WEST PALM BEACH — A celebrated local artist who lived for 24 years under a stolen identity pleaded guilty Wednesday to a passport fraud charge, leaving him to fight deportation to his native Venezuela.
Deyvi Pena, 50, spent most of his adult life as “Jose Luis Alvarez” with his colorful, modernist paintings exhibited in New York, Miami and San Francisco. He often could be found by the side of his longtime companion, the famed magician and professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi.
Pena’s lie unraveled when the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide from the Bronx, applied for a passport in 2010 and federal authorities figured out that one had already been issued under that name. Pena was arrested in September at the Plantation home he shares with Randi, admitting his true identity six weeks later so he and Randi could post a million-dollar bond to get him out of jail.
Pena, whose full name is Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga, could face up to 10 years in federal prison when he is sentenced May 17 by Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley. Pena’s attorney, Susan Dmitrovsky, said he could be sentenced to probation under the recommended federal sentencing guidelines.
She said that when Pena was an art student in New York City he took on a new identity so he didn’t have to go back to Venezuela and continue to face “horrific persecution” as a gay man. He resolved not to go back to Venezuela after someone had put a gun to his head in a bar, Dmitrovsky said outside of court.
Pena believed he was taking on the name, date of birth and Social Security number of a dead man, his attorney said.
“It was done strictly for survival,” Dmitrovsky said. “It was a deep secret that he’s glad is now out in the open.”
When Hurley asked Pena about his residency status, the artist responded, “Right now, I’m illegal basically.” The judge warned Pena that after his sentencing, it was a certainty that immigration authorities would launch deportation proceedings.
Dmitrovsky said Pena has immigration attorneys who will be fighting to get him asylum.
Pena stole the identity a year before he began traveling with Randi in the magician’s crusade to expose mystics, faith healers and psychics as frauds. Randi testified at an October court hearing to Pena’s true identity, acknowledging he had seen Pena’s Venezuelan passport years ago.
Randi, 83, is perhaps the best-known figure in the international skeptic community, once having been a regular on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” A winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his work, Randi has a standing offer to pay $1 million to anyone who can scientifically demonstrate they possess genuine supernatural powers.
Randi attended Wednesday’s court hearing, but Dmitrovsky said that neither he nor Pena are talking to reporters about the case until after Pena’s sentencing.
I’m aware this story is a little dusty, but I’ve only just read it in ForteanTimes and couldn’t find it on a search of this site.
I can’t say that, as a sceptic, I feel any affinity with Randi and the movements with which he’s associated. I see him as a necessary evil. I suspect if everyone in the world thought the way he does, we’d still all be huddled in caves saying things like, “Don’t be daft, Og. You couldn’t have done that. Fire can only be made in volcanoes and by lightening.”
On deciding to post this story here, I was going to point out the obvious fact that we should be suspicious of anyone claiming to be a defender of true knowledge, whatever its source, when they are involved in any way in a fraud. Not that I’m suggesting Randi is guilty of any wrong doing, but merely that it shows we can all be fooled, or make mistakes in our beliefs, or fool others to aid ourselves. However, in Googling the story to post it here, I found something which actually disturbed me a little.
Fact is, if you try to Google this story, you’ll mostly find it mentioned as news on fringe sites, uncritically dedicated to exactly the sort of stuff James Randi was an opponent of. Homeopathy sites, free energy sites, sites about cryptids, crystals, various alternative therapies and shades of spirituality all jumped at the chance to say, “Hay, ‘The Amazing’ Randi’s boyfriend’s an identity fraudster,” yet it seems hardly worthy of a paragraph anywhere else. Which, when you consider that the story doesn’t really have anything much to do with the subjects those sites generally discuss, but is of interest at least as celebrity gossip, I thought was as good an example of media bias as I’ve ever seen.