Former Fort Mill teacher a danger after trading child porn, prosecutor said in court

Eric Hartley
Eric Hartley

The former Fort Mill High School teacher charged in a 2016 child pornography case is a danger to children and society, federal prosecutors said.

Eric Michael Hartley, 36, of York County resigned from the high school Feb. 28 after federal agents charged him with conspiracy to distribute child pornography.

Federal prosecutors said in court in Charlotte Tuesday that in 2016, before Hartley was a teacher in Fort Mill but while a teacher in Georgetown County, South Carolina, Hartley sent and traded text messages containing child porn with a man in Virginia. Hartley also sent text messages saying he had fantasies about children, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred De La Rosa.

Hartley used an app called “Kik” prosecutors said.

Hartley said in those text messages he wanted the experience he saw in the child porn images, De La Rosa said.

“It is tough working around these young boys,” Hartley said in a text message, according to De La Rosa.

There was no evidence presented that Hartley acted on his fantasies or touched any children at any school, according to testimony in court Tuesday.

Fort Mill High School is within Fort Mill town limits, about 5 miles south of the North Carolina state line. Georgetown County is south of Myrtle Beach along the South Carolina coast.

Hartley was seeking to be released on bail Tuesday in court. Testimony showed Hartley moved to Fort Mill in 2018. He started teaching at Fort Mill High in fall 2018, school officials confirmed.

De La Rosa said in court that Hartley clearly had desires of children who were around the same age as the children he was teaching. De La Rosa argued that Hartley should remain jailed pending trial in Virginia where the second man involved in the trading of child porn was also arrested Thursday.

“He (Hartley) may be a danger to children if he is released on bond,” De La Rosa told Federal Magistrate Judge David Keesler. “He’s a danger to society and children. He was a teacher...He was exposed to children.”

De La Rosa called it deeply troubling to prosecutors that Hartley was engaging in child porn trading and fantasies while teaching children.

Hartley also may be a danger to himself and expressed as much to federal agents after he was arrested, De La Rosa said.

Hartley did not speak in court but cried during parts of the hearing as the accusations against him were made. Many of his family members were in court, including some who cried as prosecutors outlined the charges.

Hartley had no previous disciplinary record at Fort Mill schools and had passed a state and federal background check before being hired, said Fort Mill School District spokesperson Joe Burke.

Hartley taught a business class used for mandatory South Carolina computer credit.

Hartley’s lawyers, Jack Swerling of Columbia and William Terpening of Charlotte, said in court Tuesday that Hartley has no criminal history before last week’s arrest. The accusations against Hartley do not allege there ever was illegal or inappropriate contact between Hartley and any students at any school, Swerling and Terpening said.

“The fantasies were never acted out,” Terpening said in court.

Swerling said Hartley should be released on bond pending trial and Hartley would be wiling to check back in to a mental health treatment center.

“That would satisfy the safety of the community” Swerling said. “Obviously he’s depressed.”

Hartley admitted himself to a coastal South Carolina hospital then spent several days at a mental health treatment center after federal agents interviewed him at Fort Mill High School in January during the investigation when the agents seized Hartley’s cellphone, Swerling said.

Hartley was on suicide watch through Monday in the Mecklenburg County jail, Swerling said.

Keesler said the government has a significant case against Hartley and that some features of the case caused concern.

Keesler denied the bond request.

Hartley will be sent to Virginia to face the child porn allegations. The charge carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and up to 20 years, plus lifetime supervised probation, if convicted.

Federal agents interviewed Hartley on Jan. 16 at school in Fort Mill, according to prosecutors in court on Tuesday. Hartley was arrested Feb. 28.

Fort Mill school district superintendent Chuck Epps said in a statement released on the district Web site Wednesday that district officials will continue to work to keep students safe.

“More details have been reported in the news regarding the arrest of a former employee,” the statement said. “According to this information the allegations stem from actions prior to being employed by the district and do not involve any of our students. I want to assure you that all district employees undergo a state and federal background check before being employed by our district.”

The statement from Epps continued:

“As we have stated before, the district has not received any information regarding this arrest other than what has been reported by the news and we have not been contacted by law enforcement about these allegations. Investigators spoke with the employee in January but the context of the interview was not shared. At that time, investigators did confirm that the employee was cleared to return to the classroom.”

“We are shocked and saddened by these allegations and will continue to do everything in our power to safeguard our students.”

The Richland County Sheriff's Department arrested 38 people for being alleged child predators in Operation Full Armor.

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Andrew Dys covers breaking news and public safety for The Herald, where he has been a reporter and columnist since 2000. He has won 51 South Carolina Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, race, justice, and people. He is author of the book “Slice of Dys” and his work is in the U.S. Library of Congress.