On the morning of March 30, 1988, a police detective named Matt Jacobson arrived at the Secure Storage facility in St. George, Utah, with a warrant to search for high-end racing bicycles and tools that had been stolen from a bicycle-maker in California several months before. Raising the corrugated steel door of Locker No. 100, the detective flicked a switch to illuminate a sixty-square-foot space with aluminum walls, no windows, and a bare concrete floor. Inside, he saw bicycle frames, a row of athletic trophies, papers, letters, a sleeping bag, and other personal effects. The detective guessed that the thief had been living in the shed, perhaps for months.
Standing next to Jacobson in the locker, the bicycle-maker, Dave Tesch, stepped forward to identify his stolen goods. A short, stocky olive-skinned man, he was expert at his craft. The Tesch Bicycle Company, in San Marcos, California, produced approximately five hundred bicycles a year for a growing community of avid cyclists who preferred American-made bikes to those produced by better-known European racing houses like Bottechia and Colnago.
The competitors that worried Tesch most were local. In towns such as San Marcos, the manufacture of high-end racing cycles had grown into a thriving cottage industry, boosted by the surprise gold-medal victory of the American cyclist Alexi Grewal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In La Verne, California, a company called Santana made tandem bikes, and had captured more than half of that specialized market. Yet, even in the best of times, manufacturing high-end bicycles was a difficult business. When Tesch opened the door of his shop one morning in October, 1987, to find that someone had kicked over a rooftop turbine vent, jumped down the hole, and made off with more than twenty thousand dollars’ worth of frames, parts, and tools, his anger at the theft was compounded by the knowledge that he could ill afford the loss. A similar break-in had been reported at another bicycle firm in the area, Masi, and Tesch leaped with characteristic but misplaced certainty to the conclusion that a rival had burglarized his shop.
In fact, the thief was someone he knew quite well. For the previous few summers, Tesch had worked as an instructor at Jim Davis’s Vail Cross-Training Camp, which offered people the chance to enjoy a week in Vail, Colorado, training with athletes like the distance runner Frank Shorter, and the champion triathlete Scott (the Terminator) Molina. The instructors also included a young man named James Hogue, a miler who, according to the camp’s promotional literature, had earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering from Stanford University, where he was a professor. With his diffident manner and his youthful face, though, he looked less like a professor than like an undergraduate. His training methods were unorthodox. He drank a mixture of mustard and Perrier during races; he lit a cigarette after crossing the finish line, as the other runners looked on in horror. In the summer of ’87, Hogue started showing up in San Marcos, sleeping in his truck, helping Tesch out around the shop, and otherwise leading a life that might have seemed atypical for a Stanford professor.
The theft remained unsolved until the following March, when a bicycle enthusiast from Utah named Bruce Stucky stopped by to visit Dave Tesch at his shop. One of his friends had recently been at a party in St. George, Utah, where an acquaintance named Jim Hogue had whipped out a Mitutoyo metric dial caliper engraved with Tesch’s name.
What disturbed Matt Jacobson most about the thief’s locker was the collection of athletic trophies he found. “They were obviously meant for an eighteen-year-old,” the detective recalled. Jacobson, who later specialized in crimes against children, looked at the dates and concluded that Hogue had been entering races under a false name, thus depriving younger runners of the places they had rightfully won. Within minutes of Jacobson’s and Tesch’s arrival, Hogue appeared. Jacobson placed him in handcuffs and read him his rights. “I remember telling him how appalled I was that someone would do this,” the detective said. “And it didn’t seem to shake him or faze him at all.”
The only hints of Hogue’s state of mind survive in the form of two photographs taken at the time of his arrest. A growth of beard obscures his features. Sleeplessness, fear, and nervous exhaustion have settled in the hollows beneath his eyes.
As it turned out, Hogue’s theft from the Tesch Bicycle Company was only the beginning of a far more intricate deception, the clues to which were neatly laid out in the locker in St. George. The correspondence there showed that James Hogue had been occupied with a larger, more imaginative goal than disposing of the stolen bikes. He had been dreaming of a better life, to be led by a person who was no longer James Hogue. The product of careful research and planning, this new identity would be backed up by newspaper clippings and trophies that bore the name Alexi Santana—a self-educated Nevada cowboy who could run a mile in just over four minutes and, according to the correspondence found in the shed, had applied for admission to some of America’s finest universities, including Stanford, Princeton, and Brown.
“It was a weird, unbelievable story,” Tesch recalled. “Like ‘I was born a poor black child,’ the old Steve Martin routine.” The name Alexi Santana also rang a bell: a combination of the first name of Alexi Grewal, the cycling gold medallist, and the surname Santana, the tandem-bike manufacturer.
With Hogue in custody, Detective Jacobson called Stanford to inform the university that Alexi Santana was actually a twenty-eight-year-old drifter named James Hogue, who was on his way to jail in Utah. Hogue pleaded guilty to the theft and was given a sentence of one to five years in prison. A story appeared in the April 17, 1988, San Jose Mercury News, which noted that police had also “found evidence that Hogue, using the name ‘Alexi Santana,’ was corresponding with Ivy League universities about athletic scholarships.” Years later, Detective Jacobson simply did not remember whether he had called all the universities on Hogue’s list or not.
