When Gabby Sones was fifteen, she would often lie awake at night, restless, replaying memories in her head, watching them roll by like scenes from a movie. Many involved her father, Jimmy. The two were inseparable when she was little. He was a tall, burly, redheaded good ol’ boy who loved to hunt and fish. She was a strawberry-blond tomboy with baby blue eyes, and when she got old enough to hold a fishing pole, he would take her to Lake Tawakoni or Lake Holbrook, where she once caught two dozen sand bass, pulling them out of the cool water one after another.
Jimmy liked to work with his hands, and when he would crawl under his Buick Electra to tinker with the engine, she’d scoot beside him and pass him tools. He drove a big rig for a living, and on short trips to Oklahoma or Louisiana, he’d sometimes take her along. She would sit high in the seat, chattering into the CB radio, watching the world as it sped by. “I can see everything!” she’d cry.
But that was years ago. She hadn’t seen Jimmy or her mom, Sheila, since 2005, when she was seven and Child Protective Services took her from her parents. After that, her memories weren’t as pleasant.
She spent a couple of months with a foster family in Frankston. Then she was transferred to a large family in Tyler, who later adopted her. She liked them all right. The biological children had welcomed her, even if they mostly kept to themselves. They were Mormons, and she often clashed with her foster mother over things like wearing tank tops, putting posters on the walls of her room, or trying out for the cheerleading squad. Gabby missed her parents’ church, where she and the other kids sang and danced to a live band. She spent a lot of time in her room reading; Harry Potter books were her favorite. Sometimes her well-meaning foster mother would knock on the door and ask awkward questions about the circumstances that had led Gabby to live with her. “Do you want to talk about what happened?” she’d ask.
Gabby never did. It wasn’t that she was aloof. The truth was, she couldn’t recall any of the details. Strangely enough, the entire ordeal was a big blank in her mind.
It shouldn’t have been. Gabby, along with a nephew and two nieces—all of them between the ages of four and eight—had made a series of accusations that rocked their community. They’d 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.
Then, when she got to high school, she met a boy. He was eighteen, and her adoptive mother didn’t like him one bit. He’d had some run-ins with the law, plus he kept Gabby out late. Gabby was forbidden to see him, but she continued in secret, until her adoptive mother confiscated her cellphone and discovered the truth. As punishment, she made Gabby weed the garden while she sat and watched, the tension escalating. “You lie about everything!” the woman yelled. “I’m sure you lied about your parents too!”
Gabby froze, stunned into silence. If her adoptive mother thought she had made up those allegations, and Gabby herself couldn’t remember any details, who’s to say that anything happened at all?
Days later, after gettting a new cellphone, she began researching the cases for the first time. Scouring the internet, it didn’t take her long to find articles on the “Mineola Swingers Club.” And in the comments section of one story, she stumbled across a response from her aunt Carol. “My brother would never have done this,” she wrote. “His daughter was his life.”
Gabby was dumbstruck. Could this really be true?
She decided to ask him herself. It was spring 2014, and Gabby did what most people do when searching for someone from their past: she went on Facebook.
In 1989, Jimmy Sones was a hell-raising nineteen-year-old with a strong appetite for Jim Beam. He hung out with a group of friends who lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of Tyler, and after a night of partying, he would often crash on their couch. One afternoon he started talking to a pretty single mother named Sheila, who lived in a nearby trailer. She was fourteen years older than he was, but he was drawn to her outgoing spirit, and he got along well with her two teenage daughters, Shauntel and Stacey. A few months later, he moved in, and two years after that, they were married. To support his new family, Jimmy got a gig as a bouncer at a gentlemen’s club, and then he found work in the oil patch. Eventually he landed a solid job driving long-haul truck routes; he loved cruising through the rolling meadows and piney woods of East Texas. By 1998, when Gabby was born, he and Sheila had settled in Hawkins, a small town north of Tyler.
Gabby was a daddy’s girl, but she was also close to her mother. They shared a love of animals, and sometimes when Jimmy was on the road, Sheila would let Gabby stay home from school; they’d watch movies together, cuddled up on the couch with their two dogs. From a young age, the girl was outspoken. She was a smart kid—she scored 112 on an early IQ test—and she never shied from telling anyone what she thought. She also developed a particular way of ending an argument: “I’m done talking.”
Gabby was Jimmy and Sheila’s only child together, but when she was a year old, they took in Shauntel’s baby daughter, Carly. Shauntel, who was Sheila’s oldest child, had gotten into drugs and then struggled to care for her own children, including her two oldest, Shelby and Hunter. During various stretches, Shelby also moved in with Jimmy and Sheila for months at a time. Space was tight in their small home; so was money. Jimmy and Sheila often fought. They tried to make it work, but in 2004, when Gabby was six, her parents split, and she and Carly stayed with Sheila.
