A Minor Affair

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

Rhonda's credibility with police apparently wasn't diminished by her giving the rape story en route to being locked up on a report of criminal behavior. Nor did the police bother to question elementary school principal Mary Haywood, the owner of the house where the rape allegedly occurred. Had they asked, Haywood would have told them: "It did not happen. I was there the whole time. This is a troubled young lady who was hellbent on destroying this boy's life out of revenge."

Rhonda's father argues that Haywood would naturally side with the Pearls as they are longtime friends. "I believe my daughter," he says. "She was afraid of this guy but she had a teen-age kind of love with him."

Apparently the two officers were also convinced, for they immediately set out to arrest Sheldon. They could have waited until he came home; or even have his parents bring him in for questioning, which is frequently done in juvenile cases, according to lawyer Larry Rayford, a former Dallas assistant district attorney who has handled numerous juvenile cases since going into private practice.

Instead, the police drove directly to Skyline High School. They arrived at 9:30 a.m. and asked some students in what class Sheldon was. One of the officers went into the classroom and asked Sheldon to step outside where they arrested him. Sheldon says he had no idea why he was being arrested. When the police told him sexual assault, a second-degree felony, he was stunned.

"I was nervous," says Sheldon. "Not about the crime, because I know I hadn't done it. But I was scared they would believe her because she's bright and attractive-looking. And a really good actress."

The officers walked him to the school security office, where they handcuffed him. Then they took him to police headquarters downtown and kept him handcuffed to a bench until his father arrived to get him.

Even after Rhonda had accused Sheldon of raping her, she still tried to contact him. She kept calling and writing letters. Her return address now was the East Dallas unit of the Timberlawn Mental Health System. Rhonda had voluntarily committed herself after she tried to attack her father with a knife.

"Believe it or not, we were happy she was finally getting the help she needed," says Mrs. Pearl.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Rhonda had gone to live with her father, because both her grandmother and mother were tired of her temper and violent ways. On November 29, according to a police report, Rhonda missed the school bus and decided to walk instead. Her father insisted he drive her, and a violent argument ensued. Rhonda grabbed two knives and scraped them along the side of his car and threatened to cut him if he came near her. Her father called the police. When the police arrived, Rhonda put the knives up to her throat and threatened to kill herself, officers reported.

Although he declined to talk in detail about Rhonda's emotional problems or counseling, her father says her behavior problems were a result of the mental abuse to which Sheldon subjected her. "She was straight," he says. "Her problems began when she started seeing him."

The police took her to the psychiatric wing of Parkland Memorial Hospital. She told doctors there that she had been "beaten up by her ex-boyfriend and raped by her cousin," according to her medical records. "She said she got pregnant to get back at her mother, who kicked her out when she got a new boyfriend and didn't have time for her. She says that she can't control her anger. She wants to get revenge on her boyfriend and she is tired of living. If she can get revenge on her ex-boyfriend, she doesn't think she will need to commit suicide."

It was the next day, November 30, when Rhonda told police that it was Sheldon Pearl who had raped her. As the police sped over to Skyline to arrest Sheldon, Rhonda checked into Timberlawn. There she told counselors a different story than she had told the police.

She reiterated that she was very angry at her boyfriend for hitting her and breaking up with her the previous weekend. She then told the therapists that she recently had been raped by her cousin. Rhonda repeated the allegation against her cousin during a later therapy session attended by her father, according to medical records.

"She wasn't raped," her father told the counselor. "[Her cousin] put his hands on her and dropped his pants, but she got away."

Sheldon's first court date was set for mid-February, a full two and a half months after his arrest. In the courtroom of Judge Hal Gaither, who presides over juvenile and family law cases, the charges against Sheldon were announced to the court by Assistant District Attorney Mike Ramirez. Gaither gave the Pearls the name of Linda Hack, who was to be their court-appointed attorney.

Middle-age and twice divorced, Linda Hack works and lives in a funky storefront apartment on the eastern end of Deep Ellum. A shingle that rests on the barred front window reads: "HERLAW, help, education, review, legal assistance worldwide."

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