Alexi Santana’s application to Princeton was one of nearly fourteen thousand for twelve hundred places in the Class of 1992. Once, when Fred Hargadon, the head of the Princeton admissions office, was asked to describe the perfect candidate for admission, he answered with the name of a fictional character, Huck Finn. Most students selected for admission probably have less in common with the illiterate son of a violent alcoholic than with his diplomatic young friend Tom Sawyer. Still, Hargadon’s answer does neatly summarize the virtues that Princeton looks for in at least some of its applicants—originality, self-reliance, and the kind of “diverse life experiences” that might keep the school’s Tom Sawyers entertained. Santana’s score of 1410 on the S.A.T.s was well above the average of students admitted to Princeton, and his Hispanic-sounding surname likely recommended him for special consideration as a minority applicant. But his personal essay, the story of a self-educated ranch hand who read Plato under the stars, was what lifted his application to the top of the pile. Santana, the admissions office reported, had “trained on his own in the Mojave desert, where he herds cattle for a living (mostly in a canyon called ‘Little Purgatory’). On a visit to campus in March, he slept indoors for the first time in ten years.”
As his application was being read, Hogue was living in the storage locker in St. George, and spending long afternoons in the public library, researching the published statistics that tell who is admitted to universities like Princeton and why. The great majority of every Princeton class, Hogue discovered, was made up of the children of parents whom most Americans would describe as “rich.” About a fifth of every Princeton class consisted of students whose fathers or mothers went to Princeton; these “legacies” had S.A.T. scores that were often well below the average for their class. Applicants from sparsely populated states like Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming, he found, received preference over students from competitive high schools in cities like New York. This system dated to the end of the First World War, a time when officials at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were working hard to find an answer to what they called the “Jewish question.” They arrived at a formula for “geographical distribution” (now styled “geographical diversity”) that would increase the number of “white” students on their campuses while radically decreasing the numbers of Jews. The rules of the game were not exactly those described in the admissions brochures. Still, it was a game that Hogue thought he might win.
The tales that Hogue told Princeton explained his lack of a high-school transcript and teacher recommendations; they also flattered Princeton’s self-image as a cradle of meritocracy. By accepting applicants like Santana, the university reminded skeptics that a Princeton degree was a reflection of personal achievement, not just a means by which wealthy, successful Americans might pass on their advantages to their children.
Even a cursory look at the numbers, Hogue believed, revealed that Princeton’s sense of itself as a home for the finest young scholars, regardless of family background, was no less a fiction than his story of the ranch hand who read Plato under the stars. The America of the late eighties was a nation in which élite credentials were more closely tied to social and economic status than ever before. A Princeton degree was a first-class ticket to the world of investment banks, venture-capital firms, management consultancies, and high-tech companies, and to graduate programs in business, medicine, and law. These lessons were hardly lost on the lonely drifter, whose ability as a runner was matched by his talent for telling stories that might take him where he wanted to go.
III—THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER
The story of the young Huck Finn from Nevada with high S.A.T. scores and a Hispanic surname had a particular appeal for Princeton’s track coach, Larry Ellis. Ellis was already impressed by the press clippings he had read, which showed the eighteen-year-old ranch hand beating his track competition with times as fast as or faster than those run by Princeton’s older, more experienced athletes. In fact, when Ellis first heard the story of the young man who had taught himself to run in the desert he was so impressed that he shared it with his wife. “Larry was so surprised about an athlete who was able to roam throughout the country, practically educating himself,” his widow, Shirley Ellis, recalled. Ellis died in 1998. “The boy’s mother supposedly was in Europe; she was an artist. His father had died. He lived on an Indian reservation and was a very active person.”
Ellis, the first black man to assume a head-coaching job at an Ivy League university, did not mind that Santana’s background might strike many people at Princeton as unusual. He urged Santana to visit Princeton, and sent him a round-trip ticket. When the assistant track coach, Fred Samara, heard that the runner was coming to visit, he took a member of the team, Jon Luff: aside. “Santana’s coming out here,” Luff remembers him saying, “and I want you to run as hard as you possibly can, every day, the entire time he’s here. And I want you to come back Monday and report to me, and tell me exactly what you think.” (Samara denies asking Luff to do this.)
Luff, a handsome, dark-haired, and poised young man, was from Colorado; the coaches reasoned that, as a fellow-Westerner, he would be able to relate to Santana and show him around. “He always wore a hat, probably to hide the fact that he was going bald,” Luff recalled of his first meeting with Santana, late that winter. “And he was just kind of shy, and kept his eyes on the ground. He was short and only weighed a hundred and twenty pounds, and so believing that he was eighteen or nineteen years old was not that hard. He had a real slight build and a real soft handshake. He seemed just like a young guy who was coming out to look at colleges.”
Dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, a windbreaker, and cowboy boots or running shoes, depending on the time of day, the young prospect made a good impression. He could run. “He could have run thirty minutes for ten thousand metres,” Luff said. “He probably could have run fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds for five thousand, if he wanted to.” Luff, one of the better runners on the Princeton team, tried to beat Santana. “I couldn’t crop him, couldn’t really even tire him out,” he recalled. “And so, of course, I came back and said, ‘The guy’s for real.’ ”
Distance running offers almost no material rewards and demands a dedication so intense that competitive runners can find it difficult to hold down regular jobs. It is not unusual for distance runners to cry, scream, or vomit during a race. The habit of pushing through physical barriers can lead to swollen knees and snapped tendons, and to chronic injuries that make it hard to walk, let alone run. What the activity offers in exchange is the euphoric pleasure of the runner’s high. “One of the things I used to like to do was run in the dark,” Jon Luff recalls. “And you can go out and run really hard in the dark and you actually don’t feel like you have a body. You feel like you’re just this head moving around. You’re just kind of out there, floating. It’s like this distilled transcendence.”
