Alexi Santana was the self-educated running star from the Montana desert, where he trained on his own, riding a horse named “Good Enough” and herding cattle for a living. He wowed the admissions office at Princeton University with his incredible backstory: His father was an artist who died in a car crash, his mother a sculptor dying of leukemia in Switzerland, he wrote.
He made the Princeton dean’s list, the varsity track team, and was even tapped for the prestigious Ivy Club. If the name Alexi Santana sounds unfamiliar, maybe the track star’s real name does: James Arthur Hogue.
At the Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet in 1991, a Yale senior recognized him from Palo Alto — where he had been caught pretending to be a high school student at age 26. It turns out Santana was actually Hogue, a 31-year-old ex-convict who served 10 months in a Utah prison for stealing racing bicycles, according to a story in The Washington Post in 1995. Hogue was arrested and charged with forgery, wrongful impersonation and falsifying records.
He became an infamous con man, who TIME named one of the “Top 10 Imposters” and “whose unlikely rise and precipitous fall shows us the darker side of our idealized meritocracy,” a reporter wrote in The Post.
Decades later — after a slew of hoaxes, schemes and thefts — the great con man has done it once again, this time on a mountain in Aspen, Colo. After spending about a year living in an illegally built shack on Shadow Mountain — the westernmost peak on Aspen Mountain — Hogue, now 57, was caught with a cache of stolen goods, and on Monday, pleaded guilty to two felonies.
He was arrested after employees with a skiing company spotted his cabin, apparently built with materials and tools stolen from nearby construction sites, the Aspen Daily News reported.
Police were alerted to the cabin in September, but when officers hiked up and knocked on the door, Hogue fled out a window and disappeared into the woods. When officers went back the next morning, the shack had been completely cleaned out, dismantled by city parks department employees. So in response, Hogue had dug out a 6-foot hole nearby for a new foundation and started rebuilding it.
In November, at a local public library, Aspen police officer Dan Davis took Hogue into custody, he told the Aspen Times. Hogue saw the officer’s uniform “and it was like an ‘Oh crap’ moment for him,” Davis said.
Hogue got up out of his seat, turned away from Davis and began walking away along the back wall of the library, Davis said. Davis followed and asked Hogue to stop and talk to him, which he did. The officer asked if he was Hogue, and Hogue said he wasn’t, according to Davis.
“He said his name was David Bee … from Ontario (Canada),” Davis said. “But I knew it was him.”
“I said, ‘We’ll figure it out at the jail. If it’s not you, we’ll apologize and let you go on your way,’” Davis said. Hogue later admitted his identity at the jail.
In Hogue’s Nissan Xterra SUV, police found nearly $17,000 in cash as well as stolen ski jackets, ski pants and ledgers detailing an online eBay business, the Aspen Times reported.
James Hogue, 57, faces between one and three years in prison after pleading guilty to felony theft between $2,000 and $5,000, felony possession of burglary tools and misdemeanor obstructing police officers, the Aspen Times reported.
In court Monday, Hogue told the judge, “I had a wire cutter in my toolbox and it could be used for burglary.” As part of a plea deal that saw several other felony charges dismissed, the district attorney’s office did not object to concurrent, as opposed to consecutive, sentences for the felonies. His attorney also asked that he be considered for probation or a halfway house setting, which the judge allowed.
His admission comes as anything but a surprise to Aspen police — he’s been on their radar since as early as 1997, when he was arrested for stealing a bike and pushing a police officer, and the shortly after was arrested for trying to steal hair regrowth treatment and food from a local market.
That was nothing compared to the schemes that followed. In 2006, U.S. marshals arrested Hogue in a Barnes and Noble in Arizona for stealing about 7,000 items worth some $100,000 from Colorado homes over several years, hiding some in a secret compartment in his small residence. He was sentenced in 2007 to five years in federal prison.
But through all his crimes and cons, Hogue’s greatest fame — captured in a New Yorker profile and a documentary — still rose from the Princeton hoax, for which he spent nine months behind bars and had to pay back nearly $22,000 in financial aid.
Much like we admire Jay Gatsby’s “fevered strivings to reach the green light at the end of the dock, to invent a new name and a new past for himself and to win the love of Daisy Buchanan,” David Samuels wrote in The Post in the 1995 article, “it is also hard not to admire James Hogue,” however deceptive his acts.
“It is hard not to admire the man who so thoroughly fooled the Princeton admissions committee, and who remained true, after all, to his own particular vision of himself, which he realized at Princeton with style, ambition and at least a measure of success.”
And it was not to be his last appearance in the Ivy League realm. In 1992, he turned up as a guard in one of Harvard’s museums, and was arrested after just a few months on the job, charged with grand larceny for stealing gemstones worth $50,000. Violating his probation, Hogue returned to Princeton, posing as a graduate student though, of course, he was never enrolled in classes.