A former Holmesburg man is facing the possibility of decades in state prison after his conviction last week for the violent rapes of two women in Pennypack Park in 2010 and 2011.
A jury of nine women and three men returned their unanimous verdict against Robert Palen, 40, on Monday afternoon after hearing three days of testimony in Common Pleas Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright’s courtroom last week. Palen, formerly of the 4200 block of Frost St., was found guilty of two counts each of rape and sexual assault, as well as single counts of aggravated assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
Palen is also suspected of raping a third woman in the park in 2012, but that victim died under unrelated circumstances before authorities identified Palen and filed a criminal case against him. So he was not charged with the third attack. Meanwhile, Palen is already serving a prison sentence of eight years and three months in Wisconsin for beating and raping a Madison woman in 2013.
Assistant District Attorney Kelly Harrell, in her closing arguments on Friday, described Aug. 3, 2011, as “the night from hell” for one victim, after Palen forced her to perform oral sex, raped her and used his fists to break her nose, leaving her face covered in blood.
Both living victims testified during the trial, detailing the similar tactics used by Palen to carry out his crimes. To protect the victims’ privacy, the Northeast Times is not publishing their names.
In both cases, Palen made first contact with the victims as they walked along Torresdale Avenue near Disston Street in Tacony. He drove up to them in a white utility-style pickup truck and struck up conversations. One victim said that she got into Palen’s truck because he agreed to pay her for sex. The other victim said she got into the truck because Palen offered to let her re-charge her cell phone.
Both times, Palen drove the women to Cresco Avenue, just north of Rhawn Street. And his demeanor changed along the way.
The 2011 victim said that Palen became angry, parked his truck and dragged her into the woods near the Ed Kelly Amphitheatre. That’s where the assault and rape took place. Eventually, Palen fled the area, leaving the victim lost in the woods. That woman, who was 24 at the time, placed three 911 calls before she was able to communicate to an operator her approximate location. Officer Teresa Rice of the 8th Police District was first to arrive at the scene. She drove into the concert stage area and spotted the woman.
“She was very upset. She was crying. Her face was all bloody. She was in pain,” Rice testified.
Rice took the victim to Episcopal Hospital, where she was treated for her injuries and a staff member obtained forensic evidence from her for a “rape kit.” Rice next took the victim to the Special Victims Unit headquarters, where she recounted her ordeal for detectives.
“Then she finally gets to go home after 12 hours,” Harrell told the jury.
Police prepared and distributed a composite sketch based on the victim’s description of the rapist.
Nine months later, another woman contacted police with a strikingly similar tale. She said that in August 2010, a man in a white work truck picked her up near Torresdale and Disston, drove her to Cresco Avenue and raped her in the park. That victim, who was 24, admitted to police that she was abusing heroin and working as a prostitute at the time.
On the way to the park, Palen stopped at a convenience store on Frankford Avenue ostensibly to get cash from an ATM. But he refused to pay the woman and forced her to have sex with him, anyway.
The 2010 victim did not report the crime to police initially, but she told a close friend. She finally called police in May 2012 after the friend died. Police then released a second composite sketch in an effort to develop new leads.
The Wisconsin attack, which occurred on Dec. 28, 2013, provided local police detectives with the break they needed in solving the Pennypack rapes. Palen had been corresponding with that victim for months via an online dating site. Eventually, he showed up at her home, beat her and raped her. Madison police recovered DNA from that case and entered it into a national database. They identified and arrested Palen within days.
Several months later, Philadelphia police learned that the DNA evidence from the 2011 Pennypack rape matched that from the Madison case. Palen was brought to Philadelphia in January 2015 to face charges here. Although police have no DNA evidence from the 2010 Pennypack rape, that victim was able to identify Palen as her attacker from his mugshot photo.
Palen’s private-practice attorney, Andre Martino, argued during the trial that Palen had consensual sex with the 2011 victim. Martino told the jury that Palen beat up the woman during an argument after sex.
The defense attorney further stated that Palen never met the 2010 victim and that she likely used the publicly known details from the 2011 rape in fabricating her own story, perhaps for news media attention or to help police to pin the rapes on someone.
“Maybe she feels she needs to play her part,” Martino said. “I’m not her doctor. I’m an attorney.”
Harrell argued that it would make no sense for the 2010 victim to make up such a story about herself.
“Yeah, because most women want the media to know that they were heroin addicted and working as a prostitute in 2010,” the prosecutor said with ironic sarcasm.
Harrell implored the jury to decide the case on their perceived credibility of the victims and the “mountain of corroborative evidence,” despite some inconsistencies in the victim’s recollections of the incidents over time.
“The inconsistencies are not material. What these ladies have always been consistent about is what happened to them,” Harrell said.
Palen is facing up to 20 years in prison for each rape conviction, as well as the aggravated assault conviction. Bright will sentence Palen on Aug. 4. ••