The world of long-distance runners is filled with people who dedicate their lives to the experience that Luff describes, spending two months here and three months there, moving from one runner’s town to the next, without steady work or sustaining relationships. The runner’s mind, operating in a void for many hours every day, becomes more and more practiced in reducing things to their essence, and in enduring great extremes of pain.
Santana was different from the person Luff had expected to meet. He was gentle and inquisitive. As he discovered things about Luff, he offered stories that expanded the territory they had in common. Luff looked forward to seeing his new friend in September.
Several weeks later, Alexi Santana received, via a post-office box in St. George, a letter informing him that he had been admitted to Princeton. The timing was inconvenient. In the spring of 1988, when 1,134 other members of the Princeton Class of 1992 were looking forward to their last summer before college, James Hogue was being sentenced in Utah; he would serve twelve months of his one-to-five-year term. No one in the admissions office ever saw the article in the San Jose Mercury News mentioning that a thief had been applying to Ivy League colleges under the pseudonym of Alexi Santana. Instead, Larry Ellis learned that the track team’s star recruit would be caring for his mother, the sculptor Susan Indris-Santana, who was dying of cancer in Switzerland. He would be forced to defer his admission to Princeton for at least one year.
Hogue arrived at Princeton in August of 1989, six weeks before classes began, to work out on the track and to attend an early orientation program. There he was interviewed by Harvey Yavener, a reporter for the Trenton Times. Coach Ellis had told Yavener about the barefoot runner from a ranch in Nevada, and he thought that it would make an excellent feature for his paper. The interview took place early in August, a month when reporters on the college-sports beat are always grateful for a good story
Dressed in running sneakers, jeans, and a white oxford shirt, the young Princeton freshman seemed confident but shy. His eyes were hidden by a pair of dark sunglasses. He had the weather-beaten features of a person who had led a hard life, who had slept out-of-doors and worked as a cowboy. He had lived in Switzerland, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Morocco, and several Western states, he said. He had been educated at home.
“It’s not that unusual,” he told Yavener, before providing the most complete recorded version of the facts of Alexi Santana’s life. “At least, not when I was young in California. I went to nursery school and kindergarten, and then my parents decided they’d teach me at home. You have to set up a private school. I learned to read early and always had a lot of books. Some days, I’d read from morning to night. I learned some French and Italian. I never have had a TV, but I listened to a lot of music. I’d go to librarians, and they’d help me find the books I needed.”
Yavener had been covering college sports in southern New Jersey for nearly forty years. He had never heard a story like this one before. The Princeton freshman had started running only two years earlier, while working as a wrangler on a thousand-square-mile ranch in Arizona. There he spent “weeks with just his books, his horse, the cows, and a radio for company.”
“I just started to run around the canyons in a pair of old tennis shoes, nothing fanatical,” Santana explained. “I think I might have the talent to become a winning runner in college. But those stories about my coming in with impressive times, they’re just hearsay.”
Santana’s father was dead and his mother was ill, he said. He had no fixed address. But, as he told the reporter that afternoon in August, he had finally found a home. “If anyone asks,” he said, “I’ll tell them I’m from Princeton.”
When Yavener’s story appeared in the Trenton Times, the next morning, the transformation appeared to be complete. James Hogue, petty thief, was now Alexi Santana, a self-educated ranch hand, a gifted runner, and easily the most interesting member of the Princeton Class of 1993.
Like most incoming freshmen, Ben Richardson arrived on campus that September with new clothes, a computer, and a selection of his favorite books and records. He also brought the packet of material that Princeton had sent with his acceptance letter, including a little card that gave the names and addresses of his roommates. Over the summer, Richardson had talked with Avshalom Yotam, of Palo Alto, California, and Austin Nahm, of Chappaqua, New York. His third roommate, Alexi Santana, did not have a phone number or address listed on the card.
Richardson’s new room was in a suite on the ground floor of Holder Hall, a Gothic stone pile constructed around a pleasant grassy courtyard. Arriving on campus a week before most of his classmates, Richardson saw a light in one of the windows of his suite. The next morning, he met Alexi Santana, who was just returning from a run. Santana told him that he ran ten miles a day. His father had been killed in a car crash, and his mother had recently died of leukemia.
In the course of the year, it was hard not to look for clues that might further illuminate his roommate’s story. Santana’s room was neat and filled with books and CDs, and the Mexican wool blanket on his bed was always tucked in flat. There were no pictures of his friends or his family. “I remember asking, ‘Alexi, your bed’s always made up very neatly. Do you get up and make it every day or what?’ ” Richardson recalled.
“No,” Santana told him. “I sleep on the floor.”
Hanging on the wall beside his bed was a picture of a skier kicking out his legs and raising a curtain of powdered white snow. Richardson was curious about the picture, too. “How did you get someone to take a photo like that?” Richardson asked.