Jimmy and Sheila remained cordial and, by all accounts, supportive, doting parents. So it was a shock when, on July 6, 2005, a CPS social worker told Sheila to bring in Carly and Gabby for an interview and asked them about sexual abuse. Both children told the official that no one had ever looked at or touched their privates. (Gabby said the only naked person she’d ever seen was her mom in the shower.) Yet three months later, without warning, CPS pulled Carly out of school one day and took her into protective custody. Sheila had no idea what was going on, but according to Carly’s paternal grandmother, the girl had made an “outcry,” the term used by child abuse investigators to describe a child’s first assertion of abuse. Two weeks later, the state held a hearing to decide what to do with the girl. And there, at a Tyler family court on a brisk November morning, the Soneses’ lives collided with that of a woman named Margie Cantrell.
Margie and her husband, John, had moved to Mineola the previous year from Vacaville, California. Married almost thirty years, they were deeply religious, and they’d made a career out of fostering children, as many as sixteen at a time. Many of the kids had been diagnosed as emotionally troubled, a condition for which California paid foster families up to $3,760 a month to help with expenses and psychological treatment. Margie and John bought a five-thousand-square-foot home on picturesque Lake Brenda, in the northern part of Mineola. They were certified as foster parents and given group-home status by the Bair Foundation, a Christian organization that licenses foster homes for CPS.
In a composed voice, she told horrified observers that Shelby and Hunter, along with Gabby and Carly, had been conscripted into a child sex ring.
Margie was an imposing figure, brash and charismatic, with thick black hair to her shoulders, and she made a strong first impression in the small, conservative community of around five thousand. She was quick to tell people about the 27 children she’d adopted (her handle on an internet chat room was momof27), and she made a show of sticking up for kids she claimed were in danger. A few months after arriving, she marched into the offices of the Mineola Monitor and made the first of what would become a series of sensational claims about abuse. She insisted that the town’s high school football coaches were abusing players on the practice field. Reporter Gary Edwards was amused; he knew many of the kids and their parents, and if there had been actual abuse, he would have heard about it.
In May 2005 the Cantrells took in four new foster children (they’d brought five kids with them), their first since moving to Mineola, including Shelby, eight, and Hunter, six. Shelby and Hunter had been taken from Shauntel and her boyfriend, Jamie Pittman. CPS had visited Shauntel’s trailer twice: someone had called in a tip that the kids were locked outside while the couple were inside smoking crack. Two weeks after taking in Shelby and Hunter, Margie made another startling claim about abuse, telling a social worker that the kids had each made an outcry. Margie claimed that they’d been forced to play doctor on a stage in front of paying customers. However, when she took the kids to a children’s advocacy center for an interview, both denied that anyone had ever touched or looked at them inappropriately.
But Margie was an avid crusader, and she took her claims to the Mineola Police Department in late June, claiming that Shelby and Hunter had told stories of dancing in front of an audience at a local swingers club. The police searched the building and found no evidence.
The next day, three cops and an FBI agent met Hunter and Shelby at a children’s advocacy center in nearby Winnsboro, where the kids were interviewed by a social worker. Hunter again denied that anything had happened, but this time Shelby confirmed some of Margie’s allegations. Shelby talked about dancing, playing doctor, and performing strange skits, including one in which a rope was tied around their pants and attached to a parachute. Hunter wore “doctor clothes,” Shelby said, and she wore “dance clothes,” which Jamie burned, along with the “dance videos.” But when the police and FBI searched Shauntel and Jamie’s trailer and found no evidence of ropes, parachutes, or charred clothing, they closed the case.
Margie, undeterred, contacted various law enforcement agencies in Tyler, about 25 miles away and across the Wood County line. Tyler is the seat of Smith County, which has a reputation for being one of the most law-and-order jurisdictions in Texas. An assistant DA there named Tiffani Wickel, who was in charge of CPS cases in Smith County, was already familiar with Shelby and Hunter; she had made the decision to remove them from Shauntel’s trailer. Margie was later asked why she believed Smith County treated the case so differently. “Tiffani Wickel, I guess, saw something in my heart, and she believed me and got right on it,” she said.
When it came time to decide Carly’s fate in family court on that November morning, Margie was the state’s star witness. Wickel called her name, and Margie, 55 years old, strode to the stand with a calm determination. In a composed voice, she told horrified observers that Shelby and Hunter, along with Gabby and Carly, had been conscripted into a child sex ring. The two older kids, Margie said, had been trained at a “sex kindergarten” run by a man called Booger Red. They were taught by teenagers, who had themselves been instructed by a group of adults that included Sheila, Shauntel, Jamie, and a friend of theirs named Dennis Pittman (no relation to Jamie). The adults would film scenes with the kids, who wore costumes and danced at the swingers club in Mineola while Jamie collected money. The kids were initiated into the cult at the age of five. Margie wept as she described how the kids were given “silly pills that made their potties feel funny.”
Her testimony left the courtroom stunned. “The Mineola Swingers Club,” announced the judge from the bench. “That concerns me. I think that bears more investigation.” She ordered that Carly be placed with her siblings at Margie’s.
