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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  • davidct

    It does not sound like the Randi I know. I would want some good evidence to decide what to think.

  • This is surprising and sad news. It’s hard to imagine, if Randi knew the young artist by a former name, that he has no inkling how the man established a new name. I hope that we soon have the facts to clear this up.

  • That’s kinda messed up, but I think its just as likely Randi didn’t know as he did, I probably wouldnt know until they got caught either if the people closest to me were identity thieves or witness protection plants, or alien infiltrators.

    Even skeptics have blind spots, and unless there was a reason for Randi to look into and doubt the guys identity it may just never have come up.

    Then again, Id imagine it would be hard to maintain that kind of thing for so long with someone so close to you. (I guess it may even be that Randi knew some of it, but like your original thought didn’t think it was anything more than trying to avoid deportation and didn’t know the full extent or didn’t wish to know) So it could go either way Id think.

  • The “this doesn’t sound like the person I know” position doesn’t seem terribly compelling to me in almost any situation. The same thing would undoubtedly by said by those who know and care about people who have done far worse things than this. Everyone has many sides to their identity, some of which we show to one person and some of which we show to others. Almost no one has a full picture of us at any time (even ourselves, in fact). Do you think anyone who knew Jerry Sandusky, especially those who worked with him in his charitable foundation, would ever have guessed that he (allegedly) raped children? No, the Jerry Sandusky that they knew was kind and caring and selfless and they are utterly shocked to find out what happened. Even the people who appear to be the most ethical among us are capable of doing truly vile things — you and me included.

  • It’s hard to imagine that Randi wouldn’t know about the fake name if he new his name was Pena when they met. I could possibly believe that Randi might not have known about the problems it caused for the real Alvarez. There are probably thousands of Jose Alvarezes in this country and I could see Pena dismissing anything by saying they had the wrong Jose Alvarez.

    Still. Really troubling. Especially since Randi isn’t exactly poor and it sounds like Pena was doing pretty well as an artist. Using a fake name to avoid deportation is understandable, but then why all the legal trouble? What the hell was he doing?

  • Nemo

    I kinda soured on Randi when he made those ridiculously ignorant comments about global warming.

  • Stacey C.

    The thing that comes to mind that *might* have happened, and would keep Randi’s name clear, would be the idea that many artists adopt names and personalities they feel better fit their art. He may have sold it as just that and not something more nefarious. Having zero knowledge of what happened I can’t make any real judgements. If Randi knew then I would expect him to face consequences appropriate to his level of involvement. If he didn’t know then I feel sorry for how much turmoil this must be causing him.

  • erk12

    Pretty much what Stacey said. Randi is not Randi’s original name (I think he had it legally changed though), and it’s not odd for an artist or performer to change their name or go by a pseudonym. I find it hard to believe that Randi knew Pena committed identity theft simply because Randi would have so much to lose by being involved with it. But maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly because of his personal involvement with Pena and did something stupid.

  • Sometimes we do stupid things and are blind when it comes to people we care about. I’ll give Randi the benefit of the doubt because of that. Artists and entertainers routinely change their names and I can understand rationalizing it as that without him knowing (or wanting to know) about the identity theft.

  • abb3w

    Hm. I suspect relevance to motive in that while marriage can get one a green card, that option is not open to homosexuals. Absent lawful ways to obtain the ability to remain in the US, unlawful means were used.

    It’s possible Randi didn’t know how Alvarez was staying in the US; it’s also possible he did, and his affections overruled his respect for the rule of law.

  • Pieter B

    Mr Randi has been a hero and role model of mine for nearly fifty years, and a friend for a decade or so. I was saddened by this news, and I sincerely hope that Randi was unaware of Peña’s identity shenanigans; I’ve always thought he was a thoroughly honorable and ethical man. We’ll see how it shakes out; like you, Ed, if he was complicit, I will be deeply disappointed, but it will not diminish my commitment to skepticism.

  • evodevo

    Love is blind.

    I appreciate Randi’s long history of exposing scams/scammers, especially the Popoff debacle, but I also understand that you can do incredibly stupid things when you are emotionally involved with someone.

  • A bit more information. I went on PACER and looked up the court filings and also talked to a couple people much closer to the situation than I am. The most recent order from the judge says that the case is likely to end with a plea, and my sources told me that Pena is going to plead guilty. On Oct. 21, he was bonded out and Randi co-signed and put up collateral for the bond. Pena is now under house arrest and electronic monitoring pending the final resolution of the case. I don’t imagine that Randi is going to be charged with anything in this case. The open legal question is whether Pena will be deported or not. There is at least one precedent for allowing someone to stay after a similar situation.

    There is no question that Randi knew Pena by his real name before he became Alvarez; he thanks Pena by name in the acknowledgments for his book The Faith Healers.

  • Nemo–

    those ridiculously ignorant comments about global warming.

    Citation, please?

