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.
Federal authorities have accused Alvarez of stealing a New York man's name, date of birth and Social Security number to obtain a U.S. passport first issued to him in 1987 – just before he and Randi began a series of international performances.
...The lawyers have told Randi, 83, not to comment on the case. "I've been advised silence is the way to go," he said.
When asked about the Sun Sentinel's determination that Alvarez was previously known as Pena, Randi would only say, "Well, if that's who you think he is."
If 'Jose Alvarez' does turn out to be Deyvi/David Pena, then it would seem that Randi has some questions to answer, as the latter is the name (at the time) of the 'assistant' he hired in the mid-80s. This article from 1986 names his assistant as David Pena, so if Pena is Alvarez, it seems certain that Randi knew about the two names to some degree. At the very least, his last quote above is deliberately vague.
Though you wouldn't know anything was happening if you get your news about James Randi from the James Randi Educational Foundation...
Update: 'Jose Alvarez' has been released on a $1,000,000 bail surety after revealing to the court that his name is indeed Deyvi 'David' Pena (full name: "Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga"). One significant aspect of the hearing was that, in trying to satisfy the judge's concern that the man's true identity had been revealed, James Randi testified under oath that he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago. The two bonds set by Judge Seltzer were a $1 million personal surety bond guaranteed by Pena and Randi, and a cash bond of $50,000. After the hearing, Pena's lawyer said that "the government and the public will know how all this happened and snowballed... That's all going to be revealed. It's a very compelling story."
We can only speculate at this stage what this "compelling story" is, though two options may be (a) claims that Pena met Randi after escaping from a cult and/or (b) that laws against gay marriage 'caused' Pena to seek another method of staying with his partner Randi. Whether a federal judge finds the story compelling may be another matter...
Also, does Randi's statement provide confirmation that he knew of the identity fraud? It seems likely, though there could be situations in which this is not the case (e.g. he continued to think David Pena was traveling on that passport, and simply believed that "Jose Alvarez" was a stage name). Randi has a tendency to come out of sticky situations rather shiny, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out...