Man accused of posing as DEA agent recants

An Altoona man police said posed as a federal drug agent to shake down a purported drug dealer for cash and marijuana claims he falsely confessed and was brutalized by police during an eight-hour interrogation.

Stephen M. Espenlaub Jr., 39, of 107 N. 13th Ave. made the claims in a two-page, handwritten letter sent to the Mirror from the Blair County Prison. Although Espenlaub recants some of what he told police after his arrest Jan. 11, he does admit to playing a role in the alleged scheme.

Altoona police flatly deny Espenlaub was in any way subject to police brutality after he was taken into custody.

“There was absolutely no mistreatment of Mr. Espenlaub, whatsoever,” said Altoona Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones when asked about the claim.

In his letter, Espenlaub claims neither he, his wife, Natalie K. Friley, 30, nor another man, Angel L. Vasquez, 32, of 205 E. Fifth Ave. took part in the alleged Dec. 18 home invasion robbery of a city man, as claimed by Altoona police.

Espenlaub and Vasquez each are facing charges including felony conspiracy, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, criminal trespass, theft and extortion. Vasquez is also charged with carrying a loaded weapon, possession of a gun by a convict and misdemeanor carrying a gun without a license.

Friley is facing charges of robbery, burglary, criminal conspiracy, theft by deception, theft by extortion and related offenses.

Espenlaub wrote to the Mirror that he loaned his car as well as “police shirts that you can get at a flea market” to two men but said he won’t release the names of the two men “due to my family’s safety.”

Police contend it was Espenlaub and Vasquez who pretended to be agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency when they carried out the robbery, which allegedly netted the pair $4,000 in cash as well as 6 pounds of marijuana. On Jan. 10, the target of the robbery contacted Altoona police through his attorney after receiving a letter demanding more money and drugs.

Espenlaub was arrested Jan. 11 after he arrived at the target’s home to allegedly pick up a payment of $7,500 that had been provided to the target by police.

According to police, Espenlaub told investigators he had planned and executed the scheme along with Vasquez. Espenlaub also allegedly told police he and Vasquez had sold the marijuana for $1,300 per pound. Officers said Espenlaub called Vasquez while in police custody to arrange a meeting to spit the $7,500.

Espenlaub claimed in his letter that the two unnamed men who pulled off the heist were supposed to pay him half of their proceeds but instead he only received a pound of marijuana. Espenlaub also wrote he came up with the idea of the extortion letter because the two men were planning to return to the target’s house, without police gear.

Espenlaub claimed one of the men told him, “I’m going to smash in his head and make him give up the rest,” in reference to supposed shoe boxes of money and 30 pounds of marijuana Espenlaub wrote the men believed the target still had in his home. Espenlaub wrote that he knew the target and didn’t want to see him harmed so he came up with the idea of giving the target an extortion note instead.

“I wasn’t even supposed to pick up the money and drugs,” Espenlaub wrote. “But I was forced to do it and now here I am. An innocent man, guilty of circumstance.”

Espenlaub now claims he gave police false information out of fear and alleges, “I was stomped on the ground my head kicked several times, an officer stood on my head, then after eight hours of integration [sic] I just told them what they wanted to hear.”

Espenlaub further stated he took 60 mg of Valium before he arrived on Jan. 11 to pick up the $7,500 in alleged shakedown money because of stress and said police have not followed up on his revised version of what happened.

Jones said police couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case but said police have evidence that contradicts Espenlaub’s claims.

Attorney Joel Peppetti, who represents Vasquez, reiterated his client’s contention he was at a District Court in Bedford during the time police allege the Dec. 18 home invasion robbery occurred.

Peppetti said he has written statements from two secretaries at the District Court that place Vasquez in the office the morning Espenlaub allegedly told police he and Vasquez did the home invasion.

“My position is, the only evidence linking my client to any of these allegations is the confession given by Espenlaub and his wife,” Peppetti said, adding that Espenlaub has a lengthy criminal history that undermines his credibility.

As for the gun found in the vehicle Vasquez was driving when he arrived at Espenlaub’s home in Altoona to allegedly split the $7,500 supplied by police as bait in the extortion plot, Peppetti claimed it was Espenlaub’s vehicle and therefore his gun, not Vasquez’s.

Both men are due to appear before Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey Auker today for a preliminary hearing on the charges.