Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt: A gifted conman
Once upon a time there was a dirt poor boy from Colombia who grew up to be a thief - not just any old thief, but one of the most gifted conmen in the world... So how did he do it?
Sunday 16 April 2006
When Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt strolled into Dublin's best hotel - The Merrion - at around 9.30 on a warm June morning last year, everything went like clockwork, just as he knew it would.
Conman, escape artist, expert linguist, possessor of hypnotising charm, a dozen aliases and a bunch of false passports - and wanted by police on at least three continents - Betancourt knew exactly what he needed to do. It had worked countless times before, in some of the world's grandest hotels, from Tokyo to Las Vegas, via Paris and London. Born in Colombia, and (omega) often claiming to be the son of a diplomat or a German prince - neither of which, like most things in his life, had anything to do with the truth - Betancourt had enjoyed a good run. In a 10-year career as perhaps the world's most accomplished international conman and hotel-thief, he had never yet been caught red-handed. What he was about to do that morning at the gracious five-star Merrion was tried and tested stuff.
When he walked in he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Save Water - Drink Beer". He usually dressed in stolen Valentino or Armani, and this was a risky outfit; but then all sorts of rich scruffs stay in smart hotels. For the first 40 minutes or so, it's unclear what he did in the hotel. He was picked up on CCTV making - or perhaps pretending to make - a phone call in the lobby, but that was it.
By around 10.15am, though, he was in a top-floor corridor and met a cleaner coming out of the €1,000-a-night (about £700) Kirk Suite. An American couple, their children, and the children's grandmother - from Beverly Hills - were staying here.
Betancourt told the cleaner he had forgotten his room key, and asked if she could she let him in. She said she couldn't, but as he chatted to her, switching on his charm, she mentioned that she would be doing some babysitting for the family in the suite that night. Betancourt would use this scrap of apparently irrelevant information in a brilliantly skilful way.
He went down to reception. Here, he took his usual gamble - that in a big hotel not every staff member will know every guest by sight. He explained to the desk clerk that he was staying in the Kirk Suite, but had, stupidly, mislaid his key card. With his deft and deadly charm, he left the clerk in no doubt that he was a genuine guest. As he walked away with the "replacement" key card, he turned and casually asked: "Are we still OK for the babysitter tonight?". The babysitting booking had already been made, and was there in the log. Who would suspect a thing?
Once in the suite, Betancourt telephoned downstairs - not to the reception desk where he'd just been, but to the hotel's operator. Knowing that the guests had young children, he told the operator that his kids had been playing with the combinations of the suite's two safes, and that they now wouldn't open. Might someone come up and unlock them for him? When one of the security staff arrived, Betancourt spoke to him in an American accent. The whole thing seemed so convincing. And why would Betancourt even be in the suite if he wasn't a legitimate guest? The guard opened both safes, and left.
In the safes, Betancourt found an American passport, over £2,000-worth of dollars and euros, a ruby ring, and an American Express card. He took the lot, locked the safes by inputting his own seemingly random codes, and left.
He strolled out of the hotel and along the north side of St Stephen's Green, to Grafton Street, Dublin's smartest shopping area. In HMV, with the stolen Amex card, he bought a pile of CDs and DVDs worth around £500. In Brown Thomas, renowned as Dublin's "poshest shop", he bought around £700-worth of designer clothes. But his first stop had been Weir and Sons, established in 1869 and the city's grandest jewellers. With the hot American Express card, he hit Weir's for an 18-carat white-gold Rolex Daytona, worth about £11,000.
Even when the purchase was briefly queried by American Express, Betancourt stayed ice-cool. "When the card was swiped, it gave a refusal," says Weir's managing director, David Andrews. "So you have to ring for a 'sanction number' - and in a lot of cases they will ask to speak to the holder to ask for some personal detail. In this case they didn't, and gave the sanction. So away we went - a lovely sale."
Even after this close call, Betancourt casually strolled around the shop looking at more jewellery. But he didn't buy. Once he'd got the CDs and clothes, he crossed the River Liffey to O'Connell Street, and bought a gold chain and a ring for around £700 in another jewellers, John Brereton. But it was when he tried to use the stolen card for a fifth time in a chemist's nearby that his luck hit the rocks. The card had been stopped. For the next seven days, Betancourt disappeared.
Ten days earlier, Betancourt had pulled off another vanishing act. This time, though, it was from Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, where he was only two months into a three-and-a-half year sentence for a near-identical £40,000 burglary at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London.
