About 50 to 100 people allegedly attended the kindergarten sex games in East Texas, recording the children who’d been drugged with “silly pills” (Vicodin), according to a June 23, 2008, story by Jezebel. Several news outlets and websites covered the trial. The children’s fantastical tale was salacious and online click bait. Hall, however, kept unraveling it in a series of articles for Texas Monthly.
In his June 2011 report, Hall wrote, “But there was nothing to back them up: no adult witnesses and no physical evidence — no DNA, no fingerprints, not even any videotapes.”
Though the FBI dropped the case because of a lack of evidence, Hall reported that Margie Cantrell, the children’s foster mother, took it to a district attorney in neighboring Smith County, Matt Bingham. He, with the help of Cantrell and Texas Ranger Phillip Kemp, built what Hall called a “bizarre case” based on the fantastical tales told by the children.
Known as the “Mineola Swingers Club defendants,” seven adults were accused of running a child sex abuse ring and arrested in 2007. Six eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge of injury to child, a third-degree felony, in exchange for time served, Hall reported in 2011. The seventh defendant, Dennis Pittman, was convicted of engaging in organized criminal activity and sentenced to life in prison in 2010. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied him a new trial and upheld his conviction in 2013.
Nearly 10 years later, three of the four children have recanted their testimonies.
“But now, sitting in the booth of a Tex-Mex restaurant and eating quesadillas, [one of the children, Carly] remembered things very differently,” Hall wrote in a March 20, 2019, report for Texas Monthly. “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.’”
Two of those children’s stories are the subject of a new three-part documentary that chronicles Hall’s reporting for Texas Monthly. Premiering May 23 on Max, How to Create a Sex Scandal was executive produced by Julian P. Hobbs and Elli Hakami, both of whom were behind the Discovery+ documentary House of Hammer, about the life of American actor Armie Hammer and his family. Hobbs also served as director. Scott Brown, Megan Creydt and Madeline Bilder were executive producers for Texas Monthly.
“It also takes a village to create a mass hysteria, and that’s what happened here.” – Julian P. Hobbs
How to Create a Sex Scandal includes information from the victims, reporters like Hall who covered the story and an interview with Cantrell, the children’s foster mother who disappeared to California and, according to Hobbs, has never spoken on record before.
State officials, the Smith County district attorney and the police departments involved chose not to participate in the documentary.
“We all know the saying that it takes a village to create a community, to bring kids up,” Hobbs says. “It also takes a village to create a mass hysteria, and that’s what happened here.”
Hobbs and Hakami had recently finished the Hammer documentary when they came across Hall’s story about the kindergarten sex ring. Hakami has always been a fan of Texas Monthly’s true crime stories. She says the pair is always on a hunt for stories that they can “really sink our teeth into,” the kind that can carry a three-hour documentary.
Then Hakami saw the headline “The Girl Who Told the Truth” over Hall’s story about Gabby Sones, one of the victims who, now older, was sharing her story.
“She was coming forward to say that she actually didn’t have memories of what happened,” Hakami says. “It was important to her to speak truth to power to clear her parents’ name and tell the community that, in fact, they were innocent of the crimes they were accused of.”
With their previous documentary, the scandal of sexual abuse allegations against Armie Hammer was already a Hollywood sensation, and he’d become a household name, Hobbs says. So what they did was delve deeper into the story and unpack it through the lens of the Hammer Dynasty over five generations. They spoke with insiders and did their best to provide context to the headlines.
In the case of How to Create a Sex Scandal, Hobbs says they had to use a different lens to tell the story.
“This is something that has been swept under the rug,” Hobbs says. “This is something where justice really hasn’t been served. Texas hasn’t stepped up and taken responsibility. Nor has the Texas Rangers. Nor has Smith County. Nor have the officials who really need to remove these wrongly convicted — because these parents still have felony charges on their record. So it’s a miscarriage of justice that needs to be addressed.”
As with their previous documentary, Hobbs and Hakami spent a year interviewing people with inside knowledge about what happened in East Texas. Hakami says that the similarities between the documentaries is that in both cases a specific group of individuals came forward to shed light on their situations so that it doesn’t happen again.
“It takes a tremendous amount of courage to come forward and to sit in front of the camera and talk about one of the most horrific things that has happened to you as a human being or one of the most traumatic things that has happened to you as a human being,” Hakami says.
Hobbs says they contacted everyone involved in this case to participate. They had the children and the families, but they couldn’t get law enforcement officials to commit. Then, toward the end of filming, the former foster parent, Margie Cantrell, agreed to appear in the documentary.
Hakami and Hobbs spent two days interviewing Cantrell and her son. Hobbs says the interview brought “a remarkable dimension to this story.”
What stood out most to Hakami was the fact that the parents had no ill will toward their children whose stories had sent them to jail. Nor did they hold it against their children when they had to accept a plea deal to earn their freedom. Hakami says they were simply trying to protect their children.
“The children were motivated to speak,” Hakami says. “They had to clear their parents’ name and had to say that ‘I was wrong.’ They had the courage to stand up and say that this process was unjust. ‘My parents were wrongly accused, and I was the one who was at the center of that.’ It was just incredible for me to see how these families came together. The bonds never broke.”
But as Hobbs points out, it does take a village to allow fantastical tales by children to reach the level it did with the Mineola Swingers Club defendants.
Hobbs mentions the Satanic panic that gripped the country in the 1980s and caused albums, tapes and Dungeon and Dragons book burnings, and other outbreaks of irrational group activity. It often happens, Hobbs says, when people in positions of power like the Texas Rangers get involved and continue “stirring the fire” of the unhinged narrative.
Children, of course, are also impressionable, and at the age of 4 and 5 they still struggle with their relationship to memory. In a 2011 study published by the journal Child Development, researchers found about 39% of the memories provided by 4- and 5-year-olds had vanished, as had 24% of the memories of 6- to 7- year-olds, while kids 10 and older remembered nearly everything, according to an Los Angeles Times report on May 12, 2011.
Hobbs calls it “the slippery relationship we have with memory” and points out that memories can quickly be reprogrammed and rewired by bad actors.
“That what we think our stable identities, in fact, aren’t and that is something that can be manipulated and your sense of identity and who you are can fall prey to people who have different and more sinister goals in mind,” Hobbs says. “So that also makes this story a cautionary tale.”