Carly Mayo, an eighteen-year-old with dirty blond hair, black glasses, and a shy smile, edged close to her mom, Shauntel, in the booth of a Tyler Tex-Mex restaurant. Carly’s hair was pulled back tightly over her head, just like her mother’s. She ordered quesadillas, the same as her mom. She wore a worn T-shirt advertising Shauntel’s cleaning company: “Serendipity Services: When Accidents Happen.”
It was early March, and Carly seemed cheerful as she talked about her recent life in Tyler. When Carly paused and took a sip from her soda, Shauntel smiled and told me that this was a good day. Carly suffers from numerous conditions—depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder—and is on various medications. She barely sleeps at night and sometimes goes into mystifying rages sparked, she and her mom believe, by her life in the child-welfare system over the past fourteen years.
Looking at the pair that evening, it was hard to believe that, once upon a time, Carly had accused her mom of being a sexual predator, a monster. It’s not that Shauntel was a saint; in fact, back in 2004, Shauntel was a drug addict, and Carly and her brother, Hunter, and sister, Shelby, had been removed from the home. But what Carly—along with her siblings and their aunt Gabby (all of whom were under ten at the time)—accused Shauntel and six other adults of doing was almost incomprehensible. The kids said that the adults put them through a “sex kindergarten” in a trailer outside Tyler and then onstage at a swingers club in nearby Mineola, where they said they were drugged and forced to dance and have sex with one another.
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There were no items of physical evidence or adult witnesses, and the Mineola police—aided by the FBI—had found nothing credible in the outlandish stories, so they dropped the case. The kids’ foster mother at the time of the allegations was Margie Cantrell, a woman who had recently moved with her husband, John, to Mineola from California, and Margie took the case to neighboring Smith County, where district attorney Matt Bingham picked it up, arresting seven adults, including Carly’s mom. Over the next year Texas Ranger Philip Kemp, aided by Margie, investigated the case, eliciting allegations from the kids that were downright bizarre. For example, the children said the adults wore white face paint and witches’ outfits. At one point, Carly told Kemp that she had ridden through the air at the swingers club on a broom.
By the time Shauntel and two others went on trial in 2008, they had become the most notorious criminal defendants in East Texas history, their cases collectively known as the Mineola Swingers Club. Carly’s testimony was integral in sending Shauntel and the others to prison for life. The girl had been quite specific in her testimony, saying the defendants fed her “silly pills,” touched her privates, made her watch dirty movies, and forced her to do “bad stuff.” She said the perverts even charged admission—and that other perverts paid to watch. At the 2010 trial of Dennis Pittman, Carly said that she’d been tied up and stuck to the wall with duct tape. She also repeated the claim that she had flown around the club wearing a witch costume.
But now, sitting in the booth of a Tex-Mex restaurant and eating quesadillas, she remembered things very differently. Those allegations, she said, were all lies. She didn’t know why she’d said those things back then, except that she’d been so young and impressionable. She was certain now. “If something like that had actually happened,” Carly said, “I think I’d remember.”
I’ve written extensively about these cases—as they happened; as two of the guilty verdicts were overturned; as the DA made plea bargains to set free six of the defendants (all but Pittman), essentially admitting they were never guilty in the first place; and, last year, as two children recanted their trial testimony.
Carly is the third.
Why do children lie? Fear, want, curiosity about what might happen. But sometimes grown-ups influence kids to lie. Adults can do it directly, by coercion, and also unintentionally, by constantly asking questions and giving details about something that in fact may never have happened. Carly and the other kids were subject to both kinds of adult interference: directly from Margie Cantrell and indirectly from all the well-meaning grown-ups repeatedly providing details about a sex scandal that one woman—Margie—insisted had taken place.
Carly was like the other kids: she trusted the grown-ups around her, believed them, and wanted to please them. When Gabby and Hunter recanted last year, they were definitive about how they had been led to lie. “They literally blew up my mind and planted stuff in it,” said Gabby, referring to Kemp and Margie. Hunter told in great detail how Margie actually got him to lie: she would frequently drag him and Shelby into her room late at night, he said. “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 his sister’s lead.
Carly, for her part, has no memory of exactly how she was indoctrinated. She was only five years old when Margie initially alleged that Carly and the others were part of a bizarre child-sex ring. (If law enforcement had done any digging into Margie’s life in California, they would have found people who claimed that she had a reputation for making up stories and manipulating foster kids.) Carly doesn’t even remember testifying, though she remembers quite well what happened while living in the home of the Cantrells. Margie became so physically abusive that, in 2013, all three ran away. At one point, Carly told a CPS caseworker, Margie grabbed her by the hair and “banged her head on the tile floor three times.” Shelby claimed that in the past she had been “slapped across the face” and “popped in the mouth” by Margie. Hunter said that he “was spanked with a wooden back-scratcher until it broke.” CPS held a hearing and removed the three siblings from Margie’s home. Soon after, she and her husband, John, returned to Vacaville, California.