“Oh, I was doing some stuff, doing some stunts,” Santana said.
“What were you doing stunts for?”
Santana’s habit of avoiding eye contact when he spoke tended to discourage further conversation. Still, the stories Richardson heard would always come around again, embroidered with further details either from Santana or from the active imaginations of other freshmen, who were soon engaged in a class-wide game of telephone. Santana had skied in the Olympics; he had dropped from a helicopter and turned double back flips in a Peter Markle ski movie called “Hot Dog.”
Richardson did know that his quiet roommate was an exceptionally gifted student, who had cracked the curve on a chemistry exam that was notorious for giving students fits.
“Those tests are written for babies,” Santana told him. “Princeton babies their students. It’s incredibly easy.”
Richardson found Santana’s attitude a bit arrogant, an impression that was reinforced by the reason he gave for being at Princeton. “I’m here to find a wife,” Santana said.
Was he? It was hard for his roommates to say. Santana did not invite them to parties he hosted in his room, where he served wine and cheese to a select group of freshmen women, and told stories about his adventures. With his mature demeanor and sophisticated tastes, he soon earned the nickname Sexy Alexi.
“He was in very good physical shape,” Avshalom Yotam recalled. “But he always walked hunched over, with his long hair sort of hiding his face. So you never really saw his face, even when he was right there in front of you. I don’t think Alexi made direct eye contact with me or Ben very often. And he was always walking fast, like it was a race.” In fact, communication between the two roommates was so slight that Yotam later remembered only a single conversation. “I remember pretty distinctly lying on the couch in the common room, and at some point either he asked me or it somehow came up, and I told him that I was from Palo Alto,” Yotam recounted.
“You know, Palo Alto is a really nice place,” Santana remarked.
“Oh, have you been there?”
“Yes, I’ve been there,” he answered. “It’s a really nice place.”
Yotam tried to get his roommate to expand on his impressions. Santana didn’t want to talk. He was a private person, he said. Most Princeton freshmen share a tiny bedroom with a roommate, and privacy is often elusive. But Santana was able to realize his desire for privacy, thanks to a freak accident involving the fourth roommate, Austin Nahm. After Nahm arrived at Princeton, he left campus on a freshman orientation trip, was hit by a speeding truck, and died. When Santana heard the news, he cried, though he showed no inclination to speak to the reporters and counsellors who soon arrived at their room, or to otherwise share his emotions. But, as he went to classes and made new friends, alert to the possibility that at any moment his mask might slip, Alexi Santana had a room at Princeton all to himself.
Looking back years later, members of the Princeton Class of 1993 understood the story of Alexi Santana as a puzzling crime, as an abuse of the admissions process, or as a weird occurrence that had little to do with their own lives. Some expressed compassion for their former classmate. All remembered that they had been fooled.
Christine Zandliviet works for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She first met Santana at a freshman-orientation program. “He mentioned something about Interlochen, and something about Basel,” she recalled. “But he was never specific, as though he didn’t want to be pinned down into where his mother was physically, in which sanatorium, or where he had travelled in Switzerland.” Zandliviet had been living in Geneva. She found it strange that Santana didn’t seem to know elementary words in German or French.
Orin Kerr is a law professor at George Washington University, specializing in criminal law and computer crime. He remembered watching from the bay window of his room in Holder Hall as Santana was tapped for the Ivy Club, the oldest and most illustrious of Princeton’s élite eating clubs. “Two guys came and, I guess, tapped him,” Kerr recounted. “And they rushed him out into the courtyard, and poured champagne over his head. And he was obviously very excited. And I remember being struck that it was kind of a funny thing, because he really didn’t fit the stereotype of someone who would be in Ivy.”
Brian Sax works for a network marketing company in California. He was friends with Santana on the track team, where they were the only two runners with long hair. “He would deflect any conversation about his past by either asking another question or by saying something totally random,” he remembered. “You’d be having a conversation, and the conversation would be going that way, and all of a sudden you’d be talking about something different. We’d be talking about track, and if the conversation perhaps didn’t go the way he wanted it to go, then all of a sudden you’d be talking about Madagascar.”
Barbie Freidin lives in Princeton. She speaks in a soft, high voice that seems perfectly pitched for telling bedtime stories. Her husband, Bob Freidin, a professor of linguistics at Princeton, was Alexi Santana’s faculty adviser. Barbie thought the young man was a delightful person with a wide-ranging curiosity, who sometimes seemed uncomfortable talking about his past. He was also a very good “resource” for her twelve-year-old son, Bernie, who liked exploring storm drains, and who liked hearing stories about life on a ranch. Santana sometimes ate dinner with the Freidins. On one particularly hot afternoon, she remembered, Santana climbed up on the roof and sprayed it with water to bring the temperature down inside the house. When Barbie Freidin walked outside, she was surprised to see waves of mist rising off her roof, obscuring the figure of the quiet young man.
On February 16,1991, a senior at Yale named Renee Pacheco attended the Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet in New Haven, to watch a friend run, and she noticed that one of the members of the Princeton team looked familiar. Their eyes met, and she recognized Jay Mitchell Huntsman, a mysterious stranger who had arrived at Palo Alto High School in September, 1985.
