Essence Gregg's teenage daughter always showed an enthusiasm for life.

The 17-year-old has a mental disability that makes her act like she's 12, but that never stopped her from being happy.

She liked to smile and dance. She liked to jump and praise God at church services. She's tall, and she liked to play basketball.

That sport brought her to Charleston two years ago. The Lexington County resident planned to play in the Special Olympics Mid-Winter Games at The Citadel.

During her stay at a Mount Pleasant hotel in March 2012, one of her coaches ushered her into his room and had sex with her. She was 15.

Since then, she's quiet. She doesn't dance. She struggles to get out of bed. She hasn't played any basketball games.

"She was like a blossoming flower, always wanting to go outside and play," said Gregg, 38. "Now she's all gloomy. ... She's scared to go outside."

Gregg found some solace Tuesday when 31-year-old Cornelius Davis of Hopkins, the man who sexually assaulted her daughter, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Davis, who was a special-education teaching assistant at the girl's school and a volunteer with the Special Olympics, pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct in the local case. The felony charge was punishable by up to 20 years.

Under a deal with prosecutors, he also pleaded guilty to reduced counts of third-degree assault and battery in two other instances with the girl in Lexington and Richland counties. Authorities said Davis inappropriately touched her at school and once had sex with her at his home.

He got the maximum 30 days on those two counts, but they will not extend his stay in prison.

In sparing Davis the maximum penalty on the sex charge, 9th Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson said she took into account his work to help steer boys in his community toward college. She read 19 letters from his supporters.

What Davis did, he said in addressing the judge, was "not in my character." He was embarrassed, he said.

He has a 5-year-old daughter, and his wife is due to give birth to their second child in three months.

"I want to apologize," said Davis, who had been free on bail. "I'm sorry."

'Dropped the ball'

His plea will spare the girl from testifying, and it will pave the way for a civil lawsuit that Gregg filed against Lexington County School District 2 and Special Olympics South Carolina.

Her attorney, David Massey of Columbia, said the case served as a wake-up call for those who care for the mentally disabled.

He noted other instances nationwide of Special Olympics participants being sexually abused. Gregg's daughter was the focus of an ESPN investigation that labeled abuse of the young athletes as "societal and far-reaching."

Lapses by the South Carolina chapter, the attorney said, contributed to the assaults. He said chaperones should not have allowed the girl to be alone with Davis.

"They know these children are more vulnerable than the average child," Massey said. "If you put a policy in place ... you've got to enforce it. In this case, they dropped the ball."

Special Olympics South Carolina officials have said that Davis passed all background checks. President Barry Coats told The Post and Courier in 2012 that Davis was "as clean as anyone I've ever seen."

The Special Olympics and the school district denied responsibility for his actions in their response to the complaints in Charleston County's civil court. By Tuesday, Davis no longer worked at the school or volunteered with the Special Olympics. He said he had been studying manufacturing at a technical college.

Filed in late 2012, the civil suit asks for monetary damages and alleges that the girl contracted a sexually transmitted disease from Davis.

He was volunteering in March 2012 at the Charleston event that included basketball games and other sports, such as disc golf, badminton and bowling.

At the Quality Inn in Mount Pleasant, Davis asked the girl to his room because she would be getting a call from her mother, Assistant Solicitor Debbie Herring-Lash said during Tuesday's proceeding.

Davis and Gregg had talked and exchanged text messages in the past, mainly to discuss her education. A chaperone watching the girl obliged Davis' request.

The girl left with him around 10:30 p.m. on March 2. She didn't return until 2:30 a.m., when she told the chaperone that she had been wandering the hotel halls.

She later told a classmate about her encounter with Davis. The report made its way to Special Olympics officials, Gregg and the police.

'Not going to happen'

Experts found Davis' DNA on the girl during a forensic exam. His hotel roommate also told police that he had seen the assault. Investigators cited explicit text messages as further evidence against Davis.

His attorney, Joenathan Shelly Chaplin of Columbia, said Tuesday that Davis wanted to take responsibility for the crimes and spare Gregg's family from further upheaval.

Some of his supporters stood and spoke.

His grandmother said she knew Davis as family man. A friend of his for 20 years said Davis mentored community youths and helped get college placements for several of them in recent months. A schoolteacher said she trusted Davis with her own special-needs child.

The victim's loved ones tried to keep their emotions in check. A bailiff and the judge twice cautioned them about outbursts. Gregg once became overwhelmed with tears and briefly left the courtroom.

She said later that she will fight for her daughter's recovery, and for other victims of sexual abuse.

It's a long road ahead.

Her daughter had been on track to graduate from high school next year. She's now home-schooled.

"I wanted to watch my baby walk across the stage," Gregg said. "Lord knows it's not going to happen."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.