Vicki Henry Is Fighting to Reform the Way Missouri Treats Sex Offenders 

click to enlarge Vicki Henry.

DANNY WICENTOWSKI

Vicki Henry.

Four hours into the armed standoff, the narrow residential street in Arnold is crowded with police cruisers, ambulances and SWAT trucks. Two TV news crews set up in someone's front lawn, training their camera lenses on a boxy armored personnel carrier parked outside a one-floor duplex on West Highview Drive.

A TV reporter relays in a breaking news update that federal officials would not release any information about the suspect, only that the man is believed to be armed and that FBI agents arrived at the home around 7 a.m. to serve a search warrant for "a court-authorized law enforcement purpose."

A neighbor evacuated from her home sits on a lawn chair in a patch of shade, smoking a cigarette. Yes, she says, she knows the woman who lives in the duplex. She doesn't mention the woman's name, but it's Vicki Henry.

"We'd just chitchat at the mailbox," the neighbor says. "She told me a while back, 'I have one of my sons staying with me. It's a shame, a divorce situation.'"

The neighbor adds, "I wouldn't see hide nor hair of the son."

She doesn't know the full story. Henry's son, "Joseph," had indeed moved into his mother's duplex several months back, but he wasn't reeling from a divorce. He was a former Marine who'd been convicted of possessing child pornography. After spending four years in a military prison and treatment center, he'd tried to reestablish his life. He got a job, met someone, fell in love, and, even knowing his past, she did too. For a time, Joseph lived with his girlfriend and her children.

Then one of her relatives discovered his name on the sex offender registry. The law didn't technically bar him from being near the kids; even so, the kids' father obtained a restraining order. So Joseph restarted his life, again. He moved in with his mom earlier this year. He worked nights and kept to himself.

And yet, as he finds himself in a standoff with FBI agents, his mother, Henry, is nowhere near the congested street.

The president of Women Against Registry, or WAR, Henry has spent the last six years pushing to reform the way Missouri and other states maintain sex offender registries, systems that she believes are misguided and undeniably oppressive for both registrants and their suffering families. Living off her retirement savings, she travels across the country, attending conferences, giving speeches and testifying before various state legislatures — and she does so, uniquely, using her real name. Unlike most parents in her position, she doesn't hide who she is, what she believes or what the registry has meant for her family.

She hasn't taken a proper vacation in years. A weekend trip to North Carolina was supposed to change that.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Hearing about the situation unfolding at her house, she's turned around and is heading home as fast as she can. Now she's got more than ten hours of driving before she hits the Missouri border.

Henry can only stare at the road, squeeze the steering wheel and pray.

Two months before the FBI standoff, on a Saturday in July, a father with a son on the sex offender registry taps at the microphone jutting from a podium in a banquet hall at a St. Louis Sheraton Hotel. He announces the official opening of Women Against Registry's first-ever national conference. Behind him, a 10-foot-tall banner displays WAR's red-and-white logo. The provocative acronym is printed in a font that looks like the letters were drilled full of rivet holes. The room is far too large for the 60 or so people who have dragged themselves out of bed to be here before 9 a.m.

No one appears concerned that a man is delivering the opening remarks for an organization with the word "women" in its title. Although WAR grew out of a now-defunct support group founded by the mothers and spouses of sex offenders, the organization doesn't turn away allies.

The man reassures the audience that they aren't being filmed or photographed. There is no registration fee to be here, but the event was barely publicized. An official press release was distributed only days before. Riverfront Times was permitted to attend and report on the conference on the condition that attendees would not be photographed or named without their consent. No one gives it other than Henry.

We'll call the man at the podium "Adam." Like the other volunteers working the conference, he wears a red T-shirt with the conference theme stenciled in white on the back: "our families, our future, our time." Henry, dressed in a gray and green blazer that matches her top, stands out from the others. She listens to Adam's speech from the rear of the room.