Jay Huntsman, or Riivk, as he called himself, was a talented runner who had arrived at her school with an incredible story: He was born in San Diego in 1969, and had moved at the age of eight to Ananda Ashram, a Nevada commune where he lived with his parents, Craig and Rosemary Huntsman, and his sister, Solange. He had educated himself. During the breaks in his work, he ran between fifty and sixty miles a week, and after his parents died, in an accident in Bolivia, he had decided to attend Palo Alto High School to complete his education before applying to Stanford. He found a room in town. He made friends at school. Parents liked him. On October 7, 1985, a few weeks after Huntsman appeared in Palo Alto, he entered the Stanford Invitational Meet. Blowing past the rest of the field, he’d won the cross-country race, but he never reported to the officials’ table. He had trained in the wide-open spaces of Nevada, he told a reporter for the Mercury News. “I’m just a normal kid,” he added. “I just want to fit in.”
Some of the reporters who watched the race found it troubling that the “mystery runner” (as the papers soon dubbed him) had failed to claim his victory. Acting on a hunch, Jason Cole, a reporter with a Palo Alto newspaper, the Peninsula Times Tribune, called the municipal office in charge of public records for the city of San Diego and asked if there was a birth certificate on file for a Jay Mitchell Huntsman. There was. Born to Craig and Rosemary Huntsman, of 3145 Rosecranz Place, in San Diego, on January 19, 1969, Jay Mitchell Huntsman had died two days afterward of pneumonia. Cole told the school authorities about his discovery and reported it in the Times Tribune. After initial demurrals, the student acknowledged that his real name was James Hogue. He soon left town.
“I saw him running,” Pacheco told Jason Cole, almost six years later, after first calling her high-school track coach in Palo Alto. “I walked right up to him—I’m surprised he didn’t recognize me. I just wanted to scream.”
Cole told Princeton that the sophomore Alexi Santana was actually James Hogue, an ex-convict from Utah who had engaged in similar deceptions before. “We know you don’t know this about your undergraduate, but he’s a phony,” Cole remembers saying. “You guys might want to be thinking about how you want to deal with this, because I can pretty much predict that this is going to be a big story.”
Justin Harmon, the director of communications at Princeton, was grateful for the warning. A meeting was immediately convened with the dean of admissions, Fred Hargadon, and the dean of the college. Santana’s file was produced. His application was reviewed. Taking six or seven courses a semester, it was later reported, Santana had received a grade of A in nearly every class. “It became clear to us,” Harmon recalled, “particularly to the deans, that the only course of action, from the standpoint of the institution, since this young man had applied to Princeton under utterly false pretenses, was to declare the admission null and void. And so that’s what we did.” Alexi Santana was now, officially, a ghost.
The problem of James Hogue’s physical presence on the Princeton campus took less than twenty-four hours to solve. On Tuesday, February 26th, two men in suits arrived at the door of the laboratory classroom where Professor John Suppe was teaching Geology 316, a class that dealt with large-scale structural phenomena, such as faulting and folding, that are associated with violent ruptures in the surface of the earth. “All of a sudden, they started reading him his rights, and they put him in cuffs right there,” a classmate recalled.
As news of the arrest spread around campus, the track team gathered at one of the eating clubs; the atmosphere reminded Brian Sax of the silence that follows an upset in sports. Luff spoke on the phone with Jason Cole. Santana wasn’t twenty years old, he learned. He was thirty-one. He had served time in prison. “Here was a person who was a good friend of a lot of people in the room, and all of a sudden he’s someone totally different,” Sax recalled. “People were saying, ‘Huh? What did this guy do? Did he commit murder? Did he do something really bad? Who is this guy?’ ”
Hogue was being held at the Princeton Borough Police Station, on Nassau Street, just outside the university gates. He was interviewed there by a Detective Reading, who remembered that Hogue appeared sad but composed, and that he readily answered the questions he was asked:
Q: Under what name did you make application to Princeton University?
A: Under Alexi Santana.
Q: Where did you obtain that name?
A: I made that up.
Q: For what purpose?
A: I wanted to start all over again, without any burdens of my past.
In the course of the interview, Detective Reading asked James Hogue exactly a hundred and fifty questions. Under terrible pressure, and facing the collapse of what was both a saving act of self-invention and his greatest con yet, Hogue answered every one of the detective’s questions with a polite and deadpan calm, without telling lies but in no way revealing anything of much interest about himself or his past. Perhaps the answer to the mystery of Alexi Santana was too personal to reveal to a police officer. Perhaps the mystery was all Hogue had left.
Hogue’s story soon caught the attention of the national media, but he refused to speak to reporters. Charged with theft by deception and three counts of forgery, and unable to make bail, he was transferred to the Mercer County Correctional Center to await trial. There he received visits from, among others, Bob Freidin and Giacinto Scoles, a gentle man who had been educated in Italy, and who taught physical chemistry at Princeton.
Scoles saw Hogue as a con man, but one who had a strong sense of intellectual curiosity. Seeing him in prison was a shock. Scoles was bothered by having to get permission in advance, stand in front of the prison gates as they slowly opened, talk to his former student through a thick sheet of Plexiglas. Hogue wasn’t a person who belonged in prison, Scoles concluded. He was a person who needed friendship and psychological help. A friend and colleague at Princeton warned Scoles that cases like Hogue’s could not be solved by well-meaning intervention. Past a certain age, the colleague said, people never change—they won’t, or they can’t.
