The James Randi Problem

The James Randi Problem December 22, 2011

This news is actually a few months old, but it recently came up in a conversation with a friend and it deserves some comment. James Randi’s longtime partner, known to everyone else as Jose Alvarez, has been arrested and charged with identity theft after decades of causing serious problems for the person whose identity he had allegedly assumed. The Sun-Sentinel reported this in September:

To federal authorities the 43-year-old Alvarez is a cipher, a man truly without any identity. They refer to him as “FNU LNU” — law enforcement acronyms for first and last names unknown.

Alvarez is now in federal custody, accused of stealing the identity of a New York man and misusing it for more than 20 years. Goateed and scholarly looking in hip eyeglasses, Alvarez — if that indeed is his name — had his first appearance Friday morning in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

“We don’t know who this person is,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bertha Mitrani told a magistrate, while explaining that authorities would seek to hold Alvarez without bail at a hearing next week…

Alvarez’s alleged alternate reality came apart Thursday morning, with the arrival at his door of an investigator from the U.S. State Department who specializes in fraudulent passports, visas and other travel documents. Alvarez initially said he was born in Venezuela, then said New York, according to court records. He was arrested on a charge of supplying false information to obtain a passport, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The charge filed against Alvarez alleges he stole a New York man’s date of birth and Social Security number, which he used to obtain a U.S. passport in 1987. He has since renewed the passport twice.

Outside court, one of Alvarez’s attorneys said his arrest had been “totally out of the blue.”

Alvarez has lived at Randi’s home for at least two decades, has traveled the world for seminars and has established himself as an internationally renowned artist, said Susan Dmitrovsky, a defense attorney for Alvarez. She said everyone has known him as Jose Luis Alvarez for years.

A few weeks later, the same paper reported that “Alvarez” was really Deyvi Pena, who had been reported as Randi’s companion before he assumed the fake name.

Before artist Jose Alvarez traveled the world with famed magician and professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi, he was Deyvi Pena, a young man from Venezuela with a student visa to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Mystery has shrouded Alvarez’s true identity since he was arrested under the name “John Doe” at Randi’s Plantation home on Sept. 8. The legal predicament swirling around Alvarez also raised questions in skeptic circles and beyond: How much is known by Randi, whose very reputation as a truth-seeker may now be jeopardized?

So far, neither Randi nor Alvarez and his attorneys have revealed the artist’s identity, but the Sun Sentinel has learned that Alvarez initially went by the name Pena. As Alvarez, his colorful, modernist paintings have been shown in galleries in New York, San Francisco and Palm Beach.

The Sun Sentinel tracked down three people who knew Pena in the mid-1980s. They each said a photograph of the painter who now calls himself Alvarez was the man they knew as Deyvi or David Pena, who first appeared at Randi’s side a year or so after the magician moved to Broward County.

He later revealed his real identity in court and was released on a sizable bail. Pena/Alvarez was also the one who helped Randi pull off the famous “Carlos” hoax more than 20 years ago. I don’t know where the case stands now, but Pena likely faces deportation and quite possibly a prison sentence. And many have accused Randi of knowing about the identity theft, which means he could find himself in legal trouble as well. He has not spoken about the accusations on advice from his lawyer.

When a friend first emailed me about this around the time that it happened, I only briefly glanced at it and thought that they had just lied about his identity to avoid deportation, which frankly didn’t strike me as a big deal. Faced with a similar situation, we would likely all do the same thing. But the accusation of identity theft is serious. The victim of the theft faced multiple legal and financial problems as a result of it and that is appalling. Pena faces significant punishment for it, as he should. And if Randi knew about it and aided in the deceit, whether directly or by covering it up, he must face the consequences as well (though it’s unlikely, given the situation, that he would face jail time for it).

James Randi has long been a hero of mine. He was the very last guest I had on my radio show before I ended it a year ago and was one of four guests I had on that I considered a really, really big deal (Barry Crimmins, Paul Krassner and Nat Hentoff were the others). Randi is one of the primary influences on me becoming a skeptic. If the allegations are true, that makes me sad and disappointed.

What it does not do, as many of his critics have claimed, is discredit skepticism in general or the work that he did in particular. His efforts to expose con men and defend reason and science are no less valid or important because he may have done something wrong here, and the work that the James Randi Educational Foundation continues to do remains as valuable as it ever was. That foundation will continue to have my support and my membership, and I think it should have yours too.

Sometimes we find out that our heroes are human beings, just like us. That’s often a good thing and it helps us. But this story is just sad for all involved.

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