On June 4, 1993, a 13-year-old boy fell out of the wheel well of a DC-8 cargo jet that had arrived at Miami International Airport from Bogota, Colombia. He was unconscious and shivering but alive.
The boy’s story of how he survived the three-hour flight in hopes of a better life in America captured the nation’s attention, including a glowing story about his saga that appeared two days later in The New York Times.
The boy gave his name as Guillermo Rosales.
On Sept. 21, a man was questioned by the U.S. Border Patrol at a gas station in Derby Line near the U.S.-Canadian border after agents received a tip that he had crossed into the country illegally.
The man told the border patrol agents his car had broken down in Stanstead, Quebec, and that he must have mistakenly walked across the border. He produced a valid Spanish passport and said he was waiting for a taxi to take him back to his car.
The man gave his name as Jordi Ejarque-Rodriguez.
It turns out the two stories involve the same person, and neither one is Guillermo Rosales or Jordi Ejarque-Rodriguez.
Instead, that person is Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt, a charismatic master thief and con man so adept at his craft that he’s been compared to the fictional thief A.J. Raffles and his real-life equivalent, Frank Abagnale Jr., subject of the film “Catch Me If You Can.”
Guzman-Betancourt is suspected of a long string of crimes worldwide. Police alleged he often used disguises or other ruses to steal jewelry and money from wealthy guests staying at swank hotels in England, Russia, Japan, Ireland, France, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, Venezuela and the United States.
Late last week, a federal grand jury in Vermont indicted Guzman-Betancourt on charges he was in the country illegally and had falsely identified himself as a U.S. citizen. He is in federal custody and is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.
U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin won’t say where Guzman-Betancourt is being held — Guzman-Betancourt once talked his way out of a British jail by telling guards he was going to a dentist appointment — but Coffin had high praise for the agents who caught him.
“They did an outstanding job,” Coffin said in an interview last week after Guzman-Betancourt was found in Derby Line, a town of nearly 800 residents in the northeast corner of the state. “This case shows there’s a lot of interesting things that happen up on our border that pose law-enforcement and national-security challenges. Our people did a great job in this situation.”
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Guzman-Betancourt has used at least 10 aliases since his arrival on the Miami airport tarmac in 1993, federal authorities say, although he’s spent many of the intervening years in other countries preying on rich tourists and evading police.
The airport incident, too, appears to have been a fraud, according to news reports. The boy turned out to be nearly 17 years old, not 13, and aviation experts have cast doubt on his account of clinging to landing gear in a desperate attempt to find a better life in another country, according to a story in Canada’s National Post.
News reports about Guzman-Betancourt describe his skill at zeroing in on wealthy hotel guests, finding ways to obtain key cards to their rooms and, once inside, persuading hotel staff he was the room’s occupant and asking for help opening in-room safes.
“Once he’d got into the room … he would call security and say, ‘Hi, I’m Mr. So-and-So. I’m in my room and I’m so sorry, but can you come and open my safe? I’ve forgotten my combination,’” Andrew Swindells, a London detective, is quoted as telling the Independent of London. “It’s not unusual for people to forget the code they’ve put in. And with his charm and nice clothes and flashy watch, why would anyone be suspicious?”
Those news reports also tell how Guzman-Betancourt has presented himself as everything from a diplomat to a German prince to carry off his thefts. The Independent reported how he once escaped police by making his getaway in a chauffeur-driven Bentley coupe, paid for with a just-stolen American Express card.
His exploits in the United States have caused him to be deported three times in the 1990s, all to no avail, as he was subsequently charged and convicted of grand larceny in New York in 2000.
Police also believe Guzman-Betancourt was the man behind the 2003 theft of $280,000 worth of jewelry and money from an in-room hotel safe at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas — which, if true, would be his biggest heist.
“He obtained information about a guest and then was able to make a forged international driver’s license using the person’s name but bearing his photograph,” Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said last week.
“He then went to the hotel room, called and said he was having a problem with the safe,” Morgan said. “He showed the ID to hotel security and they opened the safe for him. They leave, and then he grabs the stuff, and he’s gone.”
Morgan said it took three years before Las Vegas police detectives figured out that Guzman-Betancourt was the person who pulled off the theft, reaching their conclusion by tediously studying hotel surveillance video until they spotted him following the hotel guest he later impersonated.
“He’s been a big thorn in our side,” Morgan said.