"I am relatively new to WAR," Adam begins. "My beautiful, intelligent, creative son was caught in a bait-and-switch sting operation a little more than two years ago. There was never any physical contact with anyone. There was never a victim. We felt as if we were backed into a corner when we accepted a plea bargain."

He doesn't have to say the words "child porn." Everyone knows what he's talking about. "My son was sentenced to fourteen years in a federal prison," he continues, and a wave of sympathetic murmurs washes over him. "The disparity between the sex offender sentences and the sentences of other crimes is outrageous."

"Amen!" shouts a woman from the audience. Adam blasts the imposition of lifetime registration and lifetime probation, a fate his son may face after leaving prison, as "double and triple punishment" and "unconstitutional." The audience applauds.

click to enlarge During Women Against Registry's first national conference, Vicki Henry ​urges ​attendees to "find their voice" as activists. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • During Women Against Registry's first national conference, Vicki Henry ​urges ​attendees to "find their voice" as activists.

"I realize that there are folks right here in this room who have been struggling with this ugly issue for decades," Adam says. "It is a difficult task, but we need to step out of the shadows and be heard. We need to fight for the rights of our families and for our prisoners of the registry."

The nationwide web of state sex offender registries is a relatively new phenomenon. The first federal law was passed back in 1994, enacted in the wake of lobbying efforts by the mother of a murdered eleven-year-old boy.

Known as the Jacob Wetterling Act, the new law required states to create registries to supervise and track people convicted of sex offenses, and it obligated sex offenders themselves to periodically report to law enforcement. The same year the law passed, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, spurring the modification of the existing registry requirements. The amendment, known as "Megan's Law," made the registry information public.

In 2006, the Adam Walsh Act — again named for a murdered child — set an array of minimum guidelines, but states were free to tighten their restrictions as their respective legislatures saw fit. Some states, following those federal guidelines, divided their registries into tiers based on severity of offense — for example, treating someone who physically rapes a child differently than someone who masturbates in public. Missouri's registry has no such nuance.

Under Missouri law, once you're convicted of a sex-related crime — which covers everything from public sex between consenting adults to child molestation — then you land on the registry for life. Along with being listed on the public website comes a lifetime obligation to report your home and work addresses to the police.

For sex offenders, serving lengthy prison sentences is just the beginning. Many are saddled with lifetime parole and residency restrictions. Even those who aren't must still check in with law enforcement every time they change residences or jobs and contend with the constant threat of public shaming. This is the "double and triple punishment," Adam referred to in his speech, and it's a frequent note of frustration among conference attendees.

In some ways, Missouri makes it harder than most. A 50-state survey by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center found that Missouri is among just 18 states that operate one-size-fits-all registries. The remaining 32 use multi-tiered systems that impose lengthy registry requirements to only the most dangerous offenders. Those convicted of lesser crimes become eligible to leave the registry more quickly — 15 years instead of 25, for example, or 25 instead of life.

Like most states, Missouri does have an escape clause. After ten years, state law allows non-violent sex offenders who have demonstrated that they are "not a current or potential threat to public safety" to petition for removal from the registry. State law also includes two loopholes for "Romeo and Juliet" situations: If the perpetrator is 19 years old or younger and the victim older than 13, they are permitted to petition for removal after two years. A perpetrator 18 years or younger convicted of certain misdemeanor sex crimes against a victim 13 or older is permitted to petition immediately.

In practice, however, very few registrants leave the registry. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, which is tasked with maintaining it, only 173 people have successfully petitioned for release from registry since 2007. During that decade, the state's registry nearly doubled in size, adding more than 7,000 names to a roster that's now swollen to more than 15,000 men. (It also includes about 500 women.)

"The registry is chock full of people who are low risk," says University of California-Berkeley School of Law Professor Ira Ellman, whose research into sex offender recidivism rates has helped debunk the myth that these men and women are a uniformly predatory group.

And that, he says, makes Missouri's registry ineffective. Treating 15,000 people as if they're all child rapists wastes resources that could be used to better track the state's truly dangerous sex offenders. "You've created a giant haystack in which a few needles can be hidden," he points out.

