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Henchen's kin tie death to neglect

Relatives of Robert J. Henchen say that an autopsy backs up their suspicion that the double-murder suspect died from neglect in the Erie County Holding Center.

"He was calling [relatives] every day begging for help because he wasn't receiving any medical attention. His condition was deteriorating," said Randy Henchen of Albion, the man's younger brother.

Henchen, 42, died of pneumonia brought on by starvation and dehydration, according to a report by the Erie County medical examiner's office. He had been in the Holding Center since Jan. 19, when he was arrested on a parole violation, although he was later charged in the deaths of Marilla resident Nancy G. Phelps, 69, and his 87-year-old neighbor Geraldine Jackson.

Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, though, insists that if anyone caused his death, it was Henchen. And Howard disputed claims that staff ignored Henchen's health.

"There was a lot of medical attention being paid to him. In fact, there were 23 different referrals [over several months]," Howard said.

The sheriff cited documents indicating that on May 13 -- six days before his death -- Henchen was "alert and responsive" and showed no signs of medical distress. Two days later, he was taken to Erie County Medical Center after being unresponsive during his arraignment on the murder charges.

Howard claimed Henchen's actions while he was incarcerated must be taken into account.

"It can't be overlooked that Robert Henchen had refused to take his medications at times," the sheriff said. "He was never denied food or fluids. He was choosing not to take them."

Howard added that when inmates go on a hunger strike, the government cannot intervene unless it's determinated that the person is unable make independent decisions.

But Randy Henchen pointed out that his brother had spent time in a state mental facility.

"Those circumstances should have been taken into account," he said.

The family believes medical experts in the Holding Center "underestimated" the severity of Henchen's health problems, his brother said. Other relatives also told The Buffalo News last month that the man had repeatedly called from jail to complain first about his headaches, then about bleeding from his nose and mouth.

There is evidence that Robert Henchen engaged in "bizarre behavior" when he was in jail, Howard acknowledged. For example, Holding Center staff reported that the inmate was handling his urine and feces, at times splashing the waste on his face. Howard said there were suspicions that the conduct may have been an effort by Robert Henchen to stage a "psychiatric defense."

The state Commission on Corrections, which routinely probes jail deaths, is investigating Henchen's death. The Erie County district attorney's office is also investigating.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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