Two years ago, Robert Palen abandoned his job, his wife, his children and his Northeast Philadelphia home to satisfy his fascination with a 20-something Wisconsin woman whom he knew only through a dating website, police say.
On Dec. 28, Palen returned to Philly in handcuffs as a convicted rapist whose alleged obsession with violent sexual deviance had finally landed him in a local courtroom. Authorities promptly charged Palen, 38, with mercilessly abducting, assaulting and raping two women in Pennypack Park in 2010 and 2011. He might be facing additional charges in connection with a third attack had that young woman not passed away under unrelated circumstances.
“He’s a brutal individual, just by the way he immediately became physical” with victims, said Lt. Anthony McFadden during a Dec. 30 news conference at Philadelphia’s Special Victims Unit. “He immediately took advantage, knocked them unconscious, removed their clothing and continued beating them to the point where they had injuries — fractures and multiple facial injuries.”
Palen’s alleged connection with the rapes is not news. Authorities fingered him last March by matching a DNA sample from one of the Philly attacks to a separate sample recovered by police in Madison, Wisconsin, during a December 2013 rape investigation there. The Northeast Times previously reported on the DNA “hit” as well as the three local rapes, which each occurred in the park near the 8100 block of Cresco Ave., less than a mile from Palen’s former home on the 4200 block of Frost St. in Holmesburg.
However, with Palen’s return to Philly last week, local police for the first time painted a clearer picture of the defendant’s background and how he maneuvered unabated for so long. McFadden described him as lifelong Philadelphian who held a series of blue-collar jobs and drove an inconspicuous yet unique commercial-style truck. The white utility pickup had no company markings, but it carried ladders on its overhead racks. And its operator kept it real clean, according to victims.
“All three of our victims said it was very clean. It was immaculate. (The rapist) would actually get a little irritated if something was left out of place in the vehicle,” McFadden told news reporters.
The truck was a major component in a pattern of behavior that investigators first established in late summer 2011. On Aug. 3 of that year, a 24-year-old woman reported that she was walking in the area of Torresdale and Longshore avenues when an unknown man in the aforementioned truck pulled up next to her and offered a ride. She accepted. The man drove her to Cresco where he pulled her from the truck and into a wooded area.
“He brutally beat her and sexually assaulted her, leaving her barely clothed and bleeding,” McFadden said.
Eventually, the man fled the area. Police found the victim and took her to a local hospital, where she was treated for facial fractures and injuries related to the rape. Police recovered DNA evidence from the crime scene. While investigating the case, detectives made a connection with an eerily similar sexual assault that had been reported 13 months earlier on July 16, 2010. In that instance, a 26-year-old woman was walking near Torresdale and Longshore when a man in a white truck offered her a ride. She accepted and also ended up along Cresco Avenue in the park, the victim of a violent rape.
Police never have commented officially about why the victims got into the strange man’s truck. But that stretch of Torresdale Avenue has a reputation as a meeting spot for prostitutes and their patrons. Last week, McFadden confirmed that as part of their investigation, officers from Citywide Vice went undercover, posing as hookers in hope that they might cross paths with the man in the white utility truck. They never did.
Police also released composite sketches of the attacker based on descriptions provided by victims.
In May 2012, a third woman contacted police to report that the sketches looked like a man who had raped her in August 2010. That victim did not report her attack initially and she wasn’t sure of the exact date, McFadden said, but the circumstances were the same. And like the other two victims, she told detectives that the attacker had identified himself as “Rob” or “Bob.”
Unbeknownst to police at the time, the alleged rapist had been communicating with a Wisconsin woman via the Internet. And in late 2012 or early 2013, he simply left town. Philly investigators believe that Palen went directly to Wisconsin, but kept his distance from his Web friend for months. Finally, in December 2013, he went to her home.
During the Wisconsin attack, Palen beat and attempted to strangle his victim before fleeing. He left DNA evidence behind. Madison police managed to identify and capture him in short order. Philadelphia police made the DNA match a few months later.
Last June, Palen pleaded guilty in Wisconsin to attempted murder and rape. He fought extradition to Pennsylvania for a time, but eventually gave up that effort, McFadden said. He is charged here with two counts of rape, aggravated assault, indecent assault, false imprisonment and related offenses. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15. ••