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.
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. It's a shame, a divorce situation. 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. He announces the official opening of Women Against Registry's first-ever national conference. Behind him, a 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. 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. She listens to Adam's speech from the rear of the room.
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. 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. We need to fight for the rights of our families and for our prisoners of the registry. The first federal law was passed back in , 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 amendment, known as "Megan's Law," made the registry information public. In , 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 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 people have successfully petitioned for release from registry since During that decade, the state's registry nearly doubled in size, adding more than 7, names to a roster that's now swollen to more than 15, men.
It also includes about women. And that, he says, makes Missouri's registry ineffective. Treating 15, people as if they're all child rapists wastes resources that could be used to better track the state's truly dangerous sex offenders.
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. 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. He's been on the registry since 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. 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 , 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 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: 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. 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. 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