The kids were sent their separate ways, to shelters, foster homes, residential treatment centers, and group homes. Carly was first sent to a shelter in Tyler for a year, then to a foster home in Sulphur Springs for another year, where she says she was sexually and physically abused. For the year after that, she was shuttled between group and foster homes in Tyler and Houston, often running away. Her education was haphazard—“I don’t know my times tables,” she said. “I don’t understand a lot of words.” She missed most of junior high, and she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Worse, she had developed depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. By the time she got to a group home in Austin in 2016, she was on fifteen different medications and receiving Supplemental Security Income disability benefits.
All during that time, she said, nobody talked to her about the Mineola Swingers Club—what had supposedly happened, what she had said. She was oblivious to the past. But one day in her Austin group home, she fell asleep on the couch in her caseworker’s office. She woke up alone and began going through the caseworker’s papers and found documents that detailed what she said had happened—the sex kindergarten, the dancing at the swingers club, the “silly pills.” She had no memory of any of it. “I started brooding over what the caseworkers said I said. I didn’t remember saying any of it or doing any of it.”
She went online and read about the cases. She had lost contact with everyone, but she set up a Facebook page and reconnected with her siblings and Gabby. Hunter came to see her in Austin, and then in February 2017 her mom brought both Hunter and Shelby for a visit. Shauntel was thrilled to finally have all three of her children together again and posted photos of them on Facebook, smiling and finally together again for the first time since 2004.
When Carly turned eighteen, she decided she wanted to come home. Things had gotten bad—she says she was raped at the group home and that she thought she was pregnant. “If I’d stayed there,” she said, “I’d have been in and out of jail.” She called her mom, who came and got her and drove her back to Tyler.
Carly was relieved to be home but found herself lying around Shauntel’s house. Her mother pushed her to finish high school, which she did, and she has been accepted at Tyler Junior College. Like her mother and her grandmother Sheila (another defendant), Carly loves animals and wants to be a vet. Sitting in the Tex-Mex restaurant, Carly told me she has five cats, a pit bull, two fish, and a hamster. Her mother looked over at her and nodded, pleased to see her youngest child happy.
But Shauntel knows that tomorrow could be different, with Carly screaming, crying, and threatening to run away. “She’ll hit these mental breakdowns, and everything floods out of her,” said Shauntel. “Later, she doesn’t realize what she’s told me.” Shauntel takes Carly to a couple of doctor appointments a week, including to a therapist, whom Carly said is the first one she’s ever actually liked talking to.
“Mostly I don’t leave Mom’s side,” Carly said. “I’m still a baby.” She follows Shauntel everywhere, even on her daily cleaning jobs around Tyler. Shauntel pays Carly to help.
Meanwhile, Dennis Pittman—the only defendant not offered a plea deal in 2011—remains in prison on a life sentence, though his lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas are working to get him out. Carly said she would like to see him freed and exonerated. She’d also like to help exonerate her mom and the other adults, all of whom have felonies (injury to a child) on their records. Shauntel said that even after all these years, the notoriety still follows her. “A few months ago, I lost a client when they found out I was involved in the Mineola Swingers Club cases.”
Shauntel doesn’t blame Carly or any of the kids and has made a point of telling them so. They were all little children, and it wasn’t their decision to lie. The other adults have also said a version of the same thing. They all blame the same person for all the trouble they have suffered. In October 2017, when a film about the cases made its Tyler debut, Jimmy Sones, one of the defendants, said, “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.”
Margie Cantrell still lives in Vacaville, just outside of San Francisco, where she fled after Carly, Shelby, and Hunter were taken from her in 2013. She has refused repeated requests for interviews about the recantations of her former foster children.
Carly doesn’t even know what she’d say to Margie if she saw her again. “I’d probably not talk to her,” she said. But she does know this: “I don’t think any kid should have to go through what I did—or what Hunter or Shelby or Gabby had to go through.”
It’s easy for social workers and law enforcement personnel to get caught up in the righteousness of an investigation of something as immoral as an alleged child-sex ring. We all want to protect children, but good sense and evidence should be our guide, not our zeal. And when a mistake is made—when the children who made allegations grow up and acknowledge that in fact they weren’t telling the truth—justice should be done. In this case, that means exonerating the wrongly convicted, helping the innocent victims, and prosecuting the true perpetrator.