DALLAS — Paperwork is now all that stands in the way of freedom for six adults accused of participating in what prosecutors say was a sordid small-town East Texas swinger's club where children as young as 5 were forced to perform sex acts.
The three men and three women pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of injury to a child in an unexpected end to a three-year criminal investigation into the so-called Mineola Swinger's Club. Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said the six will be released on time served as soon as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice completes their processing — possibly as early as Friday for some of them.
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. Pittman and Kelly had their convictions overturned on appeal; Mayo's sentence was modified but the conviction was upheld.
Also pleading guilty were Sheila Darlene Sones, Rebecca Pittman and Jimmy Sones.A seventh defendant, Dennis Pittman, did not reach a deal as he is in the process of appealing his life sentence.
Smith County prosecutors last year had vowed to retry the 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." Instead, they and four others pleaded guilty to third-degree felony injury to a child and waived their rights to trial and appeal.
Bingham said he still believes all the defendants deserve life in prison but 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."
Authorities alleged Kelly helped set up a "kindergarten" where the young children learned to dance provocatively. To help them perform, prosecutors said the children were given Vicodin-like drugs the adults passed off as "silly pills."
Bingham 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 admit their guilt Thursday, which came as a relief to the children's foster parents, he said.
However, some still insisted that they were innocent.
Stacey Snodgrass, who is Mayo's sister and Sheila Sones' daughter, attended Thursday's hearing to support her relatives.
"I know they didn't live the best lives, but I don't think they're guilty," she told KYTX-TV. "It's hard because I feel like they are pleading to something so they can go home."
"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 defense attorney Tina 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, 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. Mayo's attorney, Rex Thompson of Tyler, also declined to comment.
Mineola is a town of about 5,300 residents about 85 miles east of Dallas.
The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.