After the hearing, an assistant DA approached Sheila in the hallway. Sheila was already in a daze. Margie was fostering two of her grandchildren, and suddenly she had custody of a third, Carly, whom Sheila had raised as her own. Now the assistant DA told her that Gabby was being removed from school as they spoke and sent to foster care. Sheila rushed outside and collapsed on the ground.
Jimmy was on the road to Oklahoma when he got a call about what was happening. He turned his truck around, drove directly to the Smith County courthouse, and parked on the town square. He sprinted up the courthouse steps, yanked open the glass doors, and was immediately surrounded by a dozen deputies, all of them poised to draw their guns.
Eight days later, after moving in with her first foster family, Gabby allegedly made an outcry of her own. 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. Although all four children had initially denied that anything had happened, their outcries did share certain similarities: they all referenced sexy dancing or dancing for money. Assistant DA Wickel called in the Texas Rangers, and Philip Kemp reported for duty. Kemp, an amiable man with a West Texas accent (he hails from Sonora), was 41 years old. He was an 18-year veteran of DPS, but he’d never interviewed a child under 10; in fact, he had no training interviewing children whatsoever.
Cases of alleged child sexual abuse are some of the most difficult to bring to justice. Oftentimes the evidence is long gone by the time allegations are made, and the only witnesses are children. More than one investigation has gone wrong because children were questioned by fearful parents, overzealous police officers, or poorly trained therapists who unwittingly coaxed false stories out of them. “To do a good, high-quality child forensic interview takes a great deal of training,” said Stephen Ceci, a developmental psychology professor at Cornell University. In the eighties, law enforcement and child-protection agencies realized that special skills were needed to interview children, and children’s advocacy centers were established across the country.
Soon after Kemp began his investigation in November, he conducted his first interview with Shelby and Hunter at a children’s advocacy center, but he allowed Margie to sit in on the interview, a major violation of protocol. “That is very improper from a forensic standpoint,” said Ceci. “She’s the outcry witness.” (Kemp would not comment for this story, but in 2009 he defended his techniques, explaining, “This was not a forensic interview. I had already been informed of all the information discussed in the interview. I just wanted it documented, and I felt that if the children were at ease with Ms. Cantrell in the room, they would open up and tell me what I had already been told.”)
Kemp knew that Hunter, back in July, had made his first allegation, telling a therapist that his mother forced him to “touch his sister’s genitals and the genitals of other children.” But now, sitting in an interview room at a small rectangular table, with Kemp at one end, Margie at the other, and his sister beside him, Hunter denied knowledge of a club or a kindergarten—nine different times. On the video recording of the interview, Margie can be seen holding his hands and caressing his face, trying to draw him out. Eventually he started talking about stripping at the club and taking “silly pills.”
Shelby, meanwhile, amplified her original descriptions of the scandal. There were actually eight kids involved, she said. She talked about porn and guards and an emcee who would announce, “Ladies and s-e-x people, here is the movie!” Shelby spoke of the mysterious Booger Red and said that he had choked a woman at the kindergarten.
“Was there ever a camera?” Margie asked while nodding her head. The stubborn child shook her head no.
Kemp still needed testimonies from the other kids involved, and nine months later, he interviewed Carly. At first, the girl would only say that she’d done “bad stuff” at “Granny’s,” so Kemp called Margie into the room and let her ask questions too. Carly then began talking about “rubbing,” silly pills, and costumes. She would dress up as a witch, she said, and Hunter dressed as a bear, Shelby as a ghost. “I would fly around on a broom,” she added.
Gabby was the last to come around, and she was central to the state’s case. The three siblings lived with Margie, but Gabby had only briefly met her, so her corroboration would strengthen their testimony because she was free of Margie’s influence. Kemp first interviewed Gabby on the morning of August 18, 2006. His questioning dragged on for almost an hour, but she shook her head vehemently every time he asked about the kindergarten or dancing in front of an audience. That afternoon he tried again. This time, Margie sat in. “Was there ever a camera?” she asked while nodding her head. The stubborn child shook her head no.
Throughout the interview, Kemp posed yes-or-no questions that were loaded with details. “Do you know something about something called silly pills?” he asked at one point.
She shook her head.
“Did you tell Shelby that you knew about the club?”
Again, she shook her head. (“Trained investigators are taught not to ask yes-or-no questions,” said James Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “The problem is, it’s hard to ask them without introducing information.”)
Kemp also repeatedly asked multiple versions of the same question. “There’s a place in Mineola—it’s sort of a big building that I think you might have been to before. It sits up on a hill. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Gabby stared hard at the table. “No.”
Kemp tried again. “A big building, with a porch on the front, sits up on a hill, there’s lots of rooms in there, some of them had water in there, a TV, stuff like that? ’Cause Shelby told me all about it. You remember that?”
After a pause, Gabby again said no.
Gabby thought Kemp was nice, and she wanted to help. She thought the Texas Rangers were heroes, but she simply couldn’t recall any of the details he wanted.