After saying he needed to go to the dentist, he had been allowed out of Standford Hill - alone, as is permitted in an open prison. He turned up for the dental appointment, but then kept going. Somehow, he made it off the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary (there is only one route to the Kent mainland, by bridge) with, reportedly, no money and no credit cards - but, in typical style, wearing a pair of Cartier sunglasses. The papers would later be full of it. "Flamboyant jewel thief cons his way out of prison" ran one headline.
Despite an alert at all ports and airports, just over a week later he was in Dublin. How he got there is a mystery. Even seen-it-all detectives say they have grudging respect for his skills as a thief, liar, con-artist, linguist, forger - and his ability to get out of tight spots. "He'll nick or forge anything - nailed down or not," says one. They often compare him to Frank Abagnale Jr, the breathtakingly bold American former conman played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can. The problem for police across the world is that, while not nearly as inventive as Abagnale in his range of cons, Betancourt, it could be argued, is just as smart. No one knows how much he has netted in a trail of heists at five-star hotels around the world, stretching back to the mid-1990s. One guess puts it close to £1m, but it's probably more. And one of his favourite targets was London's big hotels.
Andy Swindells, a detective-sergeant with the Metropolitan Police Hotel Crime Unit - who, in a stunning piece of policework, would later play a major part in Betancourt's downfall - explains the con. "He always purported to be a guest. He would come into a hotel and do things that guests do: hang around, have a coffee, change some money. Hotels are small communities, and the reception staff see people all day long. If you change money a couple of times, they'll remember you." And, crucially for Betancourt's plans, they'll think you're a guest.
Swindells says that Betancourt would pick up guests' names and room numbers from discarded bar tabs, or from gym bookings, or by overhearing staff greeting guests. "You can stand in the breakfast queue and hear people say: 'I'm Mr So and So' and the staff will ask for the room number," says Swindells. "Once he'd got those details, he would go to reception, to the same person he had dealt with earlier when he changed money, and say: 'Hello, I'm back again - I'm Mr So and So in room Such and Such and I've lost my key card; can I possibly have another one?' Because the staff recognise him and because he knows the name and the room number, out of deference the staff may not ask for any identification. There's a culture in hotels of 'the guest is always right'."
Betancourt played ruthlessly on this fact. "Once he'd got into the room, he collected whatever he wanted," says Swindells. "Then he would phone 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 the combination.' What's more plausible than that? 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?"
But there were some close calls. Betancourt was first arrested in Britain in 1998 on suspicion of four burglaries at the Le Meridien hotel in Piccadilly, and of using a credit card stolen from one of its rooms. Employing one of around a dozen aliases, he gave the name Gonzalo Zapater Vives and jumped bail. The following year, he was arrested at Heathrow airport after trying to buy goods in an airport Dixons store using a credit card stolen from a hotel room in Tokyo. He gave his name as Cesar Ortigosa Vera - and had ID to back this up. In court the next day he pleaded guilty, was fined £400, paid it in cash from a wad of notes, and walked out. His luck was that, at that time, the Metropolitan Police did not have an automated fingerprint system. It was only later - once he'd gone - that it became clear that card-thief Ortigosa Vera and bail-jumper Zapater Vives were the same man.
By May 2001, Betancourt was back in London. That month alone he allegedly hit the Lanesborough and Mandarin Oriental hotels in Knightsbridge, and the Four Seasons and Intercontinental hotels in Park Lane. His haul from the Mandarin Oriental burglary was £40,000 in jewellery and cash. At one of the other hotels he is reported to have stolen £15,000. After the Intercontinental theft - which included a guest's Amex card - he was clearly in the mood to celebrate, using the card to hire a chauffeur-driven Bentley to take him to Heathrow airport (cost: £400). There, on the same card, he bought a ticket to Paris and blew £8,000 on a pile of jewellery and designer clothes at the shops in the departure lounge.
Then he disappeared again - until August 2003, when he showed up in Las Vegas, and allegedly pulled off what may have been his biggest heist. "From one of the city's finer hotels, and from another hotel, he is alleged to have stolen cash and jewellery worth, in total, over $350,000 [about £200,000]," says Kirk Sullivan, a detective with the Tourist Crimes Detail of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department.
"He sometimes says he's descended from German royalty - and he sometimes uses the title Prince," says Sullivan. "This is all rubbish - but I don't know that anyone will ever know the truth about him." Another Las Vegas detective reports that Betancourt would steal Rolexes from hotel rooms, and use them for small change. "He was giving those away as tips - for good service, he'd give a waitress a $50,000 watch."
