilty to “injury to a child” (a felony) in exchange for their freedom. They’ve all been in jail or prison since 2007, though two had their sentences overturned. The remaining defendant—whose conviction is still intact—will remain in prison.
I’ve rarely seen the wheels of justice grind up so many innocent people—and I’m not just talking about these seven defendants. I’m also talking about the children who became witnesses against them, plus the family members of everyone involved in this sordid mess. As long-time Tyler attorney Bobby Mims, who is also a vice-president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told me in my first story on the cases , “In my thirty years of practice, I’ve never seen anything like it—an absolute, honest-to-God frame-up.”
I’ve been writing about these cases for more than two years now, in the magazine and online. To recap, from 2005 to 2008, four Tyler children—three siblings and their aunt—all aged 4 through 7, made allegations that in 2004 seven adults, including their parents, had forced them to attend a sex kindergarten in a trailer park, where they learned to play sex games, and then took them to a swingers club in nearby Mineola, where they performed sex acts on stage in front of crowds of as many as 30 adults, who videotaped the shows. The stories told by the kids were wildly inconsistent and sometimes outright bizarre: adults casting spells, wearing witch outfits, and sacrificing chickens; one child said she had flown around on a broomstick. Every single child initially denied to social workers knowing anything about a sex kindergarten or club; it was only after multiple interviews that they started making outrageous allegations. But there was nothing to back them up: no adult witnesses and no physical evidence—no DNA, no fingerprints, not even any videotapes.
In fact, Wood County, where Mineola is located, did its own investigation, back in 2005, when just one child was talking about a sex club. Investigators (including an FBI agent), found absolutely no evidence to back up her accusations. This didn’t stop the criminal justice machinery of Smith County. A Texas Ranger got involved and before long he was helping interview the other kids. In 2007 arrests were made; the public was outraged that a sex kindergarten and a sex club would operate under their noses. Three of the adults went to trial in 2008 and their juries, made of good country people who want nothing more than to protect their children, found them guilty in a matter of minutes. A fourth defendant was found guilty last summer.
I find it unfathomable that so many good people could allow and encourage these prosecutions to go forward. What happened to the lawyerly skepticism of Judge Jack Skeen and DA Bingham and the other men and women in his office?
*Why didn’t they look closer at the kids’ weird, implausible stories?
*Why didn’t they look closer at the foster mother of three of them, a woman named Margie Cantrell who moved to Mineola from California in 2004 and who has a history of manipulating her foster kids? (One of her California kids characterized her to me as “the puppet master” and said, “She brainwashes the kids to believe the stories she makes up.”)
*Why didn’t they give serious credence to the fact that not one of the seven defendants would testify against the others in exchange for a lesser sentence?
If they had done just one of these three, much less all of them, they would have realized the obvious: Nothing happened. There was no crime. There was no sex kindergarten and there were no child-sex shows at a swinger’s club. Ultimately, I can’t help but believe that Bingham knows this. Let’s put it this way: If he really believed these people put on live sex shows with children, would he really be setting them free now?
I always figured the cavalry would ride in and save the day for them. First I thought it would be the office of the Attorney General, which, in the summer of 2009 sent two lawyers to help investigate the case after Bingham tried to recuse his office from further prosecutions. But the AG’s office didn’t do anything. Then in the spring of 2010 two of the defendants had their verdicts thrown out by the 14 th Court of Appeals in Houston—a process which saw the DA in neighboring Wood County file an extraordinary amicus brief in which he officially called into question everything the Smith County DA had done. “[N]o evidence was found to corroborate the stories told by the children,” he wrote.
But that was it. No cooler or wiser heads stepped in to actually free these people. In fact, those two defendants whose cases were overturned were going to be folded in with the remaining defendants (two of whom are grandparents of two of the children) into one mass trial in June. It is these six who pled guilty.
Why would they do this if they aren’t guilty? Well, innocent people plead guilty all the time. They confess to crimes they didn’t commit (about a quarter of the DNA exonerations involve some form of false confession) and they plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. They especially do it when they are certain they will be found guilty, no matter what they do or how good their attorneys are. In these cases we’ve already seen four different juries vote guilty—in the time it takes to watch a movie. These defendants know the realities. They can go to prison for life—or they can go home. They don’t have a whole lot to lose by pleading guilty. Their lives have already been ruined—they’ll always be known for these allegations anyway.