Not much usually happens in Mineola, a small, God-fearing town in East Texas. With a population of around 5000, it was a tight-knit community that looked after each other; people attended church on a Sunday and abided by the Christian principles of loving thy neighbor.
So when news emerged in the early 2000s that a paedophilia ring had been operating out of a much-maligned swingers club in the town, Mineola was rocked.
The case was based on the compelling testimony of four young children, who spoke about the horrors they endured in detail.
The harrowing story of a 4-year-old
The story was harrowing – each child, the oldest being around eight, the youngest just four, explained how they were groomed in ‘sex kindergarten’ by their own parents, grandparents and their friends, where they were forced to watch pornographic videos and touch each other. They were dressed up in sexual costumes and drugged with ‘silly pills’, before being taken to the swingers club to dance provocatively for sick strangers and collecting tattered green dollar bills after.
The lurid accounts were documented by Texas Ranger, Philip Kemp, with the children’s foster mother, Margie Cantrell, serving as their saviour and strongest advocate.
There was no physical evidence or witnesses to the state’s case – rather, the children’s tales were the case. The repugnant testimony was enough for a fiercely determined prosecutor and multiple juries to dish out life sentences to seven people, who were put behind bars in 2008. One defendant was found guilty after less than four minutes of deliberation.
There was just one glaring error with the curious case of the paedophile sex ring in such a conservative town. It didn’t exist. The horrors those children claimed they were privy to never happened.
This bizarre true crime story, which exposes unsettling attitudes to class and credence in conservative America, is explored in Discovery+’s new series, How to Create A Sex Scandal – an eye-opening documentary observing the alchemy behind how a fake frenzy can be whipped up and spiral beyond all control.
‘This series goes to show it takes a village to create mass hysteria,’ filmmaker Julian Hobbs tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We see how these people acted in coordination.’
The swingers club, where the abuse was alleged to have taken place, was much maligned at the time.
The children – three of which have since recanted the testimony as adults – had come from a hugely troubled background. Siblings Shelby, seven, Hunter, six and four-year-old Carly had been removed from their mother, Shauntel, and their stepdad Jamie. The social worker recorded the children had been neglected, with the adults responsible for them addicted to drugs.
Shelby, Hunter and Carly were put under the care of Margie and John Cantrell. The pair were experienced foster parents, having taken in many troubled teenagers over the years. Margie and John were originally from California, but had moved to quiet Mineola for a peaceful retirement, buying an idyllic lodge overlooking a lake. Margie had missed fostering children, and decided to take in more.
Things escalated after Margie went to a defunct swingers club, which, unsurprisingly had not been embraced by the Bible-basing Mineola community. She’d hoped to buy the property so it could make for a wider foster facility. Upon visiting it with Shelby, Hunter, and Carly, Margie says she was stunned to hear that the children were more than familiar with the place.
The truth of the matter is, it didn’t happen. It never happened. They brainwashed us.
Claiming her foster kids had told her these graphic stories of maltreatment, she took them, as well as their cousin Gabby, to Philip Kemp. The documentary shows video footage of Margie sitting with each child, coaxing the evidence from them as the Texas Ranger looked on.
They recalled the horror of ‘sex kindergarten’ as Shauntel and Jamie watched, alongside their friend, Patrick ‘Booger Red’. Gabby corroborated the story, implicating her own parents: mum Sheila (who was also grandmother to Shelby, Hunter and Carly), dad Jimmy, and their friend, Dennis.
Mineola resides in Wood County, and while prosecutors in that area decided to drop proceedings due to a lack of physical evidence, the charismatic Margie convinced the more conservative Smith County District Attorney, Matt Bingham, to prosecute.
The jury acted quickly and decisively, with the huge negative press coverage in the area making the seven accused widely condemned hate figures.
However, for journalist Michael Hall, something about the story didn’t quite ring true.
A writer for Texas Monthly (who also serves as a producer on the documentary), he did some digging, with his series of articles on the case making for the foundations in which How to Create A Sex Scandal was built upon.
Mike Hall, Texas Monthly journalist who reported the cases, delved deeper into the initial testimony and said …
‘I’d been doing a lot of research on other cases where groups of children had made up stories about sex abuse,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘So when I heard a bunch of kids were alleging there was a child sex ring but there was zero evidence, I was like, wow, this is happening again.’
The key component and driving force behind the children was Margie. A career foster mother and committed Christian, she was more easily believed, her determination bolstered by her middle-class status.
‘When I was investigating this story, I’d been hearing stories about Margie for weeks,’ Michael explains. ‘People spoke openly about how manipulative and charismatic she was.
‘When I managed to speak to her myself, I found myself being pulled along to her version of events against my will. She was almost like a movie star, the way she could draw people in.
‘If she could have this effect on me, it was easy to see how she could have convinced these young children that this happened to them.’
For the filmmakers, who interviewed Margie for the documentary, they were equally taken aback at how convinced she remains, despite three of the children admitting none of this happened.
‘Still to this day, she believes there was a sex ring in Mineola,’ filmmaker Elli Hakami explains. ‘She wasn’t aggressive or bullying, but she is firm in her beliefs. I was struck by it.’
