By Peter Franceschina, Sun Sentinel
The judge had wanted to give celebrated South Florida artist Jose Luis Alvarez two years in prison for stealing a New York man’s identity more than two decades ago to obtain a fraudulent passport, calling it a serious crime that deserved punishment.
But by the end of a dramatic and lengthy Tuesday court hearing, U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley was convinced that a life of good works unblemished by other run-ins with the law merited a break for Alvarez, longtime companion of world-renowned magician and skeptic James “Amazing” Randi.
Hurley repeatedly said he was concerned about the message it would send to be lenient on Alvarez, whose real name is Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga. The judge told Pena he came to court ready to sentence him to two years in prison. But after hearing passionate pleas for mercy and testimonials to Pena’s generous, loving nature, Hurley said, “I am prepared to change that sentence.”
Instead of prison, he confined Pena to six months of house arrest at the Plantation home he shares with Randi, to be followed by three years of probation.
The resolution of the criminal case now opens the door for deportation proceedings – Pena, 50, could be sent back to his native Venezuela, but his attorney Susan Dmitrovsky said he hopes to obtain political asylum and remain in the United States.
Pena told the judge he was desperate to escape Venezuela because as a young gay man he faced brutal persecution from authorities there in the early 1980s. He said he was deeply sorry for his crimes, and the harm they caused to the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide from the Bronx who was denied a passport to attend his sister’s wedding and investigated for identity theft.
The artist, whose colorful, modernist paintings have been exhibited in New York, Miami, San Francisco and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, said he was told the identity he obtained was that of a man who had died.
“I want to express my deepest regrets,” Pena said. “It was never my intention to cause trouble for anyone.”
Randi, 83, a native of Canada, told the story of how he proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen and cherishes this nation’s freedoms. He said that opportunity was foreclosed to Pena by U.S. immigration policies at the time.
“He was tempest tossed. He was cruelly treated,” Randi told the judge. “This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt.”
Prosecutor Bertha Mitrani said it was not a victimless crime, but did not oppose the sentence of house arrest because Pena – who was arrested in September and spent two months in jail – did not steal the identity to commit further financial frauds.
Pena adopted his stolen persona a year before he began traveling the world with Randi in the magician’s crusade to expose mystics, faith healers and psychics as frauds.
Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, a relieved Pena hugged his friends one by one.