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Fake SWAT cop can't escape 16 1/2- to 38-year jail term for bogus 'drug raid'

In December 2012, two heavily-armed men dressed as SWAT officers burst into Damien Morris’ apartment in Altoona, threw him to the ground and told him they were serving a search warrant.

The pair then proceeded to seize 5 pounds of marijuana and several thousands of dollars.

However, the two weren’t really cops. They were masquerading as drug agents to rob Morris.police shi

They might have gotten away with it, too, had they not gone just a step too far.

That message was reinforced for one of the robbers, Stephen M. Espenlaub Jr., recently when a state Superior Court panel upheld the 16 1/2- to 38-year prison term slapped own him by a Blair County judge.

The con Espenlaub and his accomplice ran went from smart to stupid real fast, according to the state court opinion by Senior Judge John L. Musmanno.

It began with the bogus SWAT raid. After seizing the drugs and cash, the fake cops told Morris it was “his lucky day” and that they weren’t going to charge him, court filings state. Morris thought that was the case until a month later when another man, Justin Hardin, knocked on Morris’ door and handed him a letter.

That letter told Morris he had to pay $20,000 and hand over 20 pounds of drugs if he wanted to ensure his family’s safety. Morris “then contacted his attorney and the real police,” county Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle wrote.

The genuine cops recorded a phone call between Morris and the extortionist in which they arranged to meet. The extortionist was to come to the rendezvous in an unmarked white car. Espenlaub showed up in such a car and was arrested. A search of his home turned up money, guns, drugs and police gear, including a knit cap bearing the word SWAT.

Doyle imposed the prison term after a county jury convicted Espenlaub of robbery, burglary, criminal trespass, theft, conspiracy and impersonating a police officer in October 2015.

Musmanno rejected Espenlaub’s claim on appeal that his sentence is too long. The state judge also turned aside Espenlaub’s argument that prosecutors shouldn’t have been allowed to show the jury photos of the guns seized from his home.

Espenlaub claimed the gun pictures were “unfairly prejudicial because they portray him as a dangerous criminal,” Musmanno noted. The state judge found the admission of the photos was proper because they “tend to prove that Espenlaub had weapons that are commonly used by law enforcement.”

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