MIAMI — The international con artist's tale of deception began 35,000 feet in the air, on a small plane shipping flowers to Miami International Airport.
He was found unconscious on the tarmac under the Arca Airlines plane. It was 80 degrees at 2:30 a.m. on June 4, 1993, but his olive skin was frostbitten and turning blue.
When immigration officials greeted him at Pan American Hospital, he said he was a 13-year-old orphan from Colombia who sneaked into the Arca Airline plane's wheel well. Name?
That was the first lie.
Now he has matured into one of the world's notorious jewelry thieves, who has escaped prison and dizzied detectives in at least five countries using a slew of stolen identities: A budding doctor studying in Ireland. A Colombian diplomat's son. An English family man. A New York priest. A German prince. A wealthy Bahraini.
The thefts, though, were stunningly similar. In each, he pretended to be a guest at a five-star hotel. Then he'd sweet-talk a member of the staff into getting a room key and the password for a safe. Finally, he'd pocket everything -- credit cards, jewelry, cash, passports. Police estimate his total bounty at close to $1 million.
Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt -- as he is now known -- is set to be sentenced in Brattleboro, Vt., on Monday after being arrested and admitting to illegally crossing the U.S.-Canada border about a year ago.
But 17 years ago in Miami, he was just an unusually tall boy who charmed the world with his dubiously simple story of daring. Back then, a wealthy woman in Texas set up a bank account for him and vowed to pay for his college education. Strangers would hug him when they saw him at his favorite restaurant, McDonald's. Florist Bertha Sotoaguilar and her then-husband Jairo Lozano, a city of Miami cop, took him in.
Sotoaguilar, now 55, shakes her head when she thinks of ``Guille.'' She knows his capers are rooted in South Florida, where he first developed a lust for the lavish.
"He loved all the attention he got here, all the gifts that people would give him,'' said Sotoaguilar, who now works as a city of Miami investigator."All those things, he learned about while he was here.''
She took him shopping at K-Mart for the clothes he didn't have. Then, she cut his tangled, shoulder-length black hair, filled with lice.
Days into the stay, he wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder. (At 5-foot-10, he was already taller than she was).Can I call you Mama? she remembers him asking. Of course.
He color-coordinated her closets and always asked about her jewelry. Sometimes, when he wasn't doing interviews with the media, she'd catch him alone, thumbing through old copies of National Geographic.
A week into his stay, Sotoaguilar's sister got the family free access for a day at the Fontainebleau.
"I feel like a millionaire,'' he said as he toured the fancy hotel.
Guille went off on his own for a while. On the way home, Sotoaguilar noticed a gold chain around his neck. He also had $200 in his pocket. He talked about how nice the suites were.
How'd you get in? Sotoaguilar remembers asking.
"It's easy,'' he said.
Meanwhile, the immigration officials were determining that Guille's story was fiction. There's no way he could have survived the sub-freezing temperatures, aviation experts said. They confirmed the "orphan's'' mother was still alive. He was 17, not 13. His name: Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancur (not Betancourt, as he's known now).
Because she wasn't the legal guardian, Sotoaguilar wasn't allowed to say goodbye when the boy was deported. She watched him wave through the plane's windows on television -- like the rest of South Florida and Latin American -- and cried, expecting his life would be bumpy.
But she didn't expect he'd spend the next half of his life oscillating between penthouses and prison cells. Along the way, he left a complicated paper trail that could only be untangled through court and police records, as well as interviews with attorneys and detectives in four states and three countries.
Detective Kirk Sullivan was working for the Las Vegas police's tourist division on Aug. 14, 2003, when a most unusual crime occurred at the Four Seasons Hotel near the Manadalay Bay Resort and Casino.
The victim was Daniel Gold, a British man staying in Room 37112, which was connected to a separate room for his two kids and their nanny. While Gold was at a 10 a.m. appointment at the massage spa, a 5-foot-10 man with dark hair in a burgundy T-shirt and dark shorts presented himself to the hotel as "Mr. Gold,'' and said he needed a copy of his incidental charges.