Still, despite years of state and federal court challenges, Ellman says that he has yet to see an example of a state successfully instituting rational registry policies.

"I don't think there are any states that are doing the registry well," Ellman admits. "There are only states doing it less badly."

click to enlarge DATA COURTESY OF MISSOURI HIGHWAY PATROL​. ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK
  • DATA COURTESY OF MISSOURI HIGHWAY PATROL​. ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

Missouri is not one of the "less badly" states.

The WAR conference's first breakout session is titled "Registrant Storytelling Time." In a meeting room arranged with rows of tables covered in white tablecloths, a succession of men delve into their respective histories. A few monopolize the pulpit to proclaim their innocence.

A man from O'Fallon wearing a Cubs cap goes first, speaking for nearly fifteen minutes. He claims he was framed for child molestation. Now he can't participate in church services. The next man introduces himself as the former "business administrator of the largest Christian school in St. Louis," and adds, as if a casual aside, that he had never even met the 3-year-old child he was accused of raping.

Others, though, are frank about their crimes. One man states, simply, "I molested my daughter."

"We can't deny what we've done wrong," the next man says. He's been on the registry since 1997. "If we violated the social code, you done it. I think the biggest challenge we have now is, how do we present ourselves in a respectable manner to a community that's already had years of indoctrination that we're hateful, dangerous people? How do we get out there in the public to say, 'We deserve more than to be treated like sub humans.'"

As the hour-long session inches along, Vicki Henry slips into the room. After her son's arrest ten years ago for child porn, Henry found comfort and assistance among fellow moms and families going through the same hell, the same anxious powerlessness. Eventually, though, she wanted to do more than suffer in silence.

She knows, probably better than anyone in this room, that changing sex offender laws poses a steep political challenge. As recently as 2013, a bill WAR supported would have created new exceptions in the state's sex offender registry, including a provision that would hide the names of registrants who committed their crimes as juveniles. The bill passed both the House and Senate, only to reach the desk of then-Governor Jay Nixon. He vetoed it.

The defeat effectively halted WAR's momentum on legislative reform. The organization's big private donor — a family with a son on the registry — withdrew their support. Now, four years later, the WAR conference represents the group's pivot to a different strategy: building and training a grassroots army of advocates who can do the lobbying themselves.

Now 69, Henry grew up in a small town in the Missouri Bootheel, and her voice has that easygoing "Missourah" twang so many state politicians try to mimic on the campaign trail. Addressing the meeting room after the speakers finish, Henry urges her audience to think of their stories as policy pitches, not therapy sessions.

"The idea," she says, "is to develop a storytelling mechanism. You need an elevator speech. If you're talking to a legislator, you can lose them real quick, you have to keep them engaged. If we don't educate the public and the media, then we're fighting a losing battle. They won't buy this stuff."

At the break for lunch, her older son hoists a box full of McDonald's burgers — the volunteers' lunches — onto the meeting room table. Broad and tall, he acts as his mother's bodyguard during her public trips and appearances. That's the way it's been for years, ever since his youngest brother's arrest in 2007.

"My mom has gone headfirst into this fight," he says. The years have been hard on their family, but perhaps hardest on her. She's spent her retirement years traveling to conferences, testifying in state legislatures and trying to organize the anti-registry groups scattered across the country.

"There's been times when she comes home for literally five hours, turned around and leaves," he adds. "But that's her. I wouldn't expect anything less."

click to enlarge WAR marches at a protest downtown about a month before Jason Stockley's acquittal. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • WAR marches at a protest downtown about a month before Jason Stockley's acquittal.

One week after the conference, the midday sun glints off the legs of the Gateway Arch as a handful of protesters assemble on the lawn stretching before the monument. Vicki Henry and Adam, who'd spoken at the conference about his son's experience, are here. They hold up a small banner that reads, "End Registrant Family Peonage," and below that, in bold black letters, a call for the repeal of Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Act.