Kemp, meanwhile, was doing little else to investigate the case. He never visited the scene of the supposed sex kindergarten, for example. Perhaps more egregiously, he failed to interview any members of the swingers club about the sex crimes allegedly going on at their parties. He later said that he hadn’t examined the trailer because “a long time had already passed from the time the acts took place and the children were removed to the time I became involved.” He testified that he had knocked on the door of the head swinger several times, but no one answered, so he gave up trying.
Regardless, by January 2008, six adults had been arrested (a seventh would get picked up in February). Gabby was living with her second foster family, and Kemp called her in once more. For nearly an hour, he peppered her with questions, and she responded each time with a firm denial.
But she didn’t have much resistance left. “If you keep asking the same question,” said Marc Lindberg, an experimental psychologist and professor at Marshall University, in West Virginia, “kids change their answers.”
Finally, Kemp asked her, “Have you ever seen Shelby and Hunter do a play or something in a building where there’s water around the stage? And flowers on the wall? A swing in the building?”
Gabby later said that she feared Kemp wouldn’t let her leave until she gave him what he wanted. After a long pause, Gabby replied, “I can picture it.”
“Okay,” Kemp said, “so you’ve been there before?”
“I think so.”
Kemp asked what she did there.
“I think dance.”
“I think Shelby, Hunter, and Carly.”
Though prosecutors had found neither physical evidence nor adult witnesses to back up the allegations, they prepared for trial.
At first, Gabby was excited about testifying. “I was nine years old,” she said. “I enjoyed being the center of attention.” But when she was called to the witness stand for the first trial, of Jamie Pittman, in March 2008, and looked out over the crowded courtroom, she realized she would have to deal with questions she didn’t necessarily know the answers to. Luckily, some of the questions assistant DA Joe Murphy posed could be answered with a simple yes (Q: “Was there any dancing?” A: “Yes.”). And other questions proved less difficult than she’d feared (Q: “What types of stuff would you do in there?” A: “Sexual stuff.”).
She was part of a team of children, a group that had grown to five with the addition of Amanda Montroy, Dennis Pittman’s former stepdaughter, who said that several of the defendants had given her “happy pills” and tried to get her and Shelby to take off their clothes in the back room of a Tyler club. Jamie’s trial lasted three days, and he was found guilty in four minutes.
Two months later, Gabby testified again, this time against her sister, Shauntel. She found it harder to remember what to say—as time had passed, she had forgotten more details. Still, Shauntel was found guilty in six minutes.
Patrick Kelly, the mysterious Booger Red—that’s what his friends called him—went on trial in August, and Gabby’s answers became even vaguer. She responded more and more with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” Yet Patrick was found guilty too. As assistant DA Murphy explained, “This case is about pure evil.”
Margie, meanwhile, emerged as a hero. She was a magnet for cameras and did several interviews with local TV stations. “Wherever there are broken kids,” she told Newsweek after Patrick’s conviction, “John and I have tried to fix them. We have never turned a child away.”
For her part, Gabby was eager to get on with her life. She was, in many ways, a typical ten-year-old—she was a good student, she listened to the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, and she dreamed of joining the FBI or the Texas Rangers. More than anything, she hoped she wouldn’t have to testify anymore. She hated pretending to remember something that she didn’t.
But she was called back once more for the trial of Dennis Pittman, in July 2010. The trial mostly stuck to the scripts from the previous three, though Amanda, who had never previously claimed to have gone to the swingers club, now said she’d been there more than ten times. In addition, defense lawyer Jason Cassel raised the issue of money as a possible motive for Margie, pointing out that over a span of eighteen months, she and John had been paid almost $110,000 by the state for fostering Shelby, Hunter, and Carly.
Gabby was the first witness, and with her blond hair pulled back in a black band, she walked sullenly to the stand. She was terse with DA Matt Bingham when he asked if she’d been to the swingers club a few times or many times. “I have no clue,” she replied. He asked what she wore. “I don’t know,” she said, “sexy outfit or something.” Then, when he asked about the kindergarten, she became defiant: “I’ve remembered in my mind that that never happened.”
Bingham paused, visibly stunned. “Okay,” he said. “When did you decide in your mind that the kindergarten never happened?”
“Last week,” she answered. “The week before that.”
“What made you decide in your mind that kindergarten never happened?”
Gabby hadn’t planned this; the words just popped out. Bingham dug in and questioned her relentlessly about previous testimony. “Maybe I had to dance,” she shot back, “maybe I hadn’t, okay? You try being up here for once, huh?”
When it was defense attorney Cassel’s turn, he questioned Gabby about the contradictions in her initial outcry. Though her foster mother claimed Gabby had told her she was forced to take pills to dance sexy for the boys, in the same statement she also admitted that Gabby told her the story “was all a lie” made up by Carly’s paternal grandmother—the woman who reported Carly’s outcry. Reluctantly, Gabby confessed that she had indeed told her foster mother that the whole thing was a lie.
