A smooth-talking swindler who has made a career of conning the rich was ordered to spend 15 months in prison Monday on a mundane charge: entering the United States illegally.
Prosecutors say Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt used his good looks, clever schemes and ever-evolving list of aliases to fuel a criminal career in which he used swiped credit cards and stolen identities to bilk people, often while they stayed in posh hotels.
The Colombian-born thief’s exploits have earned him jail terms on two continents, four deportations and notoriety. He was once compared to Frank Abagnale Jr., the thief profiled in “Catch Me If You Can,” a 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Guzman-Betancourt, 34, was sentenced in Vermont after telling a judge his life has been “a great lie” aimed at helping him forget a nightmarish childhood.
“I have taken money, jewels and other valuable property from very rich people, but I never harmed a person nor would I ever do it, as I believe in the integrity of a person physical health as sacred,” he said in a letter he gave to the court.
Guzman-Betancourt showed up in the U.S. in 1993 in Miami, claiming to be a 13-year-old orphan who’d survived a flight from Cali, Colombia, in the wheel well of a plane. Calling himself Guillermo Rosales, he was admitted entry by U.S. authorities and taken in by a Miami family.
Within a month, immigration officials learned he was neither Rosales nor an orphan, and he was deported to Colombia.
But he kept coming back. According to a sentencing memorandum filed in the Vermont case, he was deported in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997 after various convictions, most involved using stolen credit cards.
During one stint behind bars, he told U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials he was German royalty and lived in Frankfurt, Germany.
He was arrested in Britain after a series of hotel burglaries there in 1998 but skipped bail.
In 2000, he used a stolen credit card to pay for his expenses at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, where he was using the name Cesar Ortigosa and had a bogus Connecticut driver’s license under a different name, according to a sentencing memorandum.
In 2003, he was charged with burglary, forgery, grand larceny and other counts after thefts at the Four Seasons Hotel and the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the memorandum said.
In 2004, an off-duty London police officer recognized him at a supermarket in the city’s wealthy Mayfair neighborhood. He was arrested and sentenced for burglaries at the Dorchester Hotel and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
At his trial in that case, prosecutors described how Guzman-Betancourt would show up at high-class establishments, impersonate wealthy guests and pretend to have lost his keys or forgotten his security code, ultimately finding his way into strangers’ safes to steal cash and jewelry.
In 2005, he was convicted of burglary in the United Kingdom but escaped from a prison under the ruse of going to a dentist appointment.
Since then, he has served time for burglary and fraud in Ireland and been identified as a suspect in a theft at the Four Seasons Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. A warrant for his arrest has been issued there.
“This is his bread and butter,” said Timothy Doherty Jr., a federal prosecutor in Vermont. “He spreads disinformation about who he is – he is an identity thief – and he uses that as a platform to get to people and steal their money.”
His latest arrest came in an unlikely way, in an unlikely place.
In September 2009, he was arrested in Derby Line, Vt., after crossing illegally from neighboring Quebec. He said he’d unknowingly walked across the border into the U.S. He was carrying a bogus passport at the time, and after being arrested, fingerprints identified him as Guzman-Betancourt.
He sat quietly through Monday’s 90-minute sentencing hearing. When Judge J. Garvan Murtha asked him if he had anything to say, he handed up a two-page typed letter.
“All my life has been a great lie I do recognize this as well that I have committed many crimes in my life and that I have no excuse for this but I hope this Honorable Court understands the many reasons why have done what I did, and it was to be able to live,” he wrote.
Prosecutors sought a 10-year sentence for Guzman-Betancourt, saying he has proved that when he’s not incarcerated, he’s involved in crime. But Murtha sentenced him to 30 months, giving him credit for the 15 months he already has served.
Guzman-Betancourt will serve his federal prison term and if another state convicts and sentences him in the meantime, he could face additional time, according to Vermont U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin. Once he has served his time for U.S. crimes, he will be deported, Coffin said.