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James Randi’s domestic partner, David Pena (formerly ‘Jose Alvarez’), today pleaded guilty to passport fraud in a Florida courtroom. In doing so, Pena’s attorney Susan Dmitrovsky outlined her client’s “compelling reason” for committing the crime:

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.

…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 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.

Beyond the risk of deportation, Pena could also be facing up to 10 years in federal prison at his sentencing on May 17.