UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect new developments in the case. Scroll to the bottom to read more.
Once upon a time—actually just a few years ago—Margie Cantrell 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. The defendants—seven of them—each claimed innocence and said the kids were lying, put up to it by Margie. Though there was nothing to back up the kids’ stories—no adult witnesses and no physical evidence—all the accused adults were found guilty and sent away for life. In the years afterward, however, the sentences of two of them were overturned; instead of retrying them, the DA made a deal for six of the seven: plead guilty to “injury to a child” and you can go home. They did, and all but Dennis Pittman, who was convicted in 2010, were released two years ago. (You can read previous stories on the cases here.) The children Margie had saved from peril remained with her.
But now the oldest, sixteen-year-old 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.
These accusations are in line with accusations made in the past by previous foster and adopted kids of the Cantrells, who have adopted more than thirty kids. I interviewed three of these folks, who called Margie “manipulative” and “controlling” and said her voice was often hoarse from yelling at them. They said she would slap them in the face, punch them in the face, pull their hair, slug them in the stomach. They also said she would make them fabricate stories. One called her “the puppet master” and said, “She brainwashes the kids to believe the stories she makes up.”
In her affidavit Cleveland also wrote that, “Police records and 911 audio recordings depict continual chaos at home . . . a deteriorating living environment . . . there is concern for the mental stability of Margaret Cantrell and the effects of such emotional issues on the children and others in the home.” Sheryl, it seems, has been the most affected. “During the investigation it has been learned that Mrs. Cantrell has often used the word ‘evil’ to describe [Sheryl] to others. School personnel, parents of friends, and older siblings have stated that [Sheryl] is a ‘sweet girl’ and is not a behavior problem. It is the consensus of collaterals that the problem is with the Cantrell parents, not the children in the home.”
What does this all mean? For one thing, it means that the person who drove the at-times unbelievable investigation (all four children initially denied there had been any sexual abuse—it was only after Margie got involved that they began talking about a sex kindergarten and dancing at the swingers club), who often sat in on interviews with the children as they talked about the bizarre things that happened to them, is indeed a violent, controlling, unstable person. It means that Margie’s version of reality—calling her daughter “evil”—is often at odds with everyone else’s.
Most important, it means that the six children who still live in the Cantrell home, ages one through nineteen, shouldn’t be there. CPS found “a continuing danger” to Sheryl’s health and safety if she remained there—but what about the others? The one question that CPS needs to answer at tomorrow’s hearing: Why are those kids still under the Cantrells’ roof?
UPDATE (November 14, 2013):
CPS has now removed four of Margie and John Cantrell’s adopted and foster kids: the three who testified at the so-called “Mineola Swingers Club” trials from 2008 to 2010 as well as a teenager whom they adopted in 2007. The actions were announced at a packed hearing Tuesday at the 402nd District Court in Quitman. Attendees included two of the defendants who spent time behind bars—Shauntel Pittman (the mother of three of the kids) and Sheila Sones (Pittman’s mother, as well as the mother of another child involved in the case). Though Pittman hasn’t seen her children since 2008, she said at least they’re in a safe place now. “My heart is relieved,” she said after the hearing, “because they’ve known this was going on before these kids were put in there, before my kids were put in there.”
The Cantrells were ordered to take part in a CPS program that involves parenting classes and drug testing. There will be another hearing on December 6, a “status hearing” to check in on the children and the ongoing plans to help them. Pittman says she’ll be there, even though once again her kids won’t be. “I’m so proud of them,” she says, “for them to be able to endure all the stuff that was said happened to them in that affidavit.” Pittman says she is optimistic she’ll be with them again one day and that the truth will come out: none of the children were sexually abused by her or the other defendants and the kids were made to say so by their foster mother. “Absolutely—there’s not a doubt in my mind.”