Scoles disagreed. Hogue, he believed, had simply been careless about the consequences of his actions. When he finally made bail and was released from custody, Scoles offered him money, which he refused. Scoles also helped him relocate to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hogue took classes at the Harvard Extension School, and was hired part time to catalogue the university’s collection of precious minerals and gems. Sadly, the experiment did not end as Scoles might have hoped. More than fifty thousand dollars’ worth of minerals and gems, along with an expensive microscope belonging to the university and a chair with the Harvard seal, were discovered in Hogue’s room; Princeton could briefly enjoy a laugh at Harvard’s expense.
Hogue’s attorney, Robert Obler, had hoped to play the class card, and somehow put Princeton University on trial; perhaps the jury would sympathize with a young runner from humble origins who had tried to better himself by seeking an education. Instead, on February 10, 1992, almost a year after Hogue was exposed, he appeared before Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson at the Mercer County Courthouse and pleaded guilty to the charge of theft by deception.
“I submitted an application at Princeton University which had a different name and date of birth,” he said as he stood before the court in his prison blues. “It was my intent to gain admission by deception.”
He was sentenced to two hundred and seventy days at the Mercer County Correctional Center, a hundred hours of community service, and five years’ probation; he was also ordered to make restitution to Princeton of $21,124 upon his release.
News of the sentence merited a mention in the Times, but the case was soon obscured by a flood of stories showing that Alexi Santana was hardly unique. Lon Grammer, a senior at Yale who had supposedly had a colorful career as a minor-league baseball player, was unmasked as a former C student from Cuesta Community College, in California. At Duke, Maurice de Rothschild, who had thrown lavish parties for the swim team and purchased bouquets of Gloriosa rothschildiana, the Rothschild lily, from the Campus Florist, in Durham, was revealed to be Mauro Cortez, Jr., the thirty-seven-year-old son of poor immigrant parents in EI Paso. Harvard officials were dismayed to learn that Gina Grant had omitted from her application any reference to the fact that she had bludgeoned her mother to death with a lead-crystal candlestick. Nor was the act of imposture confined to Ivy League campuses. Throughout the decade, a parade of well-known Americans, from dot-com entrepreneurs to the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, would admit that they had fabricated some portion of their biographies. If lying and being lied to are universal experiences, it is still tempting to see the preoccupation with these stories as a peculiarly American trait. Self-invention is the founding subject of American literature. We celebrate the self-made man, and honor the dream of transcending one’s origins; we are suckers for people who invent themselves from scratch.
James Hogue returned from Cambridge to New Jersey for his sentencing on December 18, 1992, and served five months. The same day that he was released, he was arrested in Cambridge for the theft of the gems, and ended up serving an additional seventeen months, for theft and probation violation. And then, once more, he disappeared.
VIII—THE BICYCLE THIEF
On the evening of July 15, 1997, Officer Jeff Harmon, of the Aspen Police Department, took a report about the theft of a bicycle. Officer Harmon remembered seeing a bicycle of that description the night before, locked to a tree by the Hyman Avenue mall. The next evening, Harmon and his partner, Vicki Nall, found the stolen bicycle, locked to a tree in the same area; James Hogue was working the lock.
“Police! You’re under arrest!” Nall shouted. Hogue shoved her backward, turned around, and ran into Harmon. Nall handcuffed him and took him to the Pitkin County jail. His arrest and subsequent conviction, on a second charge of bicycle theft, became part of the Pitkin County records and eventually led me to his address.
After months of research into the facts of his life, I thought I knew James Hogue. He was born in Wyandotte County, Kansas, in 1959, and I had visited the house where he grew up—a small, single-story ranch house in a working-class neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. I had spoken to classmates of his from high school in Wyandotte County and from his college years, which were spent in Laramie and Austin. I was particularly interested in the relationship between Hogue and the character he had created. Santana, it seemed to me, had balanced out the parts of Hogue that were unstable and weak and most in need of protection. Now that protection was gone. He moved from rented room to rented room in the mountain resort towns of Colorado, a thirty-seven-year-old drifter. He spent some time in Telluride, where he did construction work. I mailed a package to a post-office box in Aspen containing a videotape and a letter that expressed my desire to learn more about his life. When he didn’t answer, I went to find him. He left Aspen shortly before I arrived.
The videotape I had sent James Hogue, made by the documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss, contained brief segments of interviews I had conducted. Among the segments on the tape was a long conversation I had with Keith Mark, a labor lawyer from Kansas City who closely resembles his boyhood hero, Pete Rose. Like Hogue, Mark grew up in Wyandotte County, ran track at Washington High School, and had a father who worked for the railroad. Hogue had been his closest friend. When Hogue went to McDonald’s, Mark remembered, he always ordered a Big Mac without the burger. He slept on the floor in a sleeping bag and read running magazines. He ran with bells on his feet so that he would be more aware of the rhythm of his stride. Running, Mark explained, was a ticket out. It was a chance to follow in the footsteps of famous Kansas milers like Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun, and to win an athletic scholarship to college. When Hogue won a race, he would go out to his father’s car and change his clothes. When the announcer called his name after the race, he would step up to the podium to accept his medal, neatly attired in slacks and a dress shirt.