Margie was a hugely convincing figure throughout the children’s ongoing testimony (Picture: Supplied)
Julian Hobbs was similarly entranced: ‘These children literally had their identities stolen from them, their memories rewired. It’s like something out of Blade Runner,’ he says.
‘Those children sincerely believed their parents were abusing them, and performed that implanted memory in a courtroom. It showed me the fragility of a stable sense of self.’
When prosecuting Sheila and Jimmy, the district attorney opted to cut plea deals and set them free. Shauntel, Jamie, and Patrick’s convictions were overturned in 2011 on the basis of ‘numerous evidentiary errors.’
Hunter, Carly and Gabby have since recanted their statements, and while the adults involved harbour no ill feeling towards the children, they are unsurprisingly damning about what they make of Margie, whom they dub ‘a puppet master’.
‘When I recanted, it just blurted out of my mouth,’ Gabby recalls. ‘I lied because I was scared. I was clueless. I felt better [after I recanted]. There was always a knot at the pit of my stomach, and the second I told the truth, the knot loosened.
‘The truth of the matter is, it didn’t happen. It never happened. They brainwashed us.’
Gabby claims her testimony was influenced and that she was ‘brainwashed’ by Margie (Picture: Discovery+)
For Michael, the ongoing incompetence of many who pushed for the wrongful conviction of those accused, twinned with the desire to desperately advocate for children, was what resulted in this tragic state of affairs.
Texas Ranger Philip Kemp had never investigated child sex abuse charges before, with his decision to let Margie sit in on the interviews with the children widely condemned.
‘The law enforcers weren’t evil, they wanted to fight for these children, no matter how crazy this story was,’ Michael explains. ‘They thought they were fighting the good fight. There was no way they could turn around and say no, particularly after people had been prosecuted.’
Julian adds the inherent classism within American society may have also contributed.
‘The accused were dehumanised by the media and by Margie to a certain degree,’ he argues. ‘There was room for slippage. It was easy for people to make the link between a swingers club in a conservative town, to people living in trailers being paedophiles.
‘We’re in the age of conspiracy and this film shows how the alchemy of mass hysteria operates. Look at QAnon and Pizzagate – people are not held accountable, and these multiple conspiracy theories are allowed to proliferate.
‘With an upper-middle class woman like Margie being a force to say “look what’s going on”, it allows for scapegoating to go wildly unchecked.’
‘I remember seeing initial reporting in the newspapers, and the mug shots of the accused,’ agrees Michael. ‘They looked depraved. They were rednecks with bad skin and bad hair. It made them look like monsters. It was easy for people to believe they were the type of people who would do this kind of stuff.’
Hunter, who has also recanted, believes he was manipulated by former foster mother, Margie (Picture: Discovery+)
Margie and John have long left Mineola, with the pair having relocated back to California after they were subsequently accused of abusing their foster children. They have never faced any criminal charges, while the seven convicted still have the felony on their record. In the documentary, Margie is unrepentant, pointing towards the fact that Shelby has never recanted as why she still stands by her actions.
Speaking in the documentary, Margie explains: ‘I am being demonised [by the press] through my own children.
‘Somewhere lies the truth. Shelby says this is her truth, and she stands by it until this day. That’s the end of the story.’
However, for the filmmakers behind How To Create A Sex Scandal, they’re hoping their documentary will serve as a piece of social justice for the seven wrongly accused.
‘The class structure will mean it’s unlikely those who served jail time will be able to bring any case against Margie,’ Elli Hakami explains. ‘It takes huge resources and expensive lawyers to do that, and it just seems impossible for those people.’
Michael agrees: ‘This documentary, which gives the opportunity for more people to know the truth, might be the best justice they ever get.’
How To Create A Sex Scandal is available to stream in full now on discovery+ in the UK and on MAX in the US
Other famous true crime hoaxes
The Hampstead paedophile ring: Eerily similar to the Mineola sex ring hoax, another false paedophile ring was concocted here in the UK. In 2014, two children accused their father of demonic abuse in the affluent north London suburb. The police found no evidence and the children recanted. However, the children’s claims have been shared online, and has led to a widely shared conspiracy theory that there is a Satanic paedophile ring in Hampstead, that is still believed today.
Balloon Boy: In 2009, Colorado parents Richard and Mayumi Heene claimed that their then-six-year-old son, Falcon, accidentally flew away in the sky in a homemade weather balloon. It made international news and even saw the local airspace closed down in the hunt for Falcon. However, Falcon was apparently hiding in a box in the family’s attic the whole time.
Sherri Papini: Sherri Papini made headlines across America in 2016 when she claimed she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women. When she was located three weeks after vanishing, she had a chain around her waist and had wounds on her body. In April 2022, Sherri admitted that the kidnapping was a hoax. She had never been kidnapped; instead she was staying with an ex the entire time she pretended to be missing. Sherri was sentenced to 18 months in prison last year for fraud claims relating to the case.
‘The truth of the matter is, it didn’t happen. It never happened. They brainwashed us.’