After her testimony, the girl—exhausted, angry, confused—retreated to the victim’s room on the fourth floor and gazed out the window, crying. She contemplated throwing herself out. Instead she made herself a promise: she would never testify again. After the guilty verdict, when Bingham approached her about testifying at the next trial, she told him, “You can call me, but I’m done talking.”
A few weeks later, Jimmy was sitting in his cell in the Smith County jail when several officials from CPS and the prosecutor’s office showed up with a letter Gabby had written to her counselor threatening to kill herself if she had to testify again. Jimmy pored over his daughter’s words. It had been four years since he was charged, and he was still awaiting trial. From the beginning, he, like the rest of the defendants, had been offered plea deals from the DA’s office. All he had to do was testify against the others and he could walk free. He repeatedly turned down the offer for one reason: he refused to lie. The others felt the same. Sheila told her lawyer that if she had to lie to go free, she would stay in prison for the rest of her life. When the prosecution came to Shauntel, she told them to kiss her ass.
But Gabby’s letter changed everything. Jimmy asked his lawyer to go to the DA and see what kind of deal they could make. The lawyer came back with what sounded like reasonable terms: plead guilty to injury to a child, a felony that did not require registering as a sex offender, and go free. Jimmy signed and the remaining defendants followed.
And so, in the summer of 2011, one of the most law-and-order prosecutors in the state set free the purported masterminds of a notorious child sex ring. To date, Bingham has refused to explain his reasoning (or comment for this story), though in 2009 he told me, “I have and will continue to stand by the conclusions reached by these Smith County jurors.”
One night when Jimmy was still in jail, he had dreamed of a weeping angel who visited him in his cell. “Keep your heart open,” the angel said, “because she loves you and still needs you.” Jimmy knew whom the angel meant.
After his release, he was forbidden to try to contact his only child, but just in case she wanted to find him, he joined Facebook and created a page with photos of Gabby as a young girl. In one, taken at a father-daughter dance when she was six, she sat in Jimmy’s lap, clasping her hands and smiling shyly. Every day he checked his page.
In the spring of 2014, nearly three years after the plea deal, he finally received the message he was hoping for: “Is this the Jimmy Sones whose daughter was taken away?” He wrote back with his phone number. When Gabby called, he burst into tears, and when they finally met two weeks later in a Love’s parking lot in Van, he cried again as he hugged her. They didn’t talk much about the past that night. He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, she didn’t know what to say, and soon she had to return to her adoptive family.
A month after that, in early August, she ran away from her adoptive family and called Jimmy again. This time he picked her up in his big rig at a Walmart in Tyler and took her home. Two days later, she finally opened up and began asking questions, trying to figure out what was behind the big blank in her memory. Did you do it? Why did they say you did it? What happened to Shelby, Hunter, and Carly? Her father answered as best he could: No. I don’t know. They’re in foster care.
Gabby knew that he was telling the truth. “I’m sorry for lying,” she said.
“You don’t need to apologize,” he told her. “It wasn’t your fault. You were a little girl.” A week later, she told him she wanted to try to make things right. She wanted to go public.
Jimmy had read two stories I had done on the cases in Texas Monthly, so he contacted me. When he said that Gabby wanted to explain what actually happened, I wasn’t surprised. Gabby had always seemed the most fearless of the kids, and I suspected it was just a matter of time before one of them started telling the truth. The stories were too kooky, too fantastical. And it wasn’t just what the kids said that had triggered my skepticism, it was the way their testimonies came about: every single child initially said nothing happened to him or her. This, the UTEP psychologist Wood said, was a red flag. “The large majority of sexually abused children—between 80 and 90 percent—will actually report the abuse if questioned by police or social services.”
In the spring of 2014, he finally received the message he was hoping for: “Is this the Jimmy Sones whose daughter was taken away?”
I wasn’t the only skeptical one. During the first trial, Wood County DA Jim Wheeler felt compelled to do his own investigation, so he launched an extensive grand jury probe, which included interviewing a dozen swingers, all of whom said they had never seen any children in the club. “There was a total lack of corroboration for what those kids said happened,” Wheeler told me in 2009. Other law enforcement officials were also troubled by the cases, and in June 2010, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of Jamie and Patrick because of “numerous evidentiary errors” committed by Judge Jack Skeen; the court noted that “the believability of the children’s testimony is at the heart of this case.”
The bottom line was, if you believed Gabby, Shelby, Hunter, and Carly, you thought justice had been done. If you didn’t believe them, you tended to agree with longtime local defense lawyer Bobby Mims. “In my thirty years of practice,” he told me nine years ago, “I’ve never seen anything like that—an absolute, honest-to-God frame-up.” (At the time, Smith County assistant DA Murphy denied this claim. “There was no type of frame-up in these cases,” he wrote me.)
