Tue, Jun 24, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Small Texas community reels from sex abuse of children hidden in plain sight

AP , MINEOLA, TEXAS

In the windowless front rooms of a former day care center in a tiny Texas community, children as young as five 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, was set to go on trial yesterday not far from Mineola, population 5,100.

“This really shook this town,” said Shirley Chadwick, a 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 that his client passed a lie-detector test proving his innocence and worries about getting a fair trial in Tyler, just 40km southeast of Mineola.

Mineola, about 130km 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 seven, 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.”

A Mineola police report said that 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.

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