For Helena Popejoy and others at the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center, the murder last fall of a beloved friend and colleague by her boyfriend was terrifying.
But the heartbreaking loss also pushes them to continue their work, she said.
On Friday afternoon, she and two other WASAC workers sat in a Sedgwick County courtroom as 38-year-old Travis Becker Jr. admitted to killing 42-year-old Perla Rodriguez in her Wichita home on Nov. 13, 2017. Rodriguez was the sexual assault center’s director of outreach, working with victims.
She also worked closely with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, which helps people in abusive relationships, at the time of her death.
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“We miss her tremendously,” said Popejoy, a WASAC outreach advocate, after the hearing concluded.
“She was a beautiful soul,” Cherrie Holder, a protection order advocate, added.
But, Popejoy continued, “The journey is far from over. It drives and paralyzes us every day.”
With his public defender Jason Smartt at his side, Becker pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder and aggravated kidnapping. Originally he’d been charged with first-degree premeditated murder, a conviction of which requires a defendant to spend at least 50 years in prison.
The felony murder conviction means Becker will be eligible for parole after serving half that time — 25 years.
For aggravated kidnapping, he’s expected to serve roughly 13 to 15 1/2 years in prison.
Prosecutors plan to ask District Judge Kevin O’Connor to order the terms be served consecutively, or back-to-back, when he sentences Becker on Jan. 2, according to statements given in court.
Becker has previously pleaded not guilty in the case. He had been scheduled to go to trial Dec. 2.
Wichita police officers went to Rodriguez’s home in the 2200 block of North Parkridge to check her welfare on Nov. 14, 2017, after her purse and some of her belongings were found in a parking lot in Andover. When they went inside the house, they discovered her beaten body lying next to a bathtub in the master bathroom, according to a police affidavit released a few weeks after her death.
A shovel with a wooden handle — the likely murder weapon — was in plain view in the master bedroom, the affidavit says.
By the time Rodriguez was discovered dead, Becker was in police custody in Olathe for suspected marijuana possession. He had her car, her identification, her cellphone and her wallet, which had blood in it. He also had fresh scratches on his face and a cut on his hand, the police affidavit says.
Popejoy said Friday that she knows Becker’s plea “doesn’t bring her back.”
But, she said, “I’m hopeful it’s a very big step in the healing process” for Rodriguez’s family, WASAC and the community.