Colombian con artist pleads guilty in Vt. border crossing case, faces 10 years in prison

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Handsome, suave and clever, Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt made a career out of cons, authorities said.

He showed up in Miami in 1993, pretending to be a 13-year-old orphan who'd survived a flight from Colombia in the wheel well of a plane.

As an adult, he's been accused of impersonating wealthy hotel guests, pretending to have lost his keys. When a staff member let him in, he'd make off with jewelry and cash, authorities said.

Once, while jailed in London, he persuaded authorities to let him go to a dental appointment without a guard. Then he disappeared. At various points, he's been wanted in Canada, Colombia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Thailand and Venezuela.

He's been convicted of larceny in Virginia and New York and of fraudulent use of credit cards in Florida.

His changing personas — he's had 10 aliases — and slippery nature once prompted British prosecutors to compare him to Frank Abagnale Jr., a famous real-life con artist played by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the film "Catch Me If You Can."

Now, the 33-year-old Colombian may be headed back to prison, and for the most mundane of crimes.

Guzman-Betancourt, who's been deported from the United States three times, pleaded guilty Wednesday to entering the U.S. illegally. He faces up to 10 years in prison for it.

Wanted in Las Vegas for burglary, larceny and forgery, he turned up last September in Derby Line, Vt., at the U.S.-Canada border.

Confronted by a U.S. Border Patrol agent responding to a tip, Guzman-Betancourt said that his car had broken down in neighboring Quebec and that he'd unknowingly walked across the border into Vermont, according to an affidavit.

He was carrying a Spanish passport that identified him as Jordi Ejarque-Rodriguez, but after his detainment he was identified by biometric fingerprint analysis as Guzman-Betancourt.

His plea Wednesday was part of a deal with federal prosecutors, who dropped a count of impersonating an American citizen.

The plea came in a court proceeding where Guzman-Betancourt's reputation was on everyone's minds but no one's lips.

Held via video conference, the hearing was set up with U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha presiding from his courtroom in Brattleboro. Public Defender Michael Desautels, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Doherty and two Border Patrol agents participated at the Burlington courthouse a 2½ hour drive away.

No one in the room was sure where Guzman-Betancourt was.

When Doherty asked the court clerk in Brattleboro where he was, she said she understood he was going to appear in Burlington. Doherty thought he was to be in Brattleboro. Desautels thought Burlington.

For nearly 10 minutes, the principals nervously waited and wondered where the defendant was. Finally, a U.S. marshal got off the elevator with him and escorted the prisoner into the Burlington conference room.

Handcuffed and shackled at the feet, speaking softly and wearing eyeglasses, Guzman-Betancourt answered questions from Murtha haltingly, mostly in one or two words.

When he was asked his age, he said 25, then 31. According to court papers, he is 33.

He declined to comment afterward, as did his lawyer.

The prosecutor also had no comment about Guzman-Betancourt's past or the case. It was unclear whether he would be returned to Las Vegas, where he's accused of impersonating a hotel guest and stealing jewelry and cash in a 2003 incident.

"We are just dealing with the case we have in front of us, but we will be cooperating with law enforcement authorities," Doherty said.