Fake DEA agent case brings more charges

Altoona police have filed more charges in the case involving two men accused of posing as federal drug agents to rob a marijuana dealer.

Travis D. McDonald, 21, 1307 Second Ave., faces felony criminal conspiracy, theft and gun charges for allegedly supplying three handguns to one of the two men accused of carrying out a Dec. 18 home invasion robbery while dressed as Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

According to court records, McDonald supplied Stephen M. Espenlaub, 39, of Altoona with a stolen Hi Point 9 mm handgun as well as two other handguns, a Hi Point .45-caliber and Smith and Wesson .380-caliber, that he bought at a local gun shop.

The stolen Hi Point 9 mm was found hidden in the air filter of a car owned by Espenlaub’s wife, Natalie Friley, 30, after police arrested Espenlaub on Jan. 11. That gun was reported stolen to Altoona police on Nov. 15, with its owner telling police that he suspected McDonald, an ex-roommate, police said.

McDonald allegedly admitted to police May 7 that he stole the handgun and sold it to Espenlaub for $120, with Espenlaub providing him two Suboxone pills worth $40 while still owing McDonald $80. McDonald told police that at the time he sold the gun to Espenlaub, he was addicted to opiates and Espenlaub would sell him pills.

McDonald allegedly admitted the other guns were bought and sold to Espenlaub. Espenlaub is a convicted felon and is not permitted to buy or possess any guns, police note.

McDonald allegedly bought the Smith and Wesson .380 on Oct. 26, 2004, on Espenlaub’s orders at Pioneer Gun Shop in Juniata.

On July 7, 2005, McDonald bought the Hi Point .45 at the Juniata gun shop while accompanied by Espenlaub, police said. McDonald allegedly told police that Espenlaub gave him between $150 and $200 for each purchase before each transaction.

Police noted McDonald told investigators that he knew he was breaking the law but that he needed the money and

didn’t think Espenlaub was keeping the guns for himself.

Espenlaub remains behind bars on robbery and related charges along with his brother, Shawn T. Espenlaub, 33, also of Altoona. The two are charged in a scheme that police said netted the pair $4,000 in cash as well as six pounds of marijuana.

The pair reportedly broke down the door of at an Altoona home and pretended to be DEA agents. A follow-up extortion letter that demanded an additional $20,000 and 20 pounds of drugs prompted the alleged victim to contact Altoona police through an attorney. Police said the alleged victim told investigators he initially believed the men who took his cash and marijuana were drug agents and that the pair wore masks and police raid gear.

Espenlaub was arrested after allegedly showing up to collect the money and marijuana. Another man, Angel Vasquez, 33, of Altoona was taken into custody at Stephen Espenlaub’s Juniata home on Jan. 11. Charges against Vasquez were later dropped when it was proven he was at a Bedford County district court office during the time of the Dec. 18 robbery and further investigation led police to Shawn Espenlaub.

Vasquez was driving Friley’s car, where the gun was hidden, and still faces a single illegal possession of a firearm charge.

Friley has been charged in the alleged conspiracy.

Vasquez’s attorney, Joel Peppetti, said Friday his client continues to maintain his innocence. Peppetti said while the commonwealth is pursuing the illegal gun possession charge on a “constructive possession” theory, he said it is unlikely prosecutors can show Vasquez knew about or had access to the stolen gun that was hidden beneath the hood of Friley’s car simply because he was behind the wheel.

Police have also charged Stephen Espenlaub with felony conspiracy, firearms and receiving stolen property charges stemming from the alleged gun purchases from McDonald.

McDonald, who is a cousin of the Espenlaub brothers, remains free on an unsecured $10,00 bond and is due to appear at Central Court on Wednesday for a preliminary hearing.