He offered an international ID with Gold's name and signature. About a half hour after receiving the key, he called for help to open the safe.
The security guard who responded told the police that the man said: "I forgot my passcode and my wife is very upset with me. She is waiting for me downstairs, so can you hurry?''
The nanny, still in the adjoining room, received three phone calls from a man saying Mr. Gold wanted to see the kids downstairs. When she left, she saw the dark-haired man in the hallway.
At 11:40 a.m., the real Mr. Gold walked into the room.
Gone were the $10,500 Rolex watch and the $30,000 clear stone ring. Gone were the pink/white stone earrings and the $15,000 necklace, the Prada shoes, the plane tickets and the passport. Total haul: $280,000.
Months later, two similar incidents happened at the Bellagio.
The cases went nowhere until Jan. 24, 2005, more than a year later, when someone sent the security guard a digital link to a newspaper story.
A suave 29-year-old who looked just like the suspect had been arrested.
The crime? Fooling hotel staff and stealing some $139,000 worth of cash and jewelry from The Mandarin Oriental, The Savoy, The Dorchester and another branch of the Four Seasons.
The place? London.
On Dec. 20, 2004, an off-duty police officer was at a London supermarket when he saw an olive-skined man wearing a Valentino jacket and a Frank Mueller watch. He had a pronounced jaw and pouty lips, with a distinctive bluish mole near his eyebrow.
A rich Bahrani man in town to do some holiday shopping had reported the jacket and watch stolen. He was staying at The Dorchester Hotel.
Confronted, the suspect surrendered a Spanish passport. Name? David Iglesias Vieto.
Skeptical cops searched an apartment he shared. In the house, they found a Russian passport with the suspect's photo and the name "Denis Vladmirovich Kiselev.'' They again asked for his name.
OK, OK, he said.
It's Alejandro Cuencas.
He admitted stealing from the four hotels in London. He told them his inspiration was Frank Abignale, the impersonator played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film "Catch Me if You Can."
As British detectives pieced the case together, they discovered he had the same eyebrow mole as a man arrested years before for even more hotel burglaries. But that person had a different name: Gonzalo Zapater Vives.
They also got a call from French investigators. They, too, were searching for a man with that blemish, who stole identities and cash from a Four Seasons Hotel in Paris in 2001 -- before the DiCaprio movie came out.
The name of the man they were seeking?
Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt.
Sullivan, the Las Vegas detective, asked for the booking photos to be sent from London. He did a photo lineup with five members of the Four Seasons staff. Four picked the suspect out as the thief.
When the Golds' nanny saw a photo, she exclaimed:
But in jail, the suspect refused to answer to Juan. The man the British called Gonzalo Vives was sentenced to 3 ½ years in England, at Her Majesty's Prison at Standford Hill. It's an isolated place on the Isle of Sheppey, where there is only one bridge to get out you out of town.
Investigators still aren't sure how he latched onto all those names. They suspect he picked up discarded receipts, or maybe lingered around lobbies to listen for the names of wealthy-looking patrons. Sullivan wanted to interview the man, but before he got the chance, the the man escaped.
Somehow, Vives persuaded a prison guard to let him out so he could go to the dentist.
Two weeks later, police in Dublin, Ireland, arrested a man with a $35,000 Rolex watch in connection with the theft of a stolen passport and credit cards at the Dublin Merrion Hotel. His name was Alejandro Cuencas -- one of Vives' known aliases.
Again, he admitted to the crimes. And he was sent back to prison.
At around 3 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2005, the man known as Cuencas received a phone call at Cloverhill Remand Prison. It was from Sullivan, the detective in Las Vegas.Sullivan showed off his Spanish speaking skills. How many language do you speak? he asked.
The suspect admitted he spoke Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and two types of English.
"I can speak the King's English,'' he said in a posh accent. Then, he slid into a Southern drawl. Sullivan remembers him saying: "Hell yeah! I can sound like I'm from Texas!''
