Prisoner suing Altoona police for false arrest

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona man who months ago faced charges that likely would have landed him in prison for at least 25 years plans to sue Altoona police for false arrest, according to his lawyer.

Attorney Joel Peppetti of Altoona said a notice of a pending lawsuit has been sent to the U.S. District Court in Johnstown.

Peppetti represents Angel L. Vasquez, 32, of Altoona, who has been in the Blair County Prison for several months after he was named as an accomplice of Stephen M. Espenlaub Jr., 39, of Juniata in the robbery of a man who described himself as a small- time marijuana dealer.

Espenlaub was arrested by police after the robbery when he allegedly tried to shake down the victim for more money and drugs, telling the dealer he had to “pay to play.”

The victim of the robbery at first thought the two men who entered his apartment on Dec. 18, 2012, were federal narcotics agents.

They were dressed as police officers and announced, “Police, we have a warrant,” and “DEA, we have a warrant.”

When the victim opened his door, the “police” put a gun to his back and cuffed him. They then took money and drugs but said they weren’t going to arrest him.

A second contact came in the form of a note telling the victim that if he wanted to do business it was going to cost him.

By that point, the victim, on his attorney’s advice, decided to go to the real police.

Officers set up a sting by having the victim agree to pay the money. Espenlaub was arrested when he allegedly showed up to collect the money.

Espenlaub then named Vasquez as his partner in crime.

Vasquez was arrested by police and charged with many offenses, including robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, conspiracy, two counts of theft, impersonating a public servant, firearms not to be carried by a felon, possession of a prohibited firearm and possession of an unlicensed firearm.

Peppetti said in light of Vasquez’s record, he would have received a minimum of 25 years behind bars if convicted of the charges.

Vasquez and his lawyer protested the arrest, contending Vasquez at the time of the robbery was at a Bedford County magisterial district judge’s office paying a fine.

According to Peppetti, city police never bothered to check the alibi, even though within days Espenlaub and his wife contended Vasquez was innocent.

Espenlaub even sent a letter to the Mirror contending he had given police a false story.

Peppetti and Vasquez went before Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron on Tuesday morning and agreed that Vasquez would enter a plea to one charge – possession of prohibited gun.

Milliron accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Vasquez to 18-36 months in a state correctional institution followed by seven years’ probation.

Prosecutors dropped all the other charges against Vasquez after agreeing his alibi supported his innocence in the robbery.

Assistant District Attorney Russell Montgomery said after the hearing Tuesday a review of a city water department surveillance tape in the area where the robbery occurred showed Vasquez was not there.

Vasquez was charged with the possession of a prohibited firearm that police found when they searched a car he was driving. The gun was found in the engine compartment.

Peppetti said Tuesday police never bothered to check Vasquez’s alibi or corroborate the first robbery story told by Espenlaub and his wife.

The defense attorney said Vasquez was arrested on “mere suspicion,” not on evidence that established probable cause.

This is why notice of a lawsuit has been filed, Peppetti said.

Shawn T. Espenlaub, 33, of Altoona, Stephen’s brother, was arrested in May as the alleged second man in the Dec. 18, 2012, robbery.