Caught Him Because They Could

Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt, 34, first made headlines in June 1993 when he showed up at the Miami International Airport, dazed and dirty, claiming that he clung to the wheel of an airliner to escape his native Colombia for a better life in the United States. The story was probably a lie. He last made headlines Dec. 13 when he was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for entering the country illegally.

What happened in between is the stuff of which Hollywood movies—Catch Me if You Can, for example—are made, and the cause of much consternation on the part of Las Vegas police.

Guzman-Betancourt was one of the world’s most wanted criminals. Police from London to Las Vegas paint a picture of him as a suave, cool-headed con man adept at talking his way into expensive hotel rooms and out of close calls.

One of his biggest scores was in August 2003, right here in Las Vegas. Police say Guzman-Betancourt portrayed himself as a guest at the Four Seasons, telling staff he’d lost his room key. He produced an ID with the same name as the guest, got a key and went up to a suite rented by a wealthy British tourist. He then called the desk and told them he’d forgotten the code to his safe. When the room’s real occupant returned, he found $280,000 in cash and jewelry missing. Two months later, similar incidents occurred at Bellagio that raised his haul to about $350,000.

Police didn’t connect Guzman-Betancourt to the crimes until a year later when he was arrested for similar thefts from hotels in London.

Guzman-Betancourt has posed as a priest, a German prince and a diplomat. He could speak the King’s English or pass off a credible Texas drawl. He’s been convicted of larceny and credit-card theft, served time in a British prison and deported from the U.S. three times. When he was arrested in Vermont in September 2009 after crossing into the United States illegally from Canada, he told police his car had broken down and he’d inadvertently wandered over the border. “All my life has been a great lie,” he wrote in a letter to the federal judge in Vermont who sentenced him to 30 months in prison, minus time served.

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