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The Story Behind the Docuseries | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey


Okay, just how do you create a fake sex scandal? More particularly, how do you create a fake child sex scandal? Well, it’s a lot easier than you might think. All you need is one manipulative foster mother, a handful of impressionable young kids, some gullible law enforcement officials, and several juries of good country people determined to protect innocent children at all costs—even at the cost of common sense.

Voilà!

The documentary How to Create a Sex Scandal, a three-part series on Max debuting today, shows not only how easy it is to fabricate a sex scandal, but also how easy it is to get away with it. In this case, the mad genius behind the whole thing is alive and well and living in California. But the most haunting thing revealed by the documentary is the psychic damage that persists still—for the seven Tyler adults wrongly imprisoned years ago and the five kids who were manipulated to lie. Many of them are featured in the doc, which is based on a series of stories I wrote for Texas Monthly. (I also appear throughout the series and served as a consulting producer.) The end result is an unrelenting and superdepressing look at the Texas justice system. How to Create a Sex Scandal will make you question the competence of law enforcement, and it’ll make you wonder how one person could cause so much damage. It’s a complicated, terrifying story. Here’s how it came about.


Back in 2008, I was researching cases in which children had made false allegations of child sex abuse. Many of these cases emerged from ugly parental custody battles, and the kids caught in the middle made such false claims when they were questioned improperly by parents, zealous police officers, or poorly trained social workers. These cases fascinated me. On the one hand, we want to protect our children from the worst kinds of abuse. However, these cases, by their very nature, are often problematic, involving allegations by little kids about crimes for which the evidence is long gone. Such disputes sometimes come down to the words of a kid versus those of an adult.

That August I read about the so-called Mineola Swingers Club cases, which took allegations of child sex abuse to a whole new level. They involved four kids (a fifth would emerge later) accusing seven adults—including their parents—of committing some horrifying crimes: putting them through a sex kindergarten in a trailer outside Tyler and then onstage at a swingers club in nearby Mineola, where they were drugged with “silly pills” and forced to dance and have sex with one another. At the time they made the allegations, three of the kids—siblings Shelby, Hunter, and Carly—lived with foster mother Margie Cantrell, a woman who had moved with her husband, John, to Mineola from Vacaville, California, in 2004.

There had already been three trials in the first eight months of 2008, and all three defendants—including Shauntel Mayo, the mother of those three siblings—had been found guilty. The first two verdicts had been reached in under five minutes.

But I found these cases really troubling. There was no physical evidence, and there were no adult witnesses. In fact, law enforcement in neighboring Wood County, where Mineola is located, had turned the case down because of a complete lack of evidence. The only thing the state had were the words of the kids—the three siblings plus their aunt, Gabby, and a former stepdaughter of one of the defendants—and all of them had initially denied being sexually abused. It was only after foster mother Margie came on the scene that they started alleging things—and those things were sometimes batshit crazy. One little girl said she had flown around the swingers club on a broom. Another said the adults wore white face paint and black witch outfits.

So I went to Tyler and talked to some of the defense lawyers, all of whom were convinced these cases were the result of zealous prosecutions; their clients, they said, were innocent. I read the transcripts, which showed trials long on emotion and short on actual evidence.

Finally I talked to Margie—briefly. She wouldn’t say much because, she said, her lawyer wouldn’t let her talk to journalists. I knew that she and her husband, John, had made a career out of fostering children back in California, sometimes bringing as many as 16 into their home. Their kids were often emotionally troubled, and the state paid Margie and John a lot of money to take care of them. Margie was a dramatic, emotional woman who told everyone she met in Mineola how many children she had adopted (27) and who made a big show of sticking up for kids she thought were being abused—for example, complaining loudly about football coaches who yelled at their players. After law enforcement in Mineola had turned down the swingers club case for lack of evidence, she had taken it to Tyler, in next-door Smith County, where she found an assistant DA eager to prosecute it—a woman who brought in a Texas Ranger named Philip Kemp.

