DALLAS - Texas prosecutors on Thursday abruptly ended a three-year criminal probe into what they called a sordid small-town swinger's club where children as young as 5 were forced into performing sex. Six of the seven adults charged in the case were about to be freed on time served.
The three men and three women pleaded guilty to charges of injury to a child. But it was an unexpected end after Smith County prosecutors vowed last year to retry two defendants whose appeals were held up by a three-judge panel, which called the court record in one of the convictions "rife with error."
On Thursday, State District Judge Jack Skeen sentenced the six after they pleaded guilty to third-degree felony injury to a child and waived their rights to trial and appeal. District Attorney Matt Bingham said they would be released as soon as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice completes their processing.
Patrick "Booger Red" Kelly, Shauntel Mayo and Jamie Pittman had previously been sentenced to life in prison Kelly for aggravated sexual assault of a child, Mayo and Pittman for organized criminal activity but their convictions were overturned. Only Dennis Pittman, who's appealing his life sentence, didn't reach a deal.
Bingham said he still believes strongly that all the defendants deserve life in prison, but he offered the plea bargain for the sake of the children who were victimized.
"This is just real simple," he said. "These kids have gone into a court of law four times. They have testified to these horrific acts, endured the trauma of having to testify, and I'm not willing to put them through this again."
He said the children, who now range in age from 10 to 13, have had this "hanging over their heads" since 2004 with indictments three years later. The children could potentially have testified as many as seven more times in additional trials, he said.
"Whatever time they have to be a child they need to have it," Bingham said.
He stressed that he was not hiding from anything. Even the cases that were reversed were done so only "on procedural matters," Bingham said. "The evidence was clearly sufficient to establish their guilt."
That was why the six people were willing to acknowledge their guilt Thursday, which came as a relief to the children's foster parents, he said.
However, defense attorney Tina Brumbelow still insisted that all were really innocent.
"If you've kept somebody locked up for five years, of course they'll plea to something that's not true just to get off," said Brumbelow, who represented Kelly in the initial trial. "I think that they tried to convict an innocent man and several innocent people."
Another of Kelly's attorneys, Greg Waldron of Longview, said his client is ready to get on with his life after being behind bars for nearly four years.
The plea deal was "one of those bargains that's hard not to take," considering the more serious charges Kelly was facing, Waldron said.
"The state and the victims didn't want to go through multiple trials," Waldron said. "The children didn't want to testify repeatedly, and on our end our client was ready to go home. My job is to reunite my client with his family, and that's what I did."
Jamie Pittman's attorney, Jim Huggler of Tyler, said his client had instructed him not to comment. Shauntel Mayo's attorney, Rex Thompson of Tyler, also declined to comment.
Also pleading guilty were Sheila Darlene Sones, Rebecca Pittman and Jimmy Sones.