A dark baseball cap and sunglasses conceals Adam's features. Henry, now wearing a red polo with the WAR logo, listens as a handful of activists gather to mark a national day of protest directed at the American prison system. Speakers inveigh against long drug sentences and bail schemes that effectively warehouse poor people in "debtor's prisons." The audience responds with affirmations of outrage.

When it's Henry's turn to speak, however, there are no breaks for applause or amens.

"There are 861,000 men, women and children across the nation on the registry," she begins, fumbling with the megaphone. "People say they all belong there, that they're all rapists. But if you commit a crime, and you pay the penalty for that crime, why are you not allowed to get on with your life? When does redemption begin? Never?"

The question hangs silent in the air. After a few moments, it's met with tepid, polite applause.

The movement to reform the sex offender registry has yet to find major support within the social justice community. Protesters may be changing hearts and minds about immigrants, police brutality and racial inequity in the criminal justice system, but sex offenders remain America's untouchables. Residency restrictions frequently push sex offenders into homelessness, creating modern-day leper colonies. Famously, the harsh residency restrictions in Florida displaced more than 100 sex offenders, forcing them into a shantytown beneath a Miami highway overpass. For years, the colony functioned as an official dumping ground for sex offenders. It's not a model Henry wants to see repeated in Missouri.

Yet Henry sees commonalities between her cause and others making headlines. After the gathering by the Arch, she joins a larger protest group that marches through downtown St. Louis to demand the conviction of a city police officer accused of first-degree murder. "The whole damn system is guilty as hell!" they chant.

Henry positions herself at the front of the march, holding WAR's banner aloft as young activists around her shout "Black lives matter!" and "Indict! Convict!" No one thinks to chant, "Sex offender lives matter." Why would they?

WAR's goal is not the registry's abolition. In interviews, Henry repeatedly notes that the group supports "reasonable restrictions" and strong supervision for dangerous predators. But for Henry, part of being reasonable is understanding that sex offenders can be rehabilitated. It means conceding that the public registry is a policy placebo, offering empty reassurance at the price of her son's freedom.

The closest WAR has come to changing Missouri's registry occurred in 2013, when three separate bills were introduced to the state legislature. One bill would have allowed mental health experts to re-evaluate sex offenders to determine their eligibility for removal from the registry. Another would have created a tiered system to differentiate between severities of sex crimes.

The bill that made it the furthest was sponsored by state Representative Kevin Engler (R-Farmington). It passed the General Assembly, no small feat, only to run into the veto pen of Governor Jay Nixon.

Engler's bill would have automatically removed the names of registrants who had committed their crimes while under the age of 18. That didn't sit well with Nixon, a law-and-order politician who had previously served as the state's attorney general. Victims' rights groups blasted the bill as well.

Politically, registry reform carries few upsides. Any legislator willing to sponsor a reform bill must realize it could come back to bite them in the form of a nasty attack ad.

Engler says he still believes that the registry needs fixing.

"The purpose of the list should be giving a warning to the general public of the potential danger that might be living in the area," Engler says in an interview. "But the list right now is totally ineffective."

It's the same problem pointed out by Ellman — creating a haystack when you've already found the needles. And Natalie Hull, a Missouri public defender who represents sex offenders in post-conviction appeals, points out that a false sense of security poses its own danger.

"The issue is, what does the sex offender registry really protect kids from?" Hull says. "This thought of 'once a sex offender, always a sex offender' — it's false. And we're still punishing them. The real threat is the guy who's not on the registry."

Indeed, studies show that sexual assaults are more commonly carried out by relatives or friends, not strangers who are already under the government's microscope and aware, fully, that their addresses and faces can be pulled up with a few keystrokes on a website.

Hull believes that judges should be empowered to make decisions about who should be placed on the registry, and for how long. At present, the registry is automatically triggered with conviction of a sex-related crime.

"Judges need discretion," she says, and not just at trial. Currently, judges can't initiate reviews of registrant cases on their own. "There should be a review process after a certain number of years, and judges need to be able to say, 'Let's get this person off the registry.'"

