MINEOLA, Texas (June 22) - In the windowless front rooms of a former day care center in a tiny Texas community, children as young as 5 were fed powerful painkillers they knew as "silly pills" and forced to perform sex shows for a crowd of adults.
Two people have already been convicted in the case. Now a third person with ties to the club, previously known in town only as a swingers group, is set to go on trial Monday not far from Mineola, population 5,100.
"This really shook this town," said Shirley Chadwick, a longtime resident of Mineola. "This was horrible."
Patrick Kelly, 41, is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child, tampering with physical evidence and engaging in organized criminal activity.
In all, six adults have been charged in connection with the case, including a parent of the three siblings involved.
Jurors this year deliberated less than five minutes before returning guilty verdicts against the first two defendants, who were accused of grooming the kids for sex shows in "kindergarten" classes and passing off Vicodin as "silly pills" to help the children perform.
Jamie Pittman and Shauntel Mayo were sentenced to life in prison. Kelly also faces a life sentence if convicted, and Smith County prosecutors hope for another swift verdict.
Thad Davidson, Kelly's attorney, said his client passed a lie-detector test proving his innocence and worries about getting a fair trial in Tyler, 25 miles southeast of Mineola, which is in Wood County.
"I think it's impossible to get a fair trial within 80 miles of Smith County," Davidson said.
Mineola, about 80 miles east of Dallas, is a close-knit, conservative bean-processing town of with more than 30 churches. Residents there want to put the scandal behind them as quickly as possible.
The one-story building where prosecutors say four children - the three siblings, now ages 12, 10 and 7, and their 10-year-old aunt - were trained to perform in front of an audience of 50 to 100 once a week has been vacant since the landlord ousted the alleged organizers in 2004.
Down a slight hill is a retirement home, and even closer is the office of the local newspaper. Doris Newman, editor of The Mineola Monitor, said rumors of swinger parties spread around town but that no one mentioned children being involved.
Newman, who can see the building from her office window, said she remembers the parking lot filling up with more than a dozen cars at night.
In August 2004, an editorial under the headline "Sex In the City" opined that if the swingers left quietly, "we'll try and forget they've infiltrated our town with their set of moral standards."
"It's not that we're trying to look the other way," Newman said. "But there's a lot more to Mineola than that."
According to a Mineola police report, the department first investigated a complaint in June 2005 in which the siblings' foster mother said one of the girls described dancing toward men and another child saying that "everybody does nasty stuff in there."
In the second trial, Child Protective Services caseworker Kristi Hachtel testified, "I've seen a lot and I never in my wildest dreams imagined this. They were preyed upon in probably one of the most heinous ways possible."
The children are now doing better, the welfare agency said.
"Through counseling and therapy sessions, these children are now finally feeling secure and safe," agency spokeswoman Shari Pulliam wrote in an e-mail.
Permanent custody of the three siblings was given to John and Margie Cantrell. This week, prosecutors in California charged John Cantrell with sexually assaulting a child in the state 18 years ago. Margie Cantrell said her husband is innocent.
Kelly's attorney moved Friday asking to postpone the trial in light of the allegations against Cantrell, a state witness. Texas Child Protective Services said it would be "common" for the agency to investigate.
The Rev. Tim Letsch is opening a church in the yellow-plastered building where the children were abused. He acknowledges that building a congregation might be difficult because of the stigma attached to the property.
"You got to decide whether you're willing to forgive those kind of things," Letsch said. "It's a hard deal. Especially for a spiritual person to walk in and say, 'This happened here."'