Three waive cases in alleged robbery

Three people accused in a home invasion robbery of an Altoona marijuana dealer waived their cases on to court Friday with prosecutors withdrawing nearly all charges against one man who provided evidence he was elsewhere at the time of the crime.

The Blair County District Attorney’s Office withdrew 10 of 11 charges against Angel L. Vasquez, 32, of 205 E. Fifth Ave. because Vasquez was definitely at a Bedford District Court the morning of Dec. 18, when two men posing as Drug Enforcement Agency officers busted in the door of a home on the 900 block of Ninth Street to steal drugs and cash.

Vasquez had been implicated in the robbery by Stephen M. Espenlaub, 32, of 107 N. 13th Ave., who was arrested Jan. 11 after the target of the robbery came forward through an attorney after receiving an extortion letter demanding more money and drugs.

Police said Espenlaub admitted that he and Vasquez pulled off the robbery, in which $4,000 in cash and 6 pounds of pot were taken. Espenlaub has since recanted the alleged confession in a letter to the Mirror published Friday. Prosecutors subpoenaed the letter Friday to be used against Espenlaub.

Espenlaub’s wife, Natalie K. Friley, 30, was also charged as a conspirator in the crime, specifically that she knew of the scheme and used $500 from the robbery to pay bills, according to court documents.

Friley waived her preliminary hearing Friday and was slated to testify for prosecutors, but Espenlaub and Vasquez each chose to waive their hearings before Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey Auker.

Attorney Theodore Kroll, representing Espenlaub, said his client agreed to waive his hearing on robbery, conspiracy and related counts after prosecutors agreed not to seek maximum prison sentences, that could have meant life in prison because of the use of guns, the seriousness of the felonies involved and Espenlaub’s extensive criminal record.

Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks said Espenlaub could face between 20 and 40 years in prison and all counts against Vasquez, except for a lone illegal possession of a firearm by a convict charge, were withdrawn because Vasquez was in Bedford County at the time of the Dec. 18 robbery.

Weeks said the withdrawn charges could be refiled and police have received additional information about similar robberies that have to this point gone unreported.

Altoona police said Friday the investigation remains ongoing and investigators were looking into similar crimes, particularly in Cambria County. Police would not say if additional arrests were expected at this point.

Attorney Joel Peppetti, representing Vasquez, said the withdrawal of most of the charges against his client shows prosecutors had no case beyond the word of Espenlaub. Still, Peppetti said his client was operating a vehicle that contained a gun, albeit the vehicle was registered to Friley and the gun was hidden under the hood in the engine compartment. A jury would have to sort out the facts of the case, so there was no reason to hold a preliminary hearing on that one charge, Peppetti said.

While Friley remains free on an unsecured $7,500 bond, Espenlaub and Vasquez remain in Blair County Prison in lieu of $200,000 cash bail. Additionally, Vasquez is being detained for violating state parole.

Police said the robbery was well planned, with the suspects buying police gear and procuring a former police car online. The target of the robbery was convinced the two men who busted in his door with guns drawn and handcuffed him before threatening to arrest him and his family unless he gave up cash and drugs were legitimate, but when the target received a follow-up letter Jan. 10 demanding more money and drugs, he approached Altoona police through an attorney.

With $7,500 in bait money, police had the target phone a number supplied with the extortion note and police took Espenlaub into custody when he arrived to collect. Espenlaub then phoned Vasquez to split the money, and he was arrested when he arrived at Espenlaub’s home, police claim.