A Minor Affair

When young love ended in a rape allegation, the juvenile justice system left a Dallas teen's life in limbo.

"This was a young girl who clearly needed emotional help," says Lynell Pearl, Sheldon's mother. But all the system did, she says, was help her perpetuate a devastating lie that left her son emotionally scarred.

Sheldon and Rhonda were eighth graders at John B. Hood Middle School and just barely 14 when they decided to become boyfriend and girlfriend. At the beginning, dating consisted of being driven by their parents to school dances, movies, and coed parties or hanging out at Sheldon's house, where they watched TV or found a private moment to make out.

They made a handsome couple, and both could pass for high schoolers. Sheldon was almost 6 feet tall and muscular, the captain of the school football team and a stellar player on the basketball team. A solid student, Sheldon was voted Mustang of the Year at Hood last year, an honor that teachers, coaches, and the principal bestow on the basis of character and leadership as well as academic and athletic prowess.

Rhonda was beautiful and athletic, too. A good student, she was small and slender, with deep-set eyes and an engaging smile, which belied a difficult life. Her mother was young and unwed when Rhonda was born. Their relationship had always been tumultuous, but during the last year and a half it had gotten particularly strained after her mother's boyfriend moved into their apartment. Rhonda's father, who lived in Oak Cliff, remained involved in Rhonda's life even after he married and started another family. Rhonda also had a doting grandmother in South Dallas with whom she sought refuge when she fought with her mother, according to the Pearls and Rhonda's statements to authorities.

If Rhonda's home life was chaotic, Sheldon's was nearly a polar opposite. Sheron and Lynell Pearl were high-school sweethearts from Homer, Louisiana. Married for almost 25 years, they have worked hard to give more opportunities than they had to their three children--24-year-old Sheronni, 18-year-old Shereece, and Sheldon. The Pearls live in a handsome red-brick house on a quiet tree-lined street in southeast Dallas not far from Rhonda's mother's apartment. Sheron has worked as a trucker for Texas Instruments for the past 25 years. In January, Lynell will celebrate 25 years with Southwestern Bell, where she is a computer attendant. Lynell leaves work by 2:30 every afternoon so she can be home for her children or attend their games. She served as PTA president at her children's elementary and middle schools and volunteers as a tutor.

From the beginning, Lynell Pearl thought Rhonda and Sheldon's relationship was too serious for their age and that they were spending far too much time together. Still, she made Rhonda feel comfortable in her home. The Pearls even took her with them to church, where Sheldon served as president of the youth group. "I would take her with me to some of my meetings so she would not have to be left at my house alone with Sheldon," Lynell recalls.

In the spring of their eighth-grade year, Sheldon and Rhonda began talking about having sex. Finally, one afternoon while Sheldon's parents watched TV in the downstairs den, he and Rhonda decided they were ready. Early in their sexual relationship, Rhonda cried on one occasion after they had sex. "I started crying also, just because we knew we were wrong," Sheldon wrote in a letter to his attorney. "We talked about it, and it seems that we loved to be together at all times."

During the summer, Rhonda became increasingly possessive. "She would get mad when I didn't come over to her house," Sheldon wrote in the letter to his attorney. "She expected us to talk every day--all day, all night. It got to the point to where we were arguing and by having sex we would get over it a while."

Last August, as Sheldon and Rhonda entered their freshman year at Skyline High, they were still deeply involved. The couple would have an early morning tryst, then head off to school, where they were invariably late. At about that time, Rhonda asked Sheldon to stop using condoms, and he readily agreed. "The times I didn't use a condom, I took it out at the right time," he wrote.

At school, things seemed to be going Sheldon's way. He made the freshman football team easily, and before long was asked to join the varsity team--a coup for a freshman. And while ninth-grade girls often snub their male classmates in favor of upperclassmen, Rhonda remained crazy about Sheldon. Sometimes desperately so. As the year progressed, their romance started to hurt their grades--a clear danger sign in the Pearl home.

Lynell Pearl could tell by the arguing and sniping during their phone calls that the relationship was fraying. She lectured them that they were too serious and involved for their age. She admonished Rhonda to stop chasing after her son, specifically to quit waiting for him until the end of football practice to walk him home from school. "I told her she needed to be home doing her homework," Lynell says.

In early October, Rhonda's possessiveness gave way to rage. When she spied Sheldon giving a hug to a female friend, she angrily confronted Sheldon and in the process grabbed his shirt and tore it, says Sheldon. When he tried to end the relationship right there, she tearfully apologized. A short while later, Rhonda got into a fight with the girl. The police cited both girls for disorderly conduct, according to the police offense report and municipal court records.

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