"He spoke with a mix of anger and self-pity,'' Sullivan remembered. During one exchange, the detective asked why a man of such great intellect chose this lifestyle.His response: "If you had been thrown in a jail as a 15-year-old with criminals, what would you learn?''
After the wheel-well caper and subsequent deportation, it appeared at first that all Guzman-Betancourt wanted to do was return to Miami. Six months later, he found himself at a home for runaways in New York. But he rode a train south -- disguised as a priest -- only to end up arrested in South Florida. Again he was deported.
In 1998, he tried to get on a flight as Terrence John Marks, an English medical student studying in Dublin. Airport security said he looked nothing like his passport photo. Marks said he was simply trying to get to Miami.
In 1999, he was caught carrying a credit card stolen from a hotel in Tokyo. He paid a fine and identified himself as Cesar Ortigosa Vera.
In January 2000, "Cesar Ortigosa'' was arrested in New York and charged with using a stolen credit card to book $1,742.38 worth of credit card charges at the Waldorf-Astoria. They found him with another ID for a Douglas Johnson. He said he used that name to get into clubs.
While Guzman-Betancur was locked up at the Metropolitan Detention Center Guaynabo in San Juan, he told people that his deportation was all a big misunderstanding. He was actually Prince Juan Carlot Gutman-Betancur, son of Queen Margaret of Denmark and Duke Oskar Adolf III of Luxembourg.
In his phone conversation, Sullivan did not coax out a confession. Still, Las Vegas' police department issued a warrant on July 16, 2006. They hoped prosecutors would extradite him when he was out of the Irish prison. But they never did.
By Sept. 12, 2007, detectives in Switzerland were now scratching their heads. Someone caught on camera who looked like the con artist had impersonated a guest at the Four Seasons Hotel de Bergues in Geneva.
The Swiss magistrate put out a warrant for him -- although officials there won't discuss any specifics because of the country's privacy laws.
"All I can tell you,'' said one detective close to the case, "is this is the greatest con artist I've seen in my career.''
High-end hotels around the world remained on the lookout for a suave, charming man.
But when customs officials announced they found him, he looked neither suave nor charming. He was a lost tourist in Derby Lane, Vt., asking for a taxi service at an Irving gas station.
"After all this,'' Sullivan said, "I can't believe they found him there!''
On the evening of Sept. 21, 2009, an off-duty officer overheard the person talking to the cashier about attending a nearby college.
But there was no college nearby. Only Stanstead College in Quebec, which is actually a high school.
The officer asked his name.
Jordi Ejarque-Rodriguez of New York.
But he had no ID, so the officer searched him. He found the name Ejarque-Rodriguez on a Spanish passport, with stamps from Turkey, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. He would eventually plead guilty to charges of illegally entering the country. When investigators pressed for a name, he finally said:
Over the past year, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Doherty has worked to put together the many adventures of Miami's lost boy. He's asking the judge for a 10-year sentence to be served in the United States.
"His career is truly remarkable,'' Doherty said.
Steve Barth, Guzman-Betancourt's attorney, asked for leniency in a statement to the court. Barth noted that his client's crimes within the United States have largely been petty, and he hadn't been deported in a decade.
"Mr. Guzman is not violent,'' he wrote. 'He does not poison our streets with drugs, and he does not target vulnerable victims.''
Three days before the sentencing, the woman who once called him Guille is flipping through boxes of family photos.
"He wasn't with us for long, but I think he did love and respect me,'' she said. "And I grew to have a feeling for him. Every time I hear about something like this, my heart sinks.''
She finds a group of photos. One is of their first day, with Guille at the local Colombian radio station. There's one of him talking to reporters for Telemundo and two more of strangers who wanted to be seen with him.
She puts the photos down and shakes her head. She thinks of the college offers and the gifts showered upon him, of the times he laughed while riding a bike and of all the people who offered their support.
"He didn't have to go through all this,'' she sighed. "He could have had everything."
Miami Herald researchers Rachael Coleman and Monika Leal, as well as special correspondents Katherine Pannella and Henning Engelage contributed to this report.