Margie and Ranger Kemp basically acted as a team, interviewing four of the children about what they said had happened. Kemp—who had no training in how to interview children in sexual-abuse cases—had even turned the interviews over to Margie at times and let her ask the questions; she petted the kids’ faces and hands as she questioned them. This situation, experts told me, was really inappropriate. Margie had been the outcry witness for two of the kids, and letting her be a big part of documenting their stories was completely wrongheaded.

Kemp also asked the kids yes-or-no questions, which is another problem because it fed the kids information. And he kept asking the kids the same questions over and over. As anyone who’s ever raised a child will tell you, if you ask a kid something enough times, the kid will change her answer based on what she thinks you want her to say. And in this case, although the children all initially denied anything had been done to them, eventually they began telling Kemp things.

Even as Kemp was questioning them, he was doing little else to investigate the case. For example, he never visited the supposed sex kindergarten, and he never interviewed any swingers—the people who supposedly witnessed these depraved kiddie sex shows.

While Kemp was doing a subpar investigation, the driver of the whole thing was clearly Margie. What struck me the most was that she had a troubled history back in California of abuse and manipulation. I spoke with four of her former foster kids who said she had regularly hurt them physically—punching them in the stomach, pulling their hair. She also made up crazy stories. One of the former kids called her “the puppet master,” saying “she brainwashed the kids to believe the stories she makes up.”

I tried to lay all this out in my first story, which was published in April 2009. The bottom line was that if you believed the kids—as the Texas Ranger, the DA, and the members of the juries all did—you thought justice had been done. If you didn’t believe them, you tended to side with longtime local defense attorney Bobby Mims, who told me, “In my thirty years of practice, I’ve never seen anything like that—an absolute, honest-to-God frame-up.” Others were troubled by the cases too, and in June 2010 an appellate court overturned two of the convictions because of “numerous evidentiary errors” committed by the trial judge.

I went up to Tyler to witness the fourth trial, of Dennis Pittman, a month later. Pittman had a smart young lawyer named Jason Cassel who went after Margie in ways the previous lawyers had not. He found evidence that the Cantrells had been decertified as foster parents in California in 2003, a year before coming to Texas, where they had no problem fostering all over again. Cassel alleged that they were not trustworthy, saying they had gamed the foster-care system for years. They had been paid almost $110,000 in just eighteen months for fostering Shelby, Hunter, and Carly—a lot of money in rural East Texas. Cassel repeatedly brought up how the children’s stories were contradictory, inconsistent, and too weird to be believed.

But as in the previous cases, logic lost to emotion. Jurors wiped tears from their eyes when the kids testified. The verdict: guilty.

Then, less than a year later, DA Matt Bingham, a tough law-and-order prosecutor, did something no one imagined he would do. He made deals with six of the seven adults: plead guilty to injury to a child, a felony that didn’t require registration as a sex offender, and go free. Even though all six had turned down previous attempts by the DA’s office to get them to testify against the others in exchange for freedom, now they took it. They just wanted to go home.

And so one of the toughest DAs in the state set free a half dozen sex criminals. Would he really have done that, I wondered, if he truly thought they were guilty of running the worst child sex ring in the history of the state?

It seemed that the Mineola Swingers Club saga was over. “In Smith County,” I wrote, maybe a little melodramatically, in 2011, “the bad guys won.”


Jimmy with his daughter Gabby looking through old family photos.
Jimmy Sones with his daughter, Gabby, looking through old family photos.Lee Phelan/Max

Most children don’t like to lie. They’d rather tell the truth, and they feel guilty about making stuff up. And so, naturally, in a lot of cases where kids make false allegations of sex abuse, they eventually want to set the record straight. I always assumed one of the kids would do so in this case. And three years after the plea deal, in July 2014, I got a Facebook message from Jimmy Sones, one of the defendants who had been released. Both he and his ex-wife, Sheila—the parents of Gabby—had been next in line for trials when they were freed. And he had made contact with Gabby again. She wants to talk to you, Jimmy said. She wants to tell what really happened.

