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Focus turns to parolee in missing women probe

A career criminal with a history of violent crimes against the elderly is in custody on a parole violation and authorities describe him as a "person of interest" in the disappearance of two Southtowns women.

Robert J. Henchen, 42, of Irish Road, Colden, was arrested after an overnight manhunt.

He is on parole for a Monroe County home invasion robbery during which a 76-year-old man was bound and covered with a blanket while his house was ransacked, according to media reports from that time.

Henchen was smoking a cigarette on the porch of a house on Hayes Hollow Road when parole officers showed up at about 11:30 p.m. Thursday.

"When they pulled into the driveway, he fled," said Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard.

Following an extensive search using dogs by State Police and sheriff's deputies, Henchen was found at about 3:30 a.m., hiding in the back of a vehicle, the sheriff said.

On Friday, police and volunteer firefighters spent a cold, snowy day continuing to search for any signs of the two women who have gone missing during the past month.

Nancy G. Phelps, 69, of Marilla, was last seen Sunday at a Bible study group in Alden. Authorities said foul play was suspected after finding blood inside her garage, and blood and a tooth outside.

And there's been no sign of Geraldine Jackson, 87, of Colden, since her house burned to the ground Dec. 22.

Henchen "continues to be a person of interest in those cases," the sheriff said.

Henchen was charged with violating his 10 p.m. curfew, according to Carol Weaver, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Parole. He will remain in custody pending administrative proceedings.

With his parole scheduled to expire in April, Henchen could face going back to prison to serve the years left on his sentence.

Henchen was released on parole from the medium-security Oneida Correctional Facility in February 2004, after serving 18 years for the Monroe County robbery.

His criminal record includes another home invasion in the 1980s, when a 75-year-old man was beaten unconscious and a woman tied up with rope in their Orleans County home.

Henchen lives on a four-acre property across the road and less than two-tenths of a mile from Jackson's home. That stretch of road, between Blanchard and Knapp roads, features mostly older, smaller houses.

Colden Fire District No. 1, approximately two miles away, was the command center for Friday's search efforts. Inside, searchers warmed up and snacked on chips and soda as they looked over aerial photos of the area.

More than 100 people representing 23 agencies were out Friday. On foot and riding all-terrain vehicles, they spent a second day combing through the woods on both sides of Irish Road.

If there are clues to the whereabouts of the women there, though, finding them will be difficult. Fresh snow covers the daunting terrain, which is full of creeks and ravines, and crisscrossed by old logging roads, snowmobile trails and deer paths.

Trooper Joseph Zupo suffered a strained shoulder when he and his canine comrade, Buck, fell into a well on Henchen's property. The two were quickly fished out.

The weather was typical for January, with the wind whistling and snow devils swirling around. By afternoon, the lake-effect snow that was falling was being whipped horizontally.

"It's getting bad now," said State Police Capt. Mark Koss. "The snow is accumulating, and these guys have been at it for two days now."

Neighbor Bob Justinger, out snowblowing his driveway, described the fire and Jackson's disappearance as "terrible."

Jackson's "just a nice lady. She was very friendly and had a kind word for everyone," he said.

As for Henchen, "I don't know that much about him," Justinger said. "He used to do yard work for Mrs. Jackson. We used to see him on the road on his tractor."

"Everybody's a little tense" about the situation, Justinger said.

In Orchard Park, police continue to investigate whether there's a connection between the disappearances of Phelps and Jackson and a pair of home invasions that occurred Dec. 29 in the town.

"We have no concrete evidence to support that," Orchard Park Police Chief Samuel M. McCune said Friday.

"We are looking at some evidence that we collected," he said. "We have not gotten anything back from the lab yet."

McCune said he's aware Henchen was picked up on a parole violation, but declined to comment about whether a photograph of Henchen was obtained to present a photo lineup to the elderly victims in his department's cases.

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com and eploetz@buffnews.com

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