To the Los Angeles Police Department he is known simply as “Rico Suave”.
A smooth-talking charmer with dark hair, thick glasses and an immaculate wardrobe, Rico is a high-society swindler, able to talk himself into — and out of — just about any situation.
But the audacity of his latest heist has left even veteran detectives with their jaws on the floor: less than 48 hours before Sunday night’s Academy Awards, with the police out in force, bodyguards at every turn and the CIA said to be on high alert for a terrorist attack, Rico walked into the swankiest hotel in Beverly Hills, talked his way into the suite of a billionaire guest, and left with at least $45,000 (£30,000) worth of jewellery.
He has been pulling off such robberies since last summer, investigators believe, with his total haul now almost certainly beyond six figures.
The Four Seasons theft suggests that Rico is becoming ever more ambitious. Celebrities who were either in the five-star hotel over the weekend or had recently been there for Oscars events included the British actors Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones, as well as Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, Adrien Brody and the American Idol host Ryan Seacrest.
“He has all the making of that rare breed of sophisticated cat burglar,” Lieutenant Paul Vernon, of the LAPD, told the Los Angeles Times. He added that the culprit “sounds very similar, based on physical appearance and MO, to the same guy we have been trying to find since October”, but that until the hotel’s CCTV footage has been analysed, “we won’t be able to tell for sure”.
Key to Rico’s success, investigators say, is his fluency in Spanish and his ability to dress the part. To pull off the Four Seasons job, it is thought that he dressed in the dark suit of a hotel superviser and befriended his victim, the Cuban-born sugar baron José “Pepe” Fanjul, by making small talk with the billionaire and his wife in the lift.
Later that night, he showed up at the couple’s suite and told them that he needed to fix an air-conditioning vent. After he left they realised that their valuables had gone missing.
Having viewed CCTV footage from other robberies throughout Los Angeles since last August, detectives are convinced that Rico — tall and thin, and always in disguise — is the sole culprit.
In the first incident he pretended to be a member of a salsa band playing at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, near Hollywood. With slicked-back hair and musician’s outfit, he convinced the front desk staff at the Wilshire Grand hotel to give him the key to the band’s room. Minutes later he walked out with $9,000 in cash — after stopping at the front desk to hand out a copy of the band’s latest CD.
He had stolen that, too.
Weeks later Rico struck again at the nearby Marriott hotel, this time preying on the Mexican football team Chivas de Guadalajara. Wearing club regalia, he was filmed by security cameras hugging some of the players before asking the front desk for access to the team’s suite. As before, he was in and out in just a few minutes, this time netting a useful $10,000.
Detectives concede that the crimes they know about might only be the tip of the iceberg. It is now thought that Rico — who shares his debonair nickname with that of a Hannah Montana character and a Puerto Rican wrestler — has used his cunning to target several other Los Angeles hotels as well as the Staples Centre, home of the Lakers and Clippers basketball teams.
In the latter incident, which took place last October, a man in a designer suit with a clipboard in his hand and credentials attached to his pocket was seen wandering through the locker rooms of the Staples Centre while Israel’s Maccabi Electra basketball team were playing the LA Clippers.
The man was Rico — of that, detectives are sure. He came tantalisingly close to being caught, with security staff at one point throwing him out for having a bogus ticket. But he talked his way back in, and by the end of the night the Tel Aviv team had been relieved of $26,000 in cash and valuables.
Investigators suspect that the conman might be using Spanish-language news outlets to track his victims when they arrive in Los Angeles.
As for accomplices, the police say that there are probably none.
“The suspect appears to work alone,” Lieutenant Vernon said.
• Juan Carlos Guzmán-Betancourt, a Colombian conman, stole £150,000 in jewellery, cash and luxury items from top British hotels by pretending to be a guest who had lost his key. By the time he was caught last year, he was wanted in Britain, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Thailand and Japan
• Jody Harris, an Australian, told victims that she was a doctor, mobster’s niece or businesswoman, then stole their identities. During a year on the run, Harris taunted police in phone calls while spending stolen money on diamonds and a pedigree poodle. She was charged in 2008 with identity fraud and jailed for four years
• A teenager became known as the “Barefoot Bandit” after an 18-month burglary spree on the idyllic islands of Washington state, when he lived in unoccupied houses and evaded police, then began stealing aircraft. Colton Harris-Moore, 18, took at least three planes from rural airports in 2009 and crash-landed them. Fans began wearing T-shirts with his face printed on them. He is still at large
• The 2002 film Catch Me if You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is based on the real-life story of Frank Abagnale Jr, who made millions of dollars as a conman in the 1960s starting at the age of 16 by posing as a pilot, doctor or lawyer in 12 countries. After five years in jail, he earned millions through a legitimate business as a security consultant and advising the FBI
Source: Times archives