An Altoona man who allegedly helped his brother rob an Altoona drug dealer while pretending to be drug enforcement agents will face trial.
Shawn T. Espenlaub, 34, of 610 Fifth St., appeared before Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey Auker on Wednesday, nearly a year after his arrest by Altoona police on robbery and related charges stemming from an alleged scheme where the brothers posed as DEA agents in late December 2012 and shook down a marijuana dealer for $4,000 and 6 pounds of pot.
Stephen Espenlaub, 40, has been jailed since Altoona police arrested him in January 2013 when he returned to the drug dealer's house to pick up an extortion payment. Shawn Espenlaub was arrested in April 2013, but unlike his brother, who allegedly confessed to police, the case against him is more circumstantial.
"There's no evidence," Espenlaub's attorney, Thomas Dickey, said as he read down through the list of charges against his client.
Dickey continuously objected to questions by Assistant District Attorney Russell Montgomery, challenging prosecutors to come up with testimony that wasn't hearsay or conjecture.
Dickey fought every attempt to introduce evidence against his client, pointing out throughout the hearing that there was no direct evidence putting Shawn Espenlaub in the drug dealer's house or leaving with the money or drugs.
The man who was robbed testified that he was at home when two men that he thought at the time were police busted down his door, pushed him to the ground and pressed a gun to his back.
He said they demanded cocaine, but he told them he only had pot and cash. That upset the two masked men who wore police raid gear emblazened with the words DEA and police, the alleged victim of the robbery said.
"They were throwing pounds [of marijuana] to the side like they were trash, saying, 'We don't want this! Where's the coke?'" the self-proclaimed pot dealer said.
He said the two ultimately took the pot and cash and left, and that he didn't report it to the police because he thought they were "dirty cops."
In January, a letter demanding more money and drugs prompted the man to seek out an attorney and call the real police, he testified. A sting was set up by Altoona police to lure the robbers to the dealer's house, and Steven Espenlaub was taken into custody, along with another man who has since been cleared of being involved.
The robbery victim also said he realized who the two masked robbers were eventually, something Dickey called into question by suggesting he was now only saying that because the Espenlaub brothers were accused of the crime. Still, the man testified he was sure it was Shawn and Steven Espenlaub.
"They looked pretty familiar to me," the man said. "There was something about them I recognized, but I couldn't put my finger on it."
The court also got to see text messages sent between the brothers, texts where Shawn Espenlaub allegedly gave his brother advice on how to leave the extortion note for the drug dealer and that when it's over they would be "sittin' on stacks," a reference to the $20,000 dollars the pair allegedly demanded from the dealer.
Video footage from the Altoona Water Authority, which shows two men arrive in a car and walk into the dealer's house, was a contentious issue at Wednesday's hearing. Two witnesses police said had previously identified Shawn Espenlaub as one of the men leaving the house the morning of the robbery told the court they couldn't be certain, with one witness pointing out the computer screen was smaller than when he first viewed the scene.
Despite that, Auker said there was enough other evidence presented to meet the lower court's burden of proof, adding that other questions raised by the evidence area matter for the Blair County Court to decide.
Espenlaub remains free on a $50,000 cash bond and is due to appear in Blair County Court on June 16.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.