By November 2004, Betancourt was in London yet again. This time he allegedly hit the Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane; the Savoy; the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington; and the Dorchester, where he would later admit to having stolen jewellery, cash and designer clothes worth £36,000 from the suite of a Bahraini businessman. At the time, he was dossing down in the spare room of a council flat in Lisson Grove. What he was doing with all this money is a mystery. It's one of many in the strange and complicated life of Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt.
Though newspapers often describe him as "the son of a diplomat", his mother was a cleaner and his father was a farm labourer in the fields around the remote Colombian country town of Roldanillo, where Betancourt was born in 1976. Roldanillo is set in the fertile Cauca Valley, which runs through the northern Andes, about 140kms north of Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. The little green-painted mud-built house Betancourt was brought up in is still there, about 15 minutes from town, in a small group of workers' homes beside the River Cauca
Betancourt's father is said to have left home when the boy was about a month old. His mother Yolanda later married Harold Velasco, a clerk in an estate agent's office. She would later admit, in tears, that the young Juan Carlos had been badly treated at home. In his mid teens he too left home, and would later claim he had lived in an abandoned plane at Cali airport, and grubbed in dustbins with other streetchildren to feed himself. But shortly afterwards, he was headline news.
In the early hours of 1 June 1993, he was found wandering and dishevelled at Miami airport. He claimed to be called Guillermo Rosales, aged 14, and said that he had arrived from Colombia as a stow-away in the undercarriage of a cargo plane. How he survived the trip - or if his story was even true - has never been definitively explained.
That morning, Colombian-born Miami detective Jairo Lozano was driving home from his shift when he heard a news item about the teenage stowaway on a Hispanic radio station, Caracol, along with an appeal for someone to act as a temporary guardian for him. "There was a friend of mine who was going to do it and I called him and he says: 'You wanna do it?' and I say: 'OK'," Lozano recalls. "He said it would be better if I did it because I was a police officer and so I could maybe take care of the situation better."
The story was already big news in the US media when Lozano got to Miami airport. "Everybody was waiting for me; they showed me this kid, but he was even taller than me, and I'm 5ft 9in". I said to myself: Shoot - 14 years old? He had to be at least 17 or 18. But, anyway, I signed the papers and took the kid home." Lozano's wife Bertha tidied him up a bit before they went out to deal with the TV crews which had gathered at their house in central Miami. They filmed Bertha giving Juan Carlos a haircut. After the publicity, offers of help started pouring in.
"There was this lawyer from Texas showed up at the house," says Lozano, "and he said he represented a wealthy Texan lady who wanted to take care of Juan Carlos and that he would be welcome to go to Texas. This lawyer opened an account for him, with $10,000 [about £5,690], to be used for whatever he needed."
About two weeks later, Juan Carlos disappeared. "That was kind of strange," says Lozano, "because I thought: he doesn't know anybody in Miami. Then a couple of days later I opened the door in the morning and he was standing right outside the porch. And I go: 'Where have you been?' and he goes: 'I went walking and I got lost...' And I thought: 'I don't like this.' Then about a week later he disappears again for three days.
Juan Carlos again claimed that he'd "got lost". But then Lozano and his wife found out that he had family in Miami - an aunt, in the suburb of Perrine, about 45 minutes away. Coincidentally, Lozano and his wife already knew her, through friends.
"So we took the kid to his aunt in Perrine, and he was welcome and stuff, so we left him there and came back home," Lozano recalls. Over the next few days, he and his wife found that some jewellery, tools and a bicycle were missing from their house. Lozano says they at first blamed their own son - but on a surprise visit to Perrine, they saw Juan Carlos with the bicycle, and found the jewellery and tools in his room.
The Colombian consulate had already contacted the Lozanos. "They told us they had a criminal record on him and that he was not what he said he was. They said his mother was still alive although he had told us he was an orphan," says Lozano. "After about two months with us, he was deported. He was a good kid, don't get me wrong - but he lied to us."
Lozano saw Juan Carlos twice more. The first time was a few months later, when he and Bertha were back in Colombia on holiday, visiting family. A radio station in the capital, Bogota, had asked to interview Lozano about the famous teenage stowaway - and set up a surprise reunion. "They said: 'Guess what? He's here!'," Lozano recalls. "So we greeted him and hugged him, and I noticed he had some type of ID card hanging round his neck, but it was turned backwards and I couldn't see the photo. So I go: 'Is this some work ID you've got?' And he goes: 'Yeah, I'm working at the airport here.' So I said: 'Oh, that's really nice...' And I reached out to the ID and turned it around and I saw that it was not his. It was the ID for somebody else."
