Former teacher avoids prison

Charles 'DJ' Fishburne Rhodes III, 26, a former teacher and coach, is accused of soliciting a student for sex.

Former First Baptist Church School teacher and revered coach Charles "DJ" Fishburne Rhodes III admitted to asking a 12-year-old girl for sex through text messages, but won't serve time behind bars and won't have to register as a sex offender.

Just weeks after Rhodes propositioned the girl, his wife gave birth to a severely handicapped child. A judge took pity on Rhodes' family and decided that sentencing him to lockup would punish his family the most.

Rhodes appeared in circuit court Wednesday afternoon, a standout in his dark suit and flanked by two attorneys. Most of the other defendants entering guilty pleas arrived in jail or prison jumpsuits.

Rhodes, 28, has a master's degree, a wife and a son who is about to turn 2. Just a month before his arrest, the Legislature honored Rhodes and First Baptist's baseball team for winning the 2009 S.C. Independent School Association Class AA state championship.

Investigators arrested Rhodes on a charge of criminal solicitation of a minor, but he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful conduct to avoid a trial, according to Assistant Solicitor Debbie Herring-Lash.

She said the girl did not want to testify, which is why prosecutors decided to strike the plea deal.

"The girl just couldn't do it," Herring-Lash said.

Rhodes admitted to sending text messages to the 12-year-old student at the school for two or three weeks that summer. He asked the girl to come to his house and perform a sex act on him.

When the girl's friend saw the exchange and replied to it, Rhodes said both girls could come over. Neither did.

Circuit Judge Roger Young sentenced Rhodes to 30 days of community service and to serve two years of probation. Young also ordered that Rhodes complete sex-offender treatment and that his name be added to the central registry for child abuse and neglect -- but not the sex offender registry.

Rhodes could have served up to 10 years in prison on the more serious offense.

Melonea Locklair, executive director of People Against Rape, said she worried that the sentence makes a dangerous statement that Rhodes' family is more important than the girls.

"I understand what the judge did, but was (Rhodes) thinking about his wife when he was doing that to those young girls?" Locklair said. "And what's going to stop him from doing it again?"

When the girl's parents addressed the judge, Rhodes closed his eyes and hung his head.

"Our family has been through a tremendous amount of hurt and pain with this man we deeply trusted," the girl's mother said.

Rhodes' attorneys offered no excuses for his behavior, but noted that when Rhodes sent the text messages, his wife was in her final six weeks of pregnancy, his father had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and Rhodes was studying for the state teacher's exam.

Shortly after his arrest, Rhodes' son was born with severe medical problems, including brain injury, that require 38 daily therapies. Rhodes' father died in the past few months and, barred from teaching, Rhodes took his place in the family sheet metal roofing company alongside his grandfather, Charles Rhodes.

The elder Rhodes told the judge he works alongside his grandson and shares lunch with him daily. He described DJ Rhodes as "a broken young man."

"We need him in business. His wife needs him at home. And his mother needs him in her situation," the senior Rhodes said.

Rhodes' wife, Fran, apologized for her husband's actions and asked the judge, "Please allow him to be home with his family."

The judge asked if Rhodes had been tested to determine whether he has a sexual appetite for children. Attorneys said testing showed he did not. He has no prior criminal history.

Addressing the judge and the court, Rhodes cried as he said, "I've spent the last two years figuring out what I was going to say on this day." He settled on this: "I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart."

Young said he sees men daily who cry on the stand and added, "That doesn't necessarily move me all that much.

"You just don't text 12-year-old girls number one," the judge said, "and you don't text them inappropriate things."