Altoona police said two men posed as federal drug agents to steal cash and drugs from an Altoona man.
Stephen M. Espenlaub, 39, of 107 N. 13th Ave. and Angel Luis Vazquez, 32, of 205 E. Fifth Ave. are in custody on robbery and related charges stemming from an alleged plot that netted the two men $4,000 in cash as well as six pounds of marijuana. Police contend the pair were seeking more drugs and more money when their target contacted his lawyer, who in turn called police.
According to the pair's arrest papers, it all started at around 10 a.m. Dec. 18 with pounding on the door at a home on the 1300 block of Ninth Street.
"DEA, we have a warrant," two men yelled before busting into the home as their target, who was alone, came to the door.
Espenlaub and Vazquez wore masks, police said, and wore "dark raid uniforms" - one even had on knee-pads - with one of the uniforms marked with "POLICE" on the front pocket while the other displayed "DEA," records show.
Their target was pushed to the ground and handcuffed, police said, and a pistol shoved in his back as Espenlaub and Vazquez demanded to know where he kept "the coke" and a safe, one police said the pair believed to contain $30,000. The target of the robbery repeatedly told the men he didn't have any coke and only sold pot, and he later told police the two men continued to insist he give it up and even went as far as to check under every piece of furniture because they heard that's where the target kept the cocaine.
Their mark ultimately told the men about a suitcase with six pounds of pot in stashed in a bedroom closet, police noted in court records. Police said the target also gave the men $4,000 in cash, money he said was meant to buy Christmas gifts for his kids and pay bills, records indicate.
After a fruitless search for more drugs and money, Espenlaub and Vazquez poked their target in the chest with a bogus search warrant and removed his handcuffs. The man told police they told him it was his "lucky day" and that they weren't arresting him, but they were taking the pot and money, police point out in court documents. Before Espenlaub and Vazquez walked out of the home, they told the man to stop dealing drugs and they would be watching him, police said.
According to police, the target of the robbery told investigators he believed the two men who robbed him to be crooked cops until Thursday, when one of them dropped off a letter at his house while he was out. The typed letter demanded $20,000 in cash and 20 pounds of drugs and gave the man 24 hours to come up with it or risk being arrested along with his family, police noted.
Upon receiving the letter, the man consulted an attorney, who then contacted Altoona police on his behalf to set up a meeting between the robbery target and investigators.
Espenlaub allegedly left a number for the victim of the scam to call to make arrangements for the drop-off and police were waiting for him when he pulled up Friday outside the target's home in a white, unmarked Ford Crown Victoria to pick up $7,500 promised by the target as police listened in on the phone call.
Once in custody, police said Espenlaub told investigators everything, including how the pair bought police shirts and badges online and that they sold the six pounds for $1,300 per pound after the heist.
When Vazquez, who began calling after Espenlaub was in custody, arrived at Espenlaub's Juniata home under the auspices of getting his share of the scam, he was arrested, police said. Inside Vazquez's vehicle, police located one of the two handguns - a HiPoint 9 mm handgun - hidden in the engine compartment and other evidence, including a black police vest, police noted. Espenlaub told police, according to court records, that he used a .40 caliber HiPoint handgun in the robbery.
Officers also executed a search warrant of Espenlaub's home and found other evidence related to the crime, but police did not go into details about what was recovered.
Altoona police Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones said Espenlaub's and Vazquez's alleged actions create a serious problem for both the police and the public. Such schemes undermine the public's trust and create uncertainty in the minds of people when legitimate police officers knock on someone's door, a situation that could lead to people not peacefully complying with police when serving real search warrants.
The two suspects, records show, put a lot of effort into pulling off the rouse, including drafting fake documents and outfitting themselves with gear to look like law enforcement officers.
"It was a planned and calculated robbery," Jones said. "It definitely wasn't random."
Both suspects face a laundry list of charges, including felony conspiracy, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, criminal trespass, theft and extortion. Vazquez, who online court records show was sentenced in 2005 to four to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated assault, is also charged with carrying a loaded weapon, possession of a gun by a convict and misdemeanor carrying a gun without a license.
Both men remain in Blair County Prison in lieu of the $200,000 cash bail set for each by Magisterial District Judge Craig Ormsby.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.