Henry has lost count of how many parents she's met trying to support children on the sex offender registry.

In Missouri, the long list of offenses that can lead to the registry include crimes that, while stomach-churning, don't involve a physical act of violence, such as exposing one's genitals in public, exhibitionism or, as in Joseph's case, possession of child porn. In many cases, their loved ones are left reeling. It's common to lose jobs and apartments once others find you on the list. Among the WAR conference attendees are families who were forced to uproot themselves because their house was too close to a school.

During a weekday in August, Henry settles into an office chair inside her tidy duplex in Arnold. The home serves as both her home and the unofficial WAR headquarters.

"I think I've heard all of the stories," she says.

In the corner of the living room, a card table is strewn with pamphlets and mailers. Henry's public persona makes her an outlier among parents of registrants, but she sees her mission clearly. She works to represent registrants silenced by fear. She tries to build support networks with other criminal justice reform groups. She tries to teach activists how to talk to legislators. Still, WAR largely flies beneath the radar of the general public.

For sex offenders, though, WAR is one of few organizations willing to listen. A support hotline funnels phone calls from all over the country to Henry's desk. On the line are mostly men, some homeless, jobless and desperate. She's had to talk more than one caller down from a suicide attempt.

"When does redemption begin?" she says, repeating one her favorite talking points. "I talk to people that sleep in their trucks because they're not allowed to stay overnight with their family. These people have paid their debt to society, and they want to live their life in peace."

click to enlarge At WAR's conference, only Henry was willing to let her face be shown. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • At WAR's conference, only Henry was willing to let her face be shown.

By conventional standards, Henry is a spokeswoman for a cause. She runs WAR's Facebook page, maintains the group's website and writes press releases. But her son's plight changes that equation. Henry's campaign to change the registry is deeply personal. How could it not be?

Joseph — who agreed to be interviewed around two months before he found himself in a standoff with FBI agents, and on the condition that his real name not be printed — sits on one of the thick red couches in the living room. He looks like a more slender version of his big brother, with the same thick beard, dark hair and hazel eyes.

"You can't live in fear," Joseph says, describing his journey from Marine to the brig to sleeping in a bedroom in his mom's duplex.

And yet to some extent, fear is the reality of the registry, he says. At any moment, his life could come crashing down. His job and housing situation could still be ripped away if one nosy neighbor or co-worker raises an alarm.

"I've learned that people are going to either like me or not going to like me," he says. "So, I put it out there, tell them the story. If they like me they like me. If they don't they don't."

Of course, he doesn't tell everyone. He recognizes that a certain level of dishonesty is necessary for survival when it comes to interacting with strangers, neighbors and co-workers.

"A couple months ago," he adds, "I was at work and they were having a talk about child molesters. Stuff like, 'If one was in my neighborhood I'd beat the shit out of 'em.' I work at a place where if someone did find out, I could easily have an 'accident' that would maim or kill me."

It was a fellow Marine who reported Joseph's child porn use in Iraq. In Joseph's telling, though, the military brass seemed uninterested. When a gunnery sergeant confronted Joseph, the Marine admitted that he was struggling with a porn addiction. The sergeant's response, according to Joseph: "Shut the fuck up."

But after Joseph returned to the U.S. in the spring of 2007, he was promptly arrested by military police and shipped to the brig at San Diego's Camp Pendleton.

Asked about it now, Joseph pauses, taking several seconds to compose his answer. "It was addiction," he finally says. "I didn't get the right help for it."

Joseph's mother and family were completely blindsided. As a mom, Henry had to balance the shock of discovering her son was watching child porn — "It was confusing and overwhelming," she says — with the immediate anxiety of confronting his criminal case.

At first, just finding Joseph was a challenge. He'd seemingly disappeared, and no one at his base could tell the family where he was. It took more than a week of frantic calls to find out why he'd been jailed.

"I thought I was going to lose my mind," Henry recalls. "I not only got baptized by the fire of this issue, I got baptized by the military way of doing things."