I met him and Gabby at a truck stop in Jarrell, just north of Austin. Gabby had just turned sixteen and had pale skin, light blue eyes, and long, dyed reddish hair. It was all a lie, she said. The sex kindergarten, the swingers club—none of it was true. Those adults, including her parents, were all innocent. And now she wanted to tell the truth about the men and women who set her up. “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.”

On that day—and in subsequent meetings—Gabby told me in great detail how and why she had lied. It was pretty simple, really. She was a little kid, and a series of grown-ups were repeatedly asking her questions, essentially telling her that something bad had happened; eventually she came to believe it. Ranger Kemp, by asking those yes-or-no questions, fed her the details of the supposed sex kindergarten and swingers club that Margie had already told him. Kemp also repeatedly asked the same questions over and over. Every time Kemp asked, Gabby would think back and try to remember what he was talking about. She thought Kemp was nice and wanted to help him. At first she couldn’t remember anything, so she shook her head and said no. But eventually she started giving him details—the ones he had been feeding her.

A couple of years later I spoke with Hunter, who had testified against his mother, and he told me how—although he had initially told investigators that nothing happened—Margie eventually wore him down. He said she would frequently drag him and his older sister, Shelby, into her room late at night, keep them up, and drill things into their heads about a sex kindergarten and the swingers club. Hunter said he never actually believed any of the stories; he was simply following his big sister’s lead. “I’ve got a photographic memory,” he told me. “So if something happened, I’d know it happened.”

Then, in 2019, Carly became the third kid to say that nothing happened. The allegations, she told me, were all lies. She didn’t know why she’d said those things, except that she’d been young and impressionable. She was certain now. “If something like that had actually happened,” Carly said, “I think I’d remember.”

By that point Margie and John had moved back to California. I wrote Margie a letter and messaged her on Facebook, trying to get a comment on the recantations, but I never heard back. I even flew to Vacaville and knocked on her door to talk to her. A woman answered. “She knows who you are,” she snapped. “And she doesn’t want to talk to you.” Then she slammed the door.


One of the best things about How to Create a Sex Scandal is that the producers got Margie on camera. Indeed, she’s a major character—and she speaks emotionally about, well, just about everything. Margie seems able to cry at will; in fact, she begins wiping away tears at the very start, when shown a photo of her Texas foster kids. “They’ve been so hurt,” she says. Well, she’s definitely telling the truth about that.

The docuseries does a great job showing how Margie was able to manipulate the legal machinery as well as the people of Smith County by playing to their desire to protect children from sexual predators. One of the interviewees is news reporter Tamara Jolee, who covered the trials for a local TV station—and who at first believed in Margie’s noble intentions as well as the guilt of the defendants. Jolee, like almost everyone else in the area, had been convinced by an emotional argument. By the third trial, though, she says she finally started to look at the facts. Jolee became convinced the defendants were innocent.

How to Create a Sex Scandal captures the idyllic nature of small-town northeast Texas life as well as the stunning poverty of many of the characters. You can still read the bewilderment on the faces of the men and women who were accused of unspeakable acts seventeen years ago. And you can’t help but be moved by the bravery of the kids who finally recanted what they’d said when they were too young to know better. In the documentary’s most emotional scenes, the children—now grown—sit with their parents and tearfully talk about what it was like to do this. “Justice for my parents would be having their names cleared,” says Gabby. “Justice for Margie would be seeing her behind bars.”

There are plenty of names thrown at Margie. At one point, defendant Patrick Kelly says, “Margie Cantrell’s a monster.” By the end, though, at least to me, it became apparent that Margie wasn’t some kind of demon. She was all too human, and it was her ability to play on the humanity of others, whether they were five years old or fifty, that allowed her to create a child sex scandal in the first place.



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