Trial and Error

After an appeals court overturned the convictions of two Texans implicated in a child sex ring, the latest defendant went on trial with the same judge, the same evidence—and the same verdict.
Trial and Error
TIPPING THE SCALES: In the latest Mineola swingers club case, the power of the children’s testimony seemed to outweigh the facts.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

The little girl had changed her mind. After five years, four interviews with social workers and law enforcement officers, and three trials, Ginny had come to a realization about the “sex kindergarten,” the horrible place in the trailer in that brushy field just outside Tyler where, she had previously said, she had been taught to dance and do “sexual stuff.” “I’ve remembered in my mind that that never happened,” she announced in open court. When, asked the surprised prosecutor, Smith County district attorney Matt Bingham, had she come to this conclusion? “Last week, the week before that.” What prompted it? “God.” She had prayed, she said, and received “a warm feeling in my heart.”

Ginny, eleven, is tall for her age, with wavy blond hair that falls to her shoulders. She had testified about the sex kindergarten three times in court, as had three other children, Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie (the names of all the children in this story have been changed). The four had also testified that in 2004, after “graduating” from the kindergarten, they’d left Tyler, in Smith County, and been taken by six men and women up the road to Mineola, in Wood County, to a swingers club, where they’d danced and touched one another’s privates onstage in front of two or three dozen grown-ups. The kids said they had worn costumes and been given “silly pills” to make them lose their inhibitions. They acted in skits involving parachutes and puppets. Callie told of flying around on a broomstick. The children claimed they had been paid with money or food by their adult masters, who had sometimes worn witch outfits. One of the grown-ups had cast spells. Another had shot a dog and hung it from a tree in front of the club, in broad daylight.

To Bingham’s relief, Ginny remembered the Mineola club, though her grasp of details was a little sketchy. He asked her if she had been in the club a few times or many times. “I have no clue,” she responded. He asked what she wore. “I don’t know, sexy outfit or something.”

It was July 6, the first full day of testimony in the trial of Dennis Pittman, the fourth defendant in the so-called Mineola swingers club cases. The venue was Judge Jack Skeen Jr.’s courtroom, the same place where three other defendants had been prosecuted in 2008 for forcing Sheryl and Harlan to touch each other’s privates. (I wrote about this case for TEXAS MONTHLY in April 2009.) Pittman sat quietly next to his attorney, Jason Cassel, rarely moving. The defendant was not the most appealing client, with a teardrop tattoo under his left eye, a perpetual hangdog expression, and prior convictions for burglary and drugs.

Earlier that day, Ginny and 22 other potential witnesses had been sworn in by Judge Skeen. Among them were Margie and John Cantrell and their eight foster kids, including Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie. The Mineola swingers club drama began in June 2005, when Margie, a career foster parent who had arrived from California a year earlier, stormed into the Mineola Police Department and claimed that her two new foster kids had told her that they had performed sex shows at a local swingers club. Mineola police, aided by an FBI agent, investigated and found nothing to back up the stories. (Much later, a Wood County grand jury looked into the claims; there was, DA Jim Wheeler told me, “a total lack of corroboration for what those kids said happened.”) Margie refused to let that deter her. She later claimed, “I called Smith County, the FBI, and the Mineola police several times, as well as CPS [Child Protective Services], the Smith County CAC [Child Advocacy Center], and the Smith County police.”

In November the investigation finally gained traction—in Smith County. The Texas Rangers took charge. The main investigator, Sergeant Philip Kemp, let Margie sit in on some of his interviews with the children. She even took over from Kemp, asking the kids questions herself. 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 on the same question 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 friends. In July 2007 six Tyler trailer-park residents were arrested: Shauntel Mayo (Sheryl, Harlan, and Callie’s mother), Jamie Pittman (Mayo’s boyfriend), Jamie’s friend Patrick “Booger Red” Kelly, Dennis Pittman (no relation to Jamie), Sheila Sones (Mayo’s mother), and Sones’s ex-husband, Jimmy Sones. Six months later, the Soneses’ young daughter Ginny began talking about the sex club as well.

The first defendants were Jamie Pittman and Shauntel Mayo, who had lost custody of her kids in 2005 (both Pittman and Mayo were drug abusers). Though no physical evidence was ever found to link them to the alleged crimes—no DNA, fingerprints, hairs, or costumes—and though no adult witnesses, including the thirty or so adults who’d supposedly watched the sex shows, could be tracked down, both were found guilty in only four minutes. The third defendant, Kelly, fared somewhat better, receiving a guilty verdict in less than two hours. All were given life sentences.

The prosecution seemed to be on a roll, and Dennis Pittman had little reason for optimism—until a higher court stepped in. On June 17 the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, in Houston, overturned the convictions of Kelly and Jamie Pittman. Kelly, the judges said, deserved a new trial because he hadn’t been allowed to present a defense and because Judge Skeen had “adopted ad hoc evidentiary rules that operated to assist the state in proving its case, while impeding appellant’s ability to defend himself.” (Jamie Pittman’s conviction was overturned on different grounds; Mayo’s was upheld, likely because her appellate lawyer cited none of the evidentiary issues that Kelly’s lawyers

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