Jimmy and I set up a meeting at a Subway in a Jarrell truck stop, just north of Austin, part of his route from Tyler to San Antonio. The morning of August 30, 2014, I watched his eighteen-wheeler creep into the parking lot of the Flying J Travel Plaza. He and Gabby crawled out of the cab and stepped slowly across the pavement. Gabby wore black jeans and a black shirt. She’d just turned sixteen, was a high-school dropout, and looked beset by the world. She and her father weren’t supposed to be anywhere near each other, yet she sat down in a booth next to him. Jimmy wore jeans and an Awesome Jack Duck Dynasty shirt. His teeth were in bad shape, and he kept his lips together when speaking. But Gabby did most of the talking.
It was all a lie, she told me, her legs shaking nervously. The sex kindergarten, dancing at the swingers club—none of it was true. Her parents and the other adults were innocent. “They literally blew up my mind and planted stuff in it,” she said, her voice quivering. “I’m furious about it. They lied to me. They used me. They screwed up my life.”
I asked her about the other kids involved. She said she didn’t know how they felt, and she didn’t care. “My ultimate goal is for this to be overturned. My goal for myself is just to tell the truth.”
Gabby was still on the run, so she laid low in Jimmy’s trailer when they returned to Van. She rarely went outside, but after a few weeks, Gabby told Jimmy she was ready to see her mom.
Sheila was watering roses in front of her home when they drove up one afternoon in September 2014. She couldn’t make out the passenger in Jimmy’s car, and when the girl stepped out, Sheila still didn’t recognize her. When she realized that this sixteen-year-old was the same little girl she’d last seen nearly a decade before, she threw aside the hose and ran to her daughter, sobbing.
Within days, Gabby began spending more time with Sheila. One afternoon, as they sat and talked on the porch, Sheila told Gabby she’d understand if the girl needed some distance. “I know I haven’t been there for you for nine years, and I need to know what you need. If you want me to be your friend, I’ll be your friend. If you want me to be your mama, I’ll be your mama.”
That was strange for Gabby to hear. After all she’d been through, she needed more than a friend. “I need you to be my mama,” she replied.
A few weeks later, Gabby moved in with Sheila. The girl struggled with depression, but her anger eased as time passed. Eventually she got a job at Walmart (when she turned seventeen, local law enforcement was less likely to return her to her adoptive parents). She also reconnected with Hunter, and the two bonded over their experiences. Hunter told Gabby that he’d had a similar feeling about all the abuse they’d supposedly gone through. It was like a blank page in his mind.
Gabby learned that Hunter’s life had been even more harrowing than hers. He, Shelby, and Carly had initially enjoyed living with Margie (she and John installed a pool and took them to restaurants), but things changed after the fourth verdict. According to Hunter, Margie became increasingly abusive, verbally and physically. She would even keep the kids out of school for weeks at a time. “I’d be pulled out for the littlest things,” he said. “I didn’t go to fourth grade. I don’t know my basic math.”
When Carly showed up on a neighbor’s doorstep on October 12, 2013, CPS got involved. According to a subsequent report, she had run away after Margie grabbed her by the hair and “banged her head on the tile floor three times.” Shelby also ran away that month because Margie wouldn’t let her go to school. She told CPS that in the past, she had been “slapped across the face” and “popped in the mouth” by Margie. In a CPS affidavit, Hunter said that “he was spanked with a wooden back-scratcher until it broke,” and he had the scars to prove it. On November 12, 2013, CPS held a hearing and removed the three kids from Margie’s home. Soon after, Margie and John returned to California.
Shelby, Hunter, and Carly were split up and sent to a series of foster homes and residential treatment centers. When Hunter was released at seventeen, he decided to return to his mother. During the sentencing phase of Shauntel’s trial in 2008, he had called out to her from the witness stand, “I’ll find you, Mommy.” Now he fulfilled his promise.
Shortly after, I got a message from Shauntel. Ever since hearing from Gabby, I’d been trying to contact the other kids, and Hunter agreed to meet me in Dallas. It was April 2016, and he was tall and handsome, with dirty blond hair and big blue eyes. He told me he aspired to be a rapper.
I asked him about his sisters, and he said he’d recently spoken with Carly, who was living in a residential treatment center in Austin. She didn’t remember anything about the allegations. “She was only four.”
He had also been in touch with Shelby, who was living with a foster family in Tyler. Shelby had reconnected with Shauntel through Facebook. “You probably hate me,” she wrote. “I’m sorry.” They began talking again over the phone, and Shauntel started dropping by to visit Shelby at her job at Dairy Queen, where the girl revealed that she had gotten into Sam Houston State University. For the first time in Shelby’s troubled life, she appeared to be happy.
Still, Shelby refused to talk to anyone in her family about the past. She knew that Gabby had recanted, but she didn’t want to be involved. The two had even argued about it over the phone, and Shelby told her mom she was upset because Gabby had called her a coward.
