A Minor Affair

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

Rhonda finally left, only to return a little while later with a car full of guys. Later, the Pearls say, Rhonda made harassing phone calls to them, taunting them with threats.

When Rhonda finally returned to her grandmother's in the early morning hours, she, too, put a call in to the police. Rhonda told one of the responding officers that her boyfriend had hit her in the eye earlier in the evening after she told him she thought she was pregnant. The officer noted that he did not see any damage to her. Rhonda also told the officer that her boyfriend's father came out and pushed her down and wrestled her to the ground.

The Pearls did not know about the complaints Rhonda had lodged with the police against Sheldon and his father. And, as they prepared for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, the Pearls were thankful they had finally heard the last of Rhonda.

At 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving, Rhonda grabbed the keys out of her grandmother's pocket and took off in the grandmother's car for the next hour and a half. When Rhonda returned, her grandmother confronted her. Rhonda flew into a rage and pushed her grandmother, then bit her on her left leg. As Rhonda's older cousin restrained Rhonda, the grandmother called the police. After noting the teeth marks on the grandmother's leg, the police arrested Rhonda for misdemeanor assault and vehicular theft, a felony, then headed off toward the new Henry Wade Juvenile Detention Center off Interstate 30, according to the police report.

On the way, Rhonda was screaming and crying. Officer Regina Herbert asked her why she was so distraught.

"You don't know what I've been through," Rhonda responded, according to Herbert's report. The teen proceeded to tell the officer that she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted. The last incident, she said, occurred two days before (on the night of her fight with Sheldon) and no one believed her. Then Rhonda showed the police officer her swollen cheek and said it happened while she was being raped. Rhonda refused to give the name of her assailant. She said she feared retaliation.

"[Rhonda] refused to go into detail regarding the assault," wrote officer Herbert, "but it is very clear to reporting officer's[sic] that the complainant is very afraid and upset over this. Reporting officer's believed that the incident did occur, because the complainant began crying every time she mentioned the offense...[She] states that she may be pregnant by the suspect."

Because of juvenile justice confidentiality, it is unclear whether the police ever took Rhonda to the juvenile detention center or whether they were so swayed by her story that they simply changed gears and pursued her allegation. That day, Rhonda's father and her grandmother were called into the station and asked whether they had any idea who the assailant could be. According to the police report, they gave the name of Rhonda's cousin with whom they said she had trouble in the past.

During the next week, Rhonda tried to contact Sheldon. Sheldon's mother warned him not to talk to and to stay away from Rhonda completely. "This is a 'fatal attraction' case," Mrs. Pearl told him. When Sheldon refused to talk to Rhonda on the phone, she began making nonstop hang-up calls, so many, in fact, the Pearls say they were forced to get caller I.D. and then to block several numbers from which Rhonda was calling.

A week after Rhonda first told police about the alleged rape, child abuse detectives interviewed her at the Dallas Child Advocacy Center, a consortium of professionals--police, therapists, doctors--collected under one roof in order to ease the potential trauma children often undergo when reporting abuse. This time Rhonda named names. She said that on November 18 at 1 a.m. in the home of Mary Haywood, she and her boyfriend were having an argument. "During the argument, suspect Pearl stated to [Rhonda], 'Let's fuck,'" according to the police report. "[Rhonda] replied, "No, you know I can't for three weeks because of the abortion I just had.' Suspect Pearl then told [Rhonda] he was going to have sex with her and hit her in the face with a closed fist, knocking her onto the bed in the room." Then he had sex with her without her consent, the report concludes.

Rhonda's father says he believes Rhonda was telling the officers the truth, though she may have confused details. He says that his daughter had had consensual sex with Sheldon Pearl, but the rape was the end of an abusive relationship. "He [Sheldon Pearl] abused my daughter mentally and physically," her father says. "He was known to have hit her several times."

The father says Rhonda didn't report the abuse earlier because she was in love with Sheldon and was afraid of what her father might do if he found out.

But police records contain important discrepancies in Rhonda's story. Just a week and a half earlier, Rhonda had reported to police that Sheldon hit her because she told him she thought she was pregnant--but she didn't mention anything about rape. Now she was telling police that Sheldon hit her and raped her after she told him she couldn't have sex because of her recent abortion. And this time, she said the date it happened was November 18--a weekend when Sheldon was not even in Texas.

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