Hogue’s father, Eugene, who died in 1997, was a fixture at the races. He stood by himself and rooted for the Washington High School runners to win. Hogue’s parents were quiet and not particularly demonstrative. Mark used to see them together, an older couple walking around the neighborhood.
Before I left his office in Kansas City, Keith Mark gave me a packet of letters he had received from his friend during Hogue’s first year at the University of Wyoming, which he entered in the fall of 1977. Their author’s sense of determination is evident in nearly every line of the detailed instructions that he mailed to Mark, back home in Kansas:
The higher up that you start, the safer your position will be. The first impressions you give the other runners could be very important in whether you make the team or not. Let them know very little about yourself. . . . You should wear either a plain T-shirt or perhaps that Wyoming shirt, but remember that the less they know about you, the better.
These letters may reflect the particular circumstances in which Hogue found himself as a freshman in Laramie. The coach of the men’s track team, Ron Richardson, had arrived in Laramie that fall, with the dream of turning Wyoming into a running powerhouse that would rival the University of Texas at El Paso and the legendary University of Oregon program, which produced Steve Prefontaine. Members of the Wyoming team that year describe Richardson as a cold, distant figure who met with his athletes underneath the bleachers of the university’s indoor track in a small, cramped office, where he kept a dog-eared copy of a book about the management techniques of Genghis Khan. As the skies grew dark, and temperatures dropped, Richardson would push his runners through thirty-two two-hundred-and-twenty-metre sprints, followed by sixteen quarter miles and eight half-mile runs. Having read that sprinters would retain muscle memory when they ran faster than they were ordinarily able to, he also developed a unique system for training his distance runners. He would tie a rope to a tumbling belt around the runner’s waist, and tow the runner up and down the high-altitude trails, holding the other end of the rope as he drove his Volkswagen Bug. When his runners lost a meet at Brigham Young University, he picked them up early the next morning, dropped them off seventeen miles from Laramie, and told them to run home.
The true stars of Richardson’s recruiting class did not arrive on campus until after the start of school: a collection of world-class runners from Kenya, including the future Olympian Joseph Nzau. Most were in their mid-twenties, the age at which distance runners reach the peak of their mental and physical development. Older and stronger, the Kenyans quickly established their dominance over the American athletes, who were just out of high school.
More than two decades later, the American runners at the University of Wyoming still remembered the experience of being thrown into annihilating daily competition with the runners from Kenya. “People were struggling in their own way with the acclimation to a college program with a very demanding coach in a peer group that was very challenging, even at this level of high-calibre American athletes,” Mike Penney, then a freshman who had recently arrived from Colorado, recalled. “All of a sudden, there’s these foreign athletes, who are so far beyond where we were at that time.” Richardson’s strategy paid off on the track. In November of 1977, the University of Wyoming’s cross-country team finished third in the country, behind Oregon and El Paso.
That fall and the following spring, Penney spent a lot of time with James Hogue, the only one of the American runners who refused to concede superiority to the Kenyans. Hogue pushed himself to the limits of his physical endurance and beyond. He copied Joseph Nzau’s training methods, which included running in snowy weather on the freeways outside Laramie while wearing heavy construction boots. Soon, Hogue’s body began to break down under the stress. After he was injured, he ran on the indoor track. He ran in the swimming pool. He searched the running literature for other methods that might help improve his times.
“The symptoms of the beginning of staleness are the opposite of the symptoms of successful sharpening; the runner no longer wishes to race,” he wrote to Keith Mark that spring. “His resistance to colds and other infections is lower, and he likely is suffering from tendon and muscle soreness. Finally, there is a pronounced decline in will.”
The uneven results of Hogue’s regimen are apparent in a letter he sent to Mark at the end of the school year:
I got your letter just before my last test. I’ve studied 37 hours for this one. These past two weeks have been really exhausting. . . .
Indoors. Air Force anchor mile relay 51.6 2nd
Colo State 1000 1st 2:18.4 2m relay 1:58.9 2nd
Colorado 300 way back 32.71 Mile 2nd 4:16.38. . . .
Outdoors. Colo State 800m 8th 1:52.84 57.0. . . .
Oregon 800m 2nd 1:51.61 50.3
I actually don’t remember the last 220 and was unconscious for ten minutes afterwards. . . . I could have run the 1500 and 800 at WAC, but I didn’t especially want to get clobbered, so the coach put me in a marathon that week. They got 21 inches of snow the day before . . . But I ran anyway, mainly because the roads were closed and [I] couldn’t get back.
“Try to come out here,” he urged his friend, before signing off. “Indubitably in Big Wyoming, Jim.”
That summer, Hogue found a job with a professor at the University of Wyoming, which gave him backcountry passes to Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado. When Keith Mark came to visit, the two friends immediately set off into the mountains with their sleeping bags and backpacks for what promised to be an outdoor adventure. Hogue’s job was collecting butterflies, and when they stopped to camp at night they would lay out a sheet and hook a black light up to a motorcycle battery. The moths would come, and Hogue would put them in a jar of formaldehyde and pin their wings. Searching for an explanation for why someone might want to invent a past, Keith Mark dated the change in his friend to the last day of that trip, when they were caught at the top of a mountain in a fierce summer storm.