Sitting next to Hunter, I opened my laptop, and together we watched a video from his first session with Kemp, recorded in late November 2005. On the screen, the seven-year-old sat between Shelby and Margie, and when Kemp asked about the kindergarten, he covered his face with his hands. “How about if I hold your hand?” Margie said. She asked about the location of the class. “I have no idea,” he replied, shaking his head. “Tell me about the club,” said Kemp, and Hunter thrust his hands toward the Ranger, as if he were trying to literally push the question away. “I don’t know nothing about it. Nobody told me.” By the end of the hour-long interview, though, he was talking about “nasty stuff” and silly pills.
After I put the computer away, Hunter talked about a strange night not long after he moved into Margie’s house. She pulled Shelby into her bedroom, and they talked for a long time before calling him in. Margie asked him if he remembered anything about a sex kindergarten. He said that he hesitated. “I didn’t know nothing about it. Shelby was like, ‘You remember all this stuff.’ Shelby was my older sister. I looked up to her, so I followed what she said.”
Hunter spoke slowly, deliberately, in a deep voice. Margie would frequently drag them into her room, he said, late at night. “She’d keep us up and drill this stuff into our heads.” Hunter said he never actually believed any of the stories; he was simply following the lead of his big sister. Shelby rarely described any of the specifics, though—the details came from Margie—and he was certain nothing had ever happened to his sister, or she would have confided in him. Only once did they ever talk about the accusations, sometime after the trials had begun. “We were sitting in the hallway talking,” he remembered. “And she said, ‘Did this stuff really happen?’ Like, ‘I don’t remember none of it.’ ”
“I’ve got a photographic memory,” he told me. “That’s how I got through school. So if something happened, I’d know it happened.”
Last October, a film based on my Texas Monthly articles premiered at Tyler’s Liberty Hall, a movie theater that sits across the street from the Smith County courthouse. Booger Red is a hybrid documentary—part fact, part fiction—and includes interviews with many of the actual people involved. Some of the main characters showed up to watch themselves on-screen, including four of the defendants.
After being released, all of them tried to resume normal lives, but with felonies on their records, they had difficulty finding work. They were also despised in their hometown. Six months after her release, Shauntel was sitting in a nail salon, her feet in a bowl of water, when her mug shot appeared on TV. “I’m sorry,” said one of the employees, “we don’t serve your type of people here.” Shauntel got up and left.
This evening, she sat in the middle of the theater, surrounded by supportive friends. Hunter couldn’t be there, but Gabby sat with her parents, directly behind Shauntel. Patrick, or Booger Red, was also there with his wife and son. Patrick had never been arrested before the scandal, but he was the most vilified of the defendants. The media seized on his nickname—earned as a child because of his hair color—and for six years his face appeared on the front page of the local paper and in the lead stories on local TV news. When he got out of prison, his former employer, a body shop, wouldn’t take him back, and no one else would hire him, so he began doing yard work for hire.
After the movie, the filmmaker, Berndt Mader, invited Gabby, the defendants, and several lawyers onstage for a Q&A. Gabby squeezed between Jimmy and Sheila as they stood in front of the theater’s red velvet curtain. “Why wasn’t this case prosecuted in Wood County?” one audience member asked. “The Cantrells ruined their lives. Is there anything that can be done to them?” wondered another. Someone asked about Dennis Pittman, the only defendant not offered the plea deal in 2011. He remains in prison to this day. His lawyer, Jason Cassel, said they were still discussing filing a writ of habeas corpus to secure his release.
One woman asked how the defendants could prove their innocence. Thad Davidson, Patrick’s lawyer, explained that pleading guilty had made exoneration nearly impossible. “It would take almost a miracle,” he said.
Cassel believed that it was still possible, but it would require recantations from all of the kids involved. (I tried repeatedly to interview Shelby, Carly, and Amanda, but none responded.)
Mader then handed a microphone to Gabby and asked if she had anything to say. “I was a normal kid,” she began. She was standing only two hundred feet from the courtroom where she had once testified. “When an adult tells you something happened, you’re going to believe it, especially if they tell you over and over. It must have happened, because an adult told you it happened. That was how they did it.” She admitted that she still struggled with her role as a witness. “For me, it’s still hard. I still blame myself.”
Mader turned to Jimmy. “Where has this left you?” he asked. Jimmy put his arm around Gabby’s shoulder. “A lot of people think we can get this out of it, we can get that out of it. I don’t want no money. I don’t want nothing—except for one thing. I want the Cantrells on a stage to make a public apology. I don’t care if they get arrested or go to jail. I want them to apologize to the seven people who went through hell and the kids who went through worse.”
While reporting previous stories about this case, I discovered that Margie had a troubling history of neglect, manipulation, and abuse before she and John ever arrived in Texas in 2004. If either CPS or the Bair Foundation, which licensed the Cantrells as foster parents in Texas, had checked, they would have discovered that just one year earlier, the Cantrells had been decertified as foster parents in California for “various physical plant violations in the outside yard including garbage, old housing fixtures, drill bits, broken CDs, and old junk all around the home.”