Lozano later found that Juan Carlos had somehow made it back to Miami. He thinks it was in early 1994 that the pair bumped into each other one day on a street corner on Coral Way. "We said a few words. He said: 'Hi Dad,' and I said: 'Hey, how are you?' And he said: 'I'm working' - and I said 'that's good' and that was about it. That was the last time I saw him."
Lozano says that, even now, he's not sure if the stowaway account was true. "After all the stories he's been telling... I just don't know. The people who found him said he was kind of freezing, and that they took him to a doctor... but I can't tell you if that's true. A friend of mine who flies those types of plane says it's impossible to survive, that you'd be crushed by the wheels or freeze to death. But from Bogota to Miami it's only three-and-a-half hours. So maybe he did it." He remembers Juan Carlos as an intelligent kid. "But he wasn't using that intelligence for good. He was doing wrong. It was pretty clear he had psychological problems. But I didn't think he would turn out like he did."
According to newspaper reporter Luis Angel Murcia, a local correspondent for one of Colombia's national dailies, El Pais, there appears to be barely any trace of Betancourt's family in Roldanillo now, apart from a distant cousin who claims not to know him. (omega) Betancourt's mother Yolanda is believed to be in Cali. Murcia has been told she scratches a living there, taking in washing. How, from such humble beginnings, Betancourt managed to become fluent in so many languages and pass himself off as a sophisticated global traveller is another mystery. Even detectives who have pursued Betancourt for years don't know.
Among those who have pursued him the longest are Andy Swindells and Christian Plowman, from London's Metropolitan Police Hotel Crime Unit. They had been after the then-unidentified thief since 2001, when Betancourt pulled a string of big London hotel burglaries, including the £40,000 Mandarin Oriental theft.
It was when Betancourt came back to London in late 2004 - and there were reports of robbed rooms at the Grosvenor House, Savoy, Royal Garden and Dorchester hotels - that DS Swindells and DC Plowman went back to the paperwork. "We didn't think he'd be in England," says Swindells. "We guessed he was probably in Vegas or Russia." Then, on 20 December that year, Swindells was off duty and had been out for a drink with some friends in the West End. At about 8pm he was called back to Marylebone police station to deal with an arrest. It was close enough to walk.
It was dark and drizzling as Swindells hurried along Conduit Street, in Mayfair. He had never seen Betancourt before; only his photograph. But as he turned into St George Street, two men on the opposite pavement caught his eye. "One was a guy in a long, black leather jacket," says Swindells. "The way he was dressed was elegant and expensive - but there was something about him which wasn't quite right. I thought this could possibly be him." He quickly called Plowman from his mobile. Plowman at first thought it was a wind-up - and then set off running from the office in Marylebone. Swindells followed the two men along Conduit Street, then walked fast on the opposite pavement to get ahead of them, crossed the road, and doubled back to stroll past and see them face-to-face. But, under the streetlamps, he couldn't pick out Betancourt's most obvious distinguishing feature - a blue-ish mole just above his nose.
Swindells followed the men through Berkeley Square, and into a Sainsbury's store on Berkeley Street, near the Ritz. "He and his mate were shopping; I looked right at him across the aisles, and I could see he had the mole - and I called Christian and whispered: 'It's him!' I was still thinking to myself: 'Is this really the guy we've been looking for for so long?'"
Plowman arrived just as Swindells was finishing the call. He was convinced. Betancourt was arrested, wearing a £2,000 leather jacket stolen from the Bahraini businessman at the Dorchester and with the man's £8,000 Franck Muller watch on his wrist. Back at the spare room of the council flat in Lisson Grove where Betancourt had been staying, Swindells and Plowman found a treasure trove.
"There was loads of stuff, thousands of pounds in different currencies, and all the shopping taken from the Dorchester - stuff that linked him to the offence," says Swindells. There were also false IDs: a Russian passport carrying Betancourt's photograph and a Spanish one in the name of David Iglesias Vieito - also bearing Betancourt's photograph - which had been stolen from its true owner in the Canary Islands. There were baggage tags from St Petersburg and a plane ticket to Istanbul; and a receipt for a £20,700 Jaeger-LeCoultre watch stolen from the Dorchester, which was never found. The flat was rented by a French man whom Betancourt had recently befriended, and who had no idea he was harbouring one of the world's top conmen. Shocked, he told the detectives he knew Betancourt only as "David from Spain".