In some ways, however, Joseph says he was fortunate. After a year in the brig, he was offered a plea deal: 48 months in a military prison, with twelve months of that spent in the Navy's Sex Offender Treatment Program in San Diego.

Joseph was released on parole in April 2010. But the nightmare wasn't over: Three months later, U.S. Marshals raided the house Henry and her then-husband shared in De Soto. Joseph was dragged away in handcuffs and returned to California. Henry's computer was confiscated, and she claims a parole officer cited the detection of child pornography on the hard drive as the cause of the raid. But, six months later, she says the military investigators reported finding no such files. The raid resulted in no new charges against Joseph.

Still, Joseph was told while in the Navy's custody that returning to life on parole would slap him with additional restrictions, including a mandatory GPS tracker. He opted to serve out the rest of his sentence in the brig. By the time Joseph was released in March 2011, his mother was already an active member of existing registrant support groups, and a burgeoning organizer in her own right.

That was the same year Henry helped found WAR. At the behest of the other co-founders, she agreed to become the public face of its advocacy operations.

Behind the name, explains Henry, is a message of empowerment for women like herself, mothers who want to push back the tide crushing their kids' futures. Henry knows what parents are going through, what it's like to be thrown into a registry system that exists without bars and robs its inmates of any chance for absolution.

"If there's anything that can be done to bring about change, women will do it," Henry says confidently.

She has no idea that in a matter of months, Joseph would sit in this same living room, alone, afraid, holding her pistol and texting his brother to say goodbye to nieces and nephews for him.

click to enlarge Vick​i ​Henry's son was the subject of an FBI raid on September 25​ —​ and a ​twelve-hour standoff​.​ - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Vick​i ​Henry's son was the subject of an FBI raid on September 25​ —​ and a ​twelve-hour standoff​.​

The morning of September 25, Henry's son, Joseph, woke to unexpected knocking at the door. Peering outside, he was greeted with the sight of FBI agents bristling with rifles and tactical gear.

The 32-year-old former Marine retreated into the house. Inside a closet, on the top shelf, he closed his fingers around the handle of his mother's revolver. He counted the bullets. He texted his older brother with instructions for his funeral.

But he didn't kill himself. After twelve hours, his standoff ends not with suicide, but surrender. By the time Henry arrived back in St. Louis at 2 a.m. the next day, he was already in custody.

In a federal courtroom on October 16, he pleads not guilty to a single charge of felon-in-possession of a firearm, a charge that resulted from the standoff but wasn't the cause of it. It appears likely that another shoe is about to drop. Agents confiscated two computers, an external hard drive, a camera, an old cellphone and two videogame consoles. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney declines to say whether the search warrant was connected to child porn.

Henry worries that a new indictment is only a matter days or weeks away.

"There's a lot of things weighing on my mind," she says outside the courtroom that Monday. Joseph's beard has grown out since August, and seeing him in a prison uniform breaks her heart, just like it did ten years ago.

The gun charge alone is serious enough. If this raid actually uncovered something this time? He could be facing years of prison.

Still, even if convicted, it's likely that Joseph will one day again be released back into society, into the arms of Missouri's lifetime registry. If current trends persist, he will join Adam's son among the thousands of new faces and names listed on a public database that could get him fired, evicted or killed by a vigilante. Once again, he will have to find a place in a society that, generally, would rather he rot or at least stay far, far away.

Henry concedes that the news of her son's arrest could push people away from WAR, but she's not considering stepping down or out of her public role. She has too much to do. There's an international hate studies conference at Gonzaga University in Washington to prepare for. She has activists and parents in every state who still need help, advice and comfort. There are legislators to call. There are men ringing the WAR support line who need to hear that there's a reason to live.

And there's Joseph, too.

"He would be disappointed, I think," she says. "He doesn't want me to give up anything because of him. Whatever comes out, whatever happens, then we'll deal with it.

"We'll keep marching forward."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com


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