  • tfkreference

    I heard Randi on the SGU make some comments about global warming–circa late ’07. A few episodes later he said that he had done more research and changed his mind (IIRC).

  • Michael Heath

    Here’s an example of Randi and climate change, from his own site:

    This is a pretty pathetic essay in a whole host of areas. Particularly his argument from ignorance regarding his skepticism that the climate science community could ever model the climate and therefore make predictions with confidence and precision. Is own words for what I just described are borderline idiotic and based on an incredibly arrogant form of ignorance:

    The myriad of influences that act upon Earth are so many and so variable — though not capricious — that I believe we simply cannot formulate an equation into which we enter variables and come up with an answer. A living planet will continually belch, vibrate, fracture, and crumble a bit, and thus defeat an accurate equation. Please note that this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data.

    BTW, I had no idea what Mr. Randi’s views were on AGW until the subject came up in this thread. This link happened to be the top hit in a Google search.

  • frankenzap

    A couple of things, first, regarding Randi’s full name, check here:

    you will find a citation listing his full name as Randall James Hamilton Zwinge.

    Next, regarding global warming, do the research into archaeological history of the planet. It cools off, it heats up – all in a very long cycle, as it has done for millions of years. Human contribution, in the grand scheme of things is comparable to pissing in the ocean and trying to measure the change in sea level. The climate will warm and cool whether we are here or not. Another “greenhouse gas” is methane. Should laws be passed to limit bean consumption to prevent global warming?

  • frankenzap,

    We understand the warming and cooling of the earth do to climatic cycle. The change currently occurring now is not a result of natural cycles. The change in the level of CO2 is directly related to human activity. Do your research. The isotop ratio change of carbon in the atmosphere is what you would expect from burning large amounts of fossil fuels, and not what you would expect from volcanic activity. Also the change in the partial pressure of oxygen has be changing with the CO2. Suggesting that CO2 is being formed by combustion and not by the chemical break down of rocks associated with volcanic activity. If you want to compare human activity to pissing in the ocean, then to accurately describe what’s happening you would need a bladder that is capable of holding 7.6 * 10^15 metric tonnes of piss.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … you would need a bladder that is capable of holding 7.6 * 10^15 metric tonnes of piss.

    I’m confused. Is this still the thread on manliness?

  • Michael Heath

    frankenzap writes:

    . . . do the research . . .

    Which you obviously have not done. Your post is so idiotic it deserves only ridicule. I’ll be gracious and give you a short post.

    You imply the climate science community are such utter morons they:

    1) don’t account for the obvious which can be understood using physics learned in high school and undergrad courses,

    2) can’t measure and parse out the fact the earth’s energy budget has increased while also finding, measuring, and weighting the impact of the sources of that increase,

    4) where this increased energy is sunk,

    5) and this increased load of energy’s current and future effects – all based on evidence when such marginal increases in heat occurred in the past.

    Sheesh, arguments from ignorance are never attractive. And for the record, climate scientists have a good understanding on why the current climate is changing based on evidence, not speculations from ignorance as you demonstrate here.

    I suggest first doing research on the theory of climate change as its almost monolithically understood by practicing, publishing climate scientists. And then make arguments based on peer-viewed evidence which you think counters their understanding. You won’t embarrass yourself as much as you do with your post here.

  • laurentweppe

    Human contribution, in the grand scheme of things is comparable to pissing in the ocean and trying to measure the change in sea level


    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected sea level rise of 18 and 59 cm (7.1 and 23 in) during the 21st century, estimating that the rate would further increase

    It turns out, we’re pissing a lot: and that’s the conservative estimation: if the IPCC is underestimating the situation and temperatures rise even more (a not-so-unlikely possibility), well, I hope you’ll like America’s facelift, or the World’s for that matter


    Another “greenhouse gas” is methane. Should laws be passed to limit bean consumption to prevent global warming?

    Now that you mention it: a lot of methane is traped inside permafrost which, thanks to global warming, is melting. On the plus side, Siberia just became a lot cooler.

  • Skepticism in general is a healthy thing because it prevents us from being taken for long rides down dark roads or… just stepping in so many cow pies. But as a singular approach to scientific understanding? It fails because discovery depends on consideration of the unknown and unproven. Not a headlong, face-planting belief, mind you… but without an open mind, nothing can get in, or back out again. The road is closed.

    As a devout cynic, I find extremism in any form as being a waste of the human potential. Dedicated skepticism is a form of extremism that stands opposite of the other extreme, dedicated acceptance. On the upside, these two far polarities generally cancel each other out, leaving the center of the road open for traffic…

    Hope yours was a happy holiday season 🙂

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  • Steve Sirhan

    Cmon folks. Hellz, yes, it’s true. I’m sure Randi knew a lot, and early on.

    But Professional Skeptics (TM) like Gnu Atheists have ggroupmeisters and groupies.

    http://dailygrail DOT com/blogs/Steve-Volk/2012/3/TOP-10-DEVELOPMENTS-FRINGE-OLOGY-5

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