Interviewed by Swindells and Plowman, Betancourt admitted everything - the four London hotel burglaries in 2001, and the four in 2004. Agreeing to have 14 other counts taken into consideration, he was charged with the 2001 Mandarin Oriental burglary of £40,000 in jewellery and cash, and the 2004 Dorchester burglary of jewellery and cash worth £36,000. He pleaded guilty at Bow Street Magistrates Court and, in April last year, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years. But less than three months later he had walked out of prison on the Isle of Sheppey, and was on his spending spree in Dublin.
The burglary at the Merrion wasn't discovered until the following day, when the family in the Kirk Suite were packing to leave and found they couldn't open their safes. The same security guard was called up to open them - and remarked that he'd done the same thing the previous day. The safes, of course, were empty.
After speaking with staff, Dublin detective Bryan McGlinn knew he was not dealing with a small-time local thief. He called American Express and seized CCTV footage from the shops where Betancourt had used the stolen card. The following morning - 18 June - McGlinn and a colleague arrived early at the Merrion to conduct more interviews. While they waited, McGlinn flicked through the newspapers in the lobby. "I saw a headline that read: 'Flamboyant jewel thief cons his way out of prison', with a photograph... and when I read the article it seemed it was the same modus operandi," McGlinn recalls. "We showed it to the security man right away and said 'Is that him?' Without hesitating, he said: 'Yes.'"
McGlinn called all the city's big hotels to warn them, and visited all the B&Bs and backpackers' hostels in the city. It took him two days, non-stop. He was convinced that, to avoid immigration checks, Betancourt must have got to Dublin via Northern Ireland. "I figured if he had arrived from the north he would probably have come in near O'Connell Street where the bus and train stations are; and if he arrived there he would need some cheap hostel where he could keep his head down," says McGlinn.
He was right. On Thursday, a tip-off took officers to an internet cafe near O'Connell Street. Betancourt had been staying in a £35-a-night hostel nearby. In a backpack he had some jewellery, a laptop, an Austrian passport that had been stolen in Cork and the American passport stolen from the Merrion - expertly forged with Betancourt's own photograph. On his wrist was the Rolex Daytona he had got from Weir's. He admitted the Merrion burglary and two counts of theft by deception for using the Amex card to buy the Rolex, and the chain and ring from the second jewellers, John Brereton.
But he claimed that he was Alejandro Cuenca, from Spain. "He's a nice guy, very plausible, very believable; and he admitted everything, whatever we asked. He's extremely convincing," says McGlinn. "If I hadn't known better I would have been pretty sure that he was exactly who he said he was. He even has a tattoo of the Spanish flag on his arm. But we sent his fingerprints off to the Met and Interpol, who both confirmed they were Betancourt's."
A few weeks ago, Betancourt appeared in court in Dublin, wearing jeans and a blue jumper. Having already pleaded guilty, he was sentenced to two years for the burglary at the Merrion Hotel, and was given two further sentences of 18 months, to run concurrently, for theft by deception of the watch and the jewellery. Also awaiting him upon his eventual release is a European arrest warrant issued by the French authorities in connection with 13 offences allegedly committed in hotels in France. Others warrants are expected from the UK and the US. When he was sentenced, Betancourt didn't react or say a word.
McGlinn recalls that in interviews with Betancourt it was when the fingerprint evidence - and thus his real name - was first put to him that his friendly demeanour totally changed. "After that," McGlinn recalls, "he just said: 'Nothing else to say.'"
Other detectives have noticed this too. Though he's quite willing to admit to his crimes (in hopes, clearly, of a lesser sentence), the one thing which appears to unsettle Betancourt the most is being confronted with evidence of his real identity. This may simply be the professional conman's instinctive reaction - or it may be more. Now 29, he has claimed to be other people ever since arriving at Miami airport as a teenager. Whatever is buried in Betancourt's past that led him to this lucrative but lonely life of cons and multiple identities is still - like so much else - a mystery.
Christian Plowman remembers how Betancourt once started crying in a London police cell when he put it to him that his real name was Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt. Plowman didn't buy the tears - "I thought it was just more play-acting" - but he still found it a strange reaction. "He wasn't having any of it. I just don't know why he won't admit it - at all. It was very weird," says Plowman.
"Usually in interviews we ask people their motivation for committing offences, because there could be some sort of mitigating circumstance. But I remember asking him why he did this. And he just looked away and said: 'You wouldn't understand...'"
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