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Judge's family says barn search sought Two women still went missing for months

Colden Town Justice Carolyn A. Siegel and some of her neighbors claim they repeatedly asked police to search her barn in the months prior to last week's discovery of the remains of two missing Southtowns women inside the structure.

The bodies of homicide victims Geraldine Jackson, 87, of Colden, and Nancy Phelps, 69, of Marilla, were found in the barn hours after an anonymous tipster called an Erie County District Attorney's Office staffer last Saturday to say evidence could be found there.

In announcing the bodies had been recovered, law enforcement officials said that until Saturday, the judge had never told them her neighbor, Robert J. Henchen, a suspect in the case, had access to Siegel's Irish Road barn, where he stored a lawn mower.

But in a five-page letter, Siegel's family members say police were told by a neighbor that Henchen had use of the barn.

"On March 7, neighbor Billy Clark son was interviewed by sheriff deputies. Mr. Clarkson discussed the fact that Mr. Henchen stored lawn equipment in Carolyn's barn. Mr. Clarkson asked the deputies if they had checked the barn and they answered 'yes, two or three times,' " the letter states.

State Police Maj. Christopher Cummings, who confirmed Friday there were earlier searches of the barn, stood by previous statements by law enforcement officials that Siegel herself never told authorities that Henchen used her barn.

"I believe the issue that was presented was that Miss Siegel didn't offer up the fact that Mr. Henchen had utilized the barn to store property in. It is simply that," Cummings said.

He added that nothing suspicious was found when the barn was searched last winter.

"During a ground search in the area initially adjacent to the barn, the barn was entered and visually inspected and no suspicious circumstances were observed to develop probable cause to apply for a search warrant," Cummings said.

Interest regarding the judge's circumstances, the major said, have "overshadowed the fact that a major case investigation has been conducted by multiple agencies, Orchard Park Police, the Erie County Sheriff's Office and the State Police in which there were multiple victims."

Henchen has been locked up on a parole violation and was recently indicted for a burglary in Orchard Park.

Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said the search initially focused on Jackson's fire-ravaged house, about a half-mile away from the judge's Irish Road home, on Dec. 22.

"When police . . . first became aware of the relationship between Henchen and the judge's property is still not clear," Howard said Friday. "With all the information that is now known, a more-thorough search of the barn would have been appropriate and called for."

Authorities said it would be easy for searchers to miss seeing the two sealed barrels containing the remains of the women because the barrels were hidden behind a lattice wall that had been erected last year for a party Siegel held in the barn.

The search, he said, shifted from the east side of Irish Road, where Jackson's and the judge's homes are situated, to the west side, where Henchen lived. That occurred after Phelps was reported missing. She is the aunt of Henchen's wife and was last seen alive Jan. 14.

Authorities discovered evidence pertaining to Phelps near a partially collapsed barn adjacent to Henchen's residence. Searches were also conducted of ponds in the area and at property in Albion, where Henchen's family lives, Howard said, in explaining why the Siegel barn was not more thoroughly searched.

Howard and other police officials continue to stress that the judge was cooperative throughout the investigation, though last Saturday they expressed concern that she never personally told them, prior to the anonymous tip, that Henchen had access to her barn.

In the letter from her family, Siegel is described as being fully cooperative with authorities when police came to her home last Saturday. She, in fact, agreed to accompany them.

". . . She is consumed with grief over the fact that their bodies were not discovered sooner. As you might imagine, she will forever live with the horrible trauma of knowing that the person who callously took the lives of these two ladies decided to dispose of their bodies on her property, and her family home will never be the same for her again," the letter states.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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