Infamous globe-trotting conman who targeted hotels arrested in US

Colombian assumed identities of clergymen, sheikhs and princes
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The Independent US

Some call him a modern-day Raffles, the Victorian gentleman thief. Others say he's more like Leonardo DiCaprio's globe-trotting conman in Catch Me if You Can. Yesterday, he finally ended up in a US prison cell.

Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt, who made a living for 15 years stealing from wealthy guests at the world's top hotels, was arrested at a petrol station in Vermont, near the Canadian border.

The Colombian was caught by local police acting on a tip-off as he drank coffee and waited for a taxi. He is wanted for theft in three US states and faces up to 20 years in prison.

Guzman-Betancourt, 33, has assumed the identities of clergymen, sheikhs and princes to travel the world and steal millions of pounds in cash and jewellery. He has fled a hotel in a chauffeur-driven Bentley coupe and talked his way out of an open prison on the Isle of Sheppey by convincing staff that he needed to visit a dentist.

Most recently, at a Toronto hotel, he claimed to be a guest who was locked out and persuaded a cleaner to give him a security card. He plundered valuables from several luxury suites.

His modus operandi was simple but effective. He would use a bar tab or guestbook at a hotel to uncover the identity of a well-heeled resident. Having persuaded staff to let him into a room, he would call security and claim to have lost the code to its safe. At the Mandarin Oriental in London, he stole £40,000 in jewellery. At the Dorchester, he got away with £36,000 in clothes and watches.

At the Intercontinental on Park Lane, he bagged £15,000 in cash and hired a Bentley for £400 to take him to Heathrow, where he blew £8,000 in the departure lounge using stolen credit cards. He has been linked to unsolved crimes in Paris, Geneva, Tokyo, Bangkok, Caracas and Mexico City.

Guzman-Betancourt's history of deception stretches back to 1993, when he claimed to be a 13-year-old orphan who had hugged the landing gear of a plane from Colombia to Miami. His story made the news and viewers donated more than $75,000 to a support fund. He took the money and disappeared. It then emerged that he was aged 17 and his parents were alive.

He is wanted by police in Canada, Colombia, Japan, Mexico, Thailand and Venezuela. The crimes he will now be charged with include a £160,000 robbery in Las Vegas in 2003.

Guzman-Betancourt has slipped up on occasion. In 2004, an off-duty policeman saw him in Mayfair, recalled his face from "wanted" pictures and arrested him. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years. After escaping from open prison, he was captured in Ireland after stealing from a Dublin hotel. He served a two-year sentence there, before being released in 2007 and dropping off the radar.

The US authorities are unlikely to be quite as inclined to give Guzman-Betancourt a token sentence. He has been deported from the US three times and has received two non-custodial sentences for theft and once for credit card fraud. This time, he is unlikely to be so lucky.