In 2008 and 2009, I interviewed four former foster kids in California who said that Margie had punched them in the stomach, pulled their hair, screamed at them, and also concocted outlandish tales. One of them called her “the puppet master,” explaining that “she brainwashes the kids to believe the stories she makes up.” Three of her former foster kids described an instance in which Margie punched a foster child named Veronica in the face, giving her a black eye. Margie took her into a bedroom for thirty minutes, and when they emerged, both were laughing. “Margie called everybody together and told us Veronica had run into a doorknob,” one of them remembered. Another told me, “Veronica was too tall to have done that, but Margie convinced all of us kids that she had. Even Veronica was convinced.”
When I raised these accusations with Margie in 2009, she repeatedly denied the violence and manipulation and claimed that the charges came from malcontents out to get her. In a February 2009 email, she wrote that it was “kind of comical that these people joined together from Texas to California so they could have a Margie hate fan club.” And, it should be noted, I talked with family members who stood behind her, including several former California foster children who viewed Margie and John as saviors. They said they’d never witnessed any physical or emotional abuse. “They’re awesome,” said one woman.
“Maybe at the beginning they believed it,” Sheila said. “But I believe by the end they didn’t believe it. They took it too far to backtrack.”
Last fall, I tried to reach Margie to ask her about Gabby and Hunter’s recantations. When she didn’t respond, I flew to Vacaville, where she and John had returned after leaving Mineola. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in January when I knocked on the door of their wood-and-brick middle-class home. I didn’t recognize the thirty-something woman who answered the door. “She knows who you are,” she snapped. “And she doesn’t want to talk to you.”
I went back the next morning, and this time Margie and John’s biological daughter, Jon-L, answered. “I just want to ask her a couple of questions,” I said. “We don’t want no questions,” she said sharply, and slammed the door.
Of all the defendants, Sheila had the roughest time behind bars. She had been almost fifty when arrested, and she spent the next four years living in fear, pleading with guards for protection from inmates who wanted to kill her because of the terrible crime she was accused of. After accepting the plea bargain and going free, she hid out at her daughter Stacey’s place. She didn’t apply for a driver’s license because she didn’t want anyone to know where she lived. She was terrified of the police. And she worried she’d lost Gabby forever.
These days, she considers Gabby her best friend. They live in a small travel trailer on a rutted red-clay road just outside of Tyler, along with three cats, three dogs, and a foot-long bearded dragon named Godric. When I visited in January, they were also caring for seven new pit bull puppies. Gabby had recently rescued the pups’ mom, Sammy, from an abusive owner.
Gabby sat on the couch with Sammy sprawled on her lap. Sheila, with graying hair and faded tattoos on her left shoulder and hand, perched on the bed, a few feet away, smoking a cigarette and petting the terrier in her lap. Their home is snug and warm and just up the road from Shauntel and Hunter’s trailer.
Gabby’s dream is to someday open an animal rescue program, though she first needs to get her GED. She works long hours at a convenience store, so it’s been difficult to find the time. For now, she saves as many animals as she can on her own. “I’ve never had a dog lie on me or betray me,” Gabby said. “And they’re good companions.”
“And once your dog is your best friend,” Sheila chimed in, “he’s always your best friend.”
Gabby still sees Jimmy on occasion. Sometimes he stops by to help repair Sheila’s car, though Gabby does most of the work now, while he gives advice. Mostly, Gabby hangs out with her mom. All of their spare money goes to car maintenance and caring for animals. Both are beleaguered by chronic health issues that they’ve neglected because they don’t have health insurance. Gabby developed scoliosis as a child and didn’t get proper treatment, which has caused circulation problems and joint damage. Sheila has heart trouble and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis last year. Both suffer from depression.
At nineteen, Gabby isn’t as angry as she was at sixteen, although occasionally she still flashes with fury. She’s frustrated that nobody is working on the cases anymore, that her parents are still convicted felons, and that Margie is unscathed in California.
She and her mom also remain mystified by certain things, like why CPS ever took Carly’s outcries seriously to begin with. To them, it was obvious that the girl was talking about dancing in their church. Gabby insists she never made any kind of outcry to her first foster mother. And they don’t understand why Kemp and the Smith County officials came after them, even if their intentions—protecting innocent children—were noble. “Maybe at the beginning they believed it,” Sheila said. “But I believe by the end they didn’t believe it. They took it too far to backtrack.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon lazing at home with their pets, and then went to a Mexican restaurant for a rare night out. They ordered enchiladas and discussed what to do about Godric, who had developed an infection in his ear. They talked about Gabby’s boyfriend, and they complained about their jobs. They talked about the mundane things that mothers and daughters always talk about but often take for granted.
When Gabby went to bed that night, she lay awake for a few minutes replaying the day in her head. She didn’t bother too much worrying over the past. It had been a decade since she first took the witness stand, more than half of her lifetime ago, and now she understood why there was once a big blank in her mind. She hadn’t found peace, exactly, but for the moment she was content sticking close to her mom, trying to retrieve lost time. She also had other things to think about, such as how to spend tomorrow: Go to work. Hang out with her boyfriend. Find owners for the puppies.
And then she fell asleep.