UT alumnus sheds new light on East Texas scandal through latest film

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Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

In the spring of 2009, a sordid tale emerged from the small East Texas town of Mineola. Seven adults were sentenced to life in prison for allegedly running a “sex kindergarten” for children between the ages of 4 and 7.

The singular elements of the case — an alleged sex ring leader who went by the nickname Booger Red, a swingers club in a small Texas town and conflicting, sometimes bizarre claims made by four children — caught the attention of UT alumnus Berndt Mader. His film about the story, Booger Red, will premiere at the Austin Film Festival this Friday. 

“It just all seemed so much stranger than fiction,” Mader said. “I couldn’t believe the details of it. It seemed like it could only happen in Texas.”

Mader’s film blends narrative and documentary as it follows a fictional journalist (Onur Tukel) and his sister-in-law (Marija Karan), who travel to East Texas to interview the actual people involved in the case. The defendants have all maintained their innocence, claiming instead that Margie Cantrell, the foster mother of three of the alleged victims, brainwashed the children into repeating a fabricated story. 

Of the seven defendants — who were all convicted despite the lack of any adult witnesses or physical evidence — six have been released from prison after accepting plea bargains. Dennis Pittman, one of the defendants, remains in prison on a life sentence.

“It’s a really complicated story, and so we are using a fictional reporter to be a surrogate for the audience and help put together the pieces,” Mader said. “Our hope with this film is to reassess what really happened and shine a light on some of the flaws in what went down.”

Producer and co-writer Johnny McAllister said one of the challenges of making a film in this hybrid narrative-documentary format was making sure the facts of the case remained distinct from the main character’s fictional story. 

“All of the facts are true,” McAllister said. “We didn’t take any liberties with the facts of the case. We wanted to honor the real-life emotional impact of these charges against the people sentenced.” 

Mader said it was especially rewarding to give a voice to the defendants of the case. Even though there is no evidence that they committed the crimes, Mader said the defendants are still guilty in the eyes of the East Texas community. 

“Many of the defendants felt like they had never had the opportunity to tell their story,” Mader said. “We’re hoping that this sparks the conversation up again and moves things in a direction of potentially exonerating some folks.”

Onur Tukel plays a fictional journalist in the film, but his interviews with the defendants of the case are all real. In some interviews, he wore an earpiece for Mader to feed him questions.

“It was initially kind of daunting,” Tukel said. “I learned as much as I could in a short amount of time, but [Mader], the volumes of knowledge that he had was so impressive. Not a lot of people come to the defense of the poor and the marginalized, and I think he wanted to give them a voice.”     

Mader said it is appropriate that the film will have its North American premiere in Texas, where it will hit closest to home. 

“It’s so important to us to premiere the film here in Texas, and we’re going to have a lot of the defendants come down,” Mader said. “I think it’s probably most important that the film resonate here, because this is where the legal system went awry and failed all of us, really.”