Thief with no name jailed after preying on luxury hotel guests

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The Independent Online

A talented linguist with a charming manner, he was always impeccably turned out and obviously quite at home in the lavish hotels he frequented.

From London to Paris, Tokyo to Caracas, the smartly dressed stranger was welcomed without question by the concierges of the finest establishments.

Their faith in the engaging young man was such that few questioned his claim that he had misplaced his room key or forgotten the code to his safe deposit box. Few realised that the young Colombian was an accomplished identity thief until he disappeared with thousands of pounds of jewels and designer clothes belonging to the genuine occupant of the room.

Yesterday, as the 29-year-old was jailed for three and half years, even the courts and the police could not agree the real name of the jet-set burglar with at least 10 different aliases.

Southwark Crown Court in London heard that Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt - or Gonzalo Zapater Vives as Scotland Yard called him - had lived a life of chauffeur-driven Bentleys and haute couture, criss-crossing the world as he hijacked the identities of his wealthy prey.

Countless times over six years, the "prolific" criminal evaded capture until a distinctive eyebrow mole finally gave him away and he was recognised by an off-duty police officer in a Mayfair supermarket. As he was arrested he was still wearing the £2,000 Valentino jacket and a watch he had stolen from an Arab billionaire.

"This man is ... a highly accomplished liar. He is plausible, believable and incredibly well-versed in identity theft, identity assumption, hotels and foreign travel," said Detective Sergeant Andy Swindells of Scotland Yard's Hotel Crime Unit, yesterday. "He is always immaculately presented, very charming and speaks several languages fluently. He works internationally, and Interpol may shed light on other offences."

Guzman-Betancourt, who claimed to be the son of a diplomat, was jailed yesterday after earlier admitting burgling the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge in May 2001, and the Dorchester, Park Lane, in December last year. He asked for 14 other offences - six burglaries, six deceptions and two of possessing forged Russian and Spanish passports - to be taken into consideration.

In the more recent of the two burglaries, his victim was Khalid al-Sharif, an Arab businessman, who spent thousands on Armani, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana goods during a pre-Christmas shopping spree. He left them in his room for only a short time - but long enough for Guzman-Betancourt to hijack his identity and take the lot. Eight days later he was spotted in a supermarket and arrested.

The court heard that Interpol was still trying to put together a full picture of the Colombian's activities and he was wanted by police in Las Vegas, France, Russia and Japan. On top of that, he has been linked to similar crimes in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Canada and Thailand.

Southwark Crown Court heard his modus operandi of "lost room keys" and "forgotten safe codes" never failed. In London he targeted the Mandarin Oriental, the Dorchester, the Lanesborough, the Meridien, the Four Seasons, the Intercontinental, the Savoy, the Royal Garden and the Grosvenor House.

With the help of a health club registration book or bar tab, he would masquerade as a hotel customer. Once helpful staff had let him into their suite and obligingly unlocked the security box, he pocketed his victim's valuables with impunity.

While he stole at least £150,000 of jewellry, cash and other expensive goods in Britain, worldwide his crime spree was said to have netted him up to £500,000.

Somehow Guzman-Betancourt, who lived on a London council estate, managed to keep a step ahead of the law. In 1998, he was arrested in London but skipped bail. The following year he was detained for using a credit card stolen from a Tokyo hotel room but disappeared once more. He was later apprehended in France but once again slipped through police fingers.

Sentencing him, Judge Rodney McKinnon told Guzman-Betancourt: "You plundered these hotel rooms in a really substantial way. Clearly you were out to make as much as you could. There has to be a substantial sentence in view of the prolific nature of your offending."

CRIMES OF IDENTITY

MAY 2001 Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt left the London Intercontinental with £15,000 and a credit card. He hired a £400 chauffeur-driven Bentley to take him to Heathrow. While awaiting his flight, he blew £8,000 in the departure lounge. The same month, posing as a guest, Mr Reed, he burgled a Mandarin Oriental suite and disappeared with £40,000 of Mr Reed and his wife's jewellery.

AUGUST 2003 Posing as Daniel Gold, Guzman-Betancourt got into a suite at the Four Seasons Las Vegas, while the British businessman was in the hotel spa. When Mr Gold, his wife Stephanie, two children and nanny returned, they discovered nearly £160,000 of jewellery and cash had disappeared.

DECEMBER 2004 Posing as a businessman, Khalid al-Sharif, the Colombian managed to get into his Dorchester suite while Mr Sharif was out. He stole £36,000 of designer clothes as well as watches.