Joe Church has been an advocate for releasing battered women from prison in Missouri. (Robert Cohen/P-D)
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
When Joe Church attended his 20-year high school reunion in 1997, he noticed that an old friend was missing. What happened to Michelle Povis?
That question proved to be a catalyst for the fight to release 11 women who claimed to be victims of abuse.
Church learned that Michelle Povis, who had become Michelle Hendrickson, had been convicted of murdering her husband.
Church couldn't understand how the girl he knew at Mercy High School, a private Catholic school in University City, could kill. He called the prison, Tipton Correctional Center, and arranged a visit.
"I didn't call with the assumption she was guilty or innocent," said Church, 50, a financial adviser from Chesterfield. "She was a friend, a classmate, who was in prison. … What could cause that to happen?"
In 1994, Hendrickson shot her husband, Rodney, while he slept in their home in St. Charles County. They had four children, ages 5 to 11.
Hendrickson told police that her husband tied her up, beat her and raped her that night. She also said she had suffered years of abuse, with her husband throwing her off a roof once because she dropped a hammer.
Hendrickson pleaded guilty in 1997 to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years. At her sentencing, Rodney Hendrickson's relatives said that it was wrong for Hendrickson to shoot her children's father and that her punishment should be harsher.
Church told his mother Hendrickson's story shortly after the prison visit. "My mom said, 'You're going to do something, aren't you?'" he recalled.
Church started calling domestic violence advocates. Soon, the state's four law schools became interested. They would go on to identify 10 other cases to take on.
Still, Hendrickson failed in early attempts for clemency or parole. Finally, in October 2008, the parole board freed her, but only after she had served 14 years.
Hendrickson, now 49, moved in with her parents in St. Charles, and Church helped get her a job with a maintenance company. Hendrickson has become friends with Church, his wife and their four children.
While the efforts of lawyers have helped free other women, Hendrickson had to serve nearly her entire sentence. Still, her case helped touch off the movement.
Church's role in that movement now is mostly to provide "moral support." "I'm just very fortunate I was put in a position to help somebody," he said.