“It’s that time in the mountains where it’s summer and it’s sunny,” he recalled. “And over the top of the peaks come some black clouds and a strong wind. And the temperature dropped. And I was quite a bit higher in elevation than he was at the time. You know, we were probably half a mile apart. Then, all of a sudden, lightning started just zinging by. And Jim was yelling, ‘You gotta get down!’ You know, I had my pack with a metal frame. And he was yelling, ‘Get down! You gotta get down!’ ”
As lightning struck the peak, they burrowed into the exposed side of the mountain, which was wet and slippery and beginning to freeze over. Sliding down the side of the mountain in an icy blizzard, Keith Mark made his way to where his friend had stopped. As the lightning struck around them, they got up and ran for the safety of the tree line. “You could feel the ice pelting you, you know? And the lightning was fierce. You could just hear it. It was like running a key down a wire. Makes the hair stand up on your arms, you know? I’m telling you, it was intense. It was the daytime, but you would see the flash and the thunder would just be there. It was unbelievable. And we just sat there. Nobody said anything. We’re soaked to the bone. Scared. Cold.”
James Hogue didn’t say a word when the lightning struck. When the hail stopped, it started to snow, and the two friends, shivering, in shorts, made their way down the mountain, then walked along the road in the hope that someone would pick them up before they were stricken with exposure. Finally, a truck came by and drove them to a convenience store, where they changed their clothes and bought chocolate milk and doughnuts. Hogue remained silent the entire time, or so Keith Mark remembers.
After that day on the mountain, Mark said, Hogue seemed less sure of himself. “There’s no doubt in my mind that what turned Jim’s world around is what happened that day in Colorado,” Mark insisted, many years later “Maybe he realized that he was a mortal just like everyone else.” When Mark visited him in Wyoming the next summer, he found car stereos stacked up in one of the rooms. There were bicycles that Hogue didn’t own. The bicycles and the stereos suggested that he was trafficking in stolen goods.
That same summer, James Hogue came over to Mark’s house, in Kansas City. When he left, Mark noticed that he was missing a gold medal he had won in the Kansas Relays—one major high-school event that Hogue hadn’t won. When he called his friend to ask about the medal, Hogue denied that he had it. A day later, Hogue called back to say that his mother had found the medal on the driveway. Their friendship was over.
Hogue did not return to Laramie. Instead, in 1979, he moved to Texas, attending a community college and then the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied chemical engineering; he stopped taking classes just a few credits shy of gaining a degree. He was arrested on a charge from a bicycle store in Austin, and then he made his way north to Vail.
The record of James Hogue’s life is marked by blank spaces, which friends and acquaintances are happy to fill with theories of their own. In 1984, Hogue’s former teammate Joseph Nzau broke quickly out in front of the pack during the finals of the marathon in the Los Angeles Olympics and shared the lead for more than twenty miles, before fading at the end of the race. “Undoubtedly James Hogue saw this on TV,” Mike Penney wrote in one of several E-mails he sent me after we spoke. “Did seeing Nzau on the worldwide stage of the Olympics rekindle thoughts of greatness that led to his enrollment at Palo Alto—just months later? Maybe. An interesting coincidence, at least.” Or perhaps everything had followed from a typically American moment of grace vouchsafed to a bicycle thief, who woke up one morning in a storage shed in Utah, and decided, again, to become someone new.
IX—THE CONFIDENCE MAN
James Hogue phoned me three days after I returned from Aspen. He said that he was impressed by the research that had gone into the videotape and the letter, and that he would be happy to meet in New York. When he arrived, a few weeks later, his manner was bashful. He looked down at the ground. His face was youthful but weathered, and he wore a baseball cap over his thinning brown hair. He answered my questions in a way that avoided rudeness while limiting the amount of information he revealed. His expression remained mild and impassive.
Getting into Princeton was like a game, he said. The part he liked best was researching the character and writing the application. He had taken the S.A.T. himself. He had promised not to answer questions about the people he knew at Princeton. It was impossible to say what he planned to do next.
I asked him what the experience of being at Princeton under an assumed identity had felt like. “Let’s imagine that I was creating you as a character on paper,” I said, after he’d dodged the question a number of times. “What did you love? What made you uncomfortable? What made you happy? What did you do when you were just feeling quiet? What did stuff mean, in some emotional sense?”
He was silent. “Well, I had a flicker of an idea and then I forgot it,” he finally replied.
One month after our meeting in New York, he made another trip East and we drove down to Princeton. It was funny to be back on campus, he said. He got up the next morning and ran ten miles. Then we went to his old dormitory room, in Holder Hall.
The story Hogue told me corresponded in most of its particulars with the story I had heard before. He was born in Wyandotte County, Kansas. He liked to run. He had read “The Great Gatsby” in high school and was a fan of Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Duke of Deception,” a memoir about the author’s father, an inveterate liar and con artist.
By his own account, James Hogue was an average person. His parents were rural people who had grown up out West, and he had three older sisters. “If I was ten years old and it was the summer I would have probably been out in the yard playing,” he recalled. “We had irises growing, so we’d hide in those or play in the tree house or go down to the woods. It was usually pretty hot, so you don’t really want to roll around in the grass or anything, with the chiggers and things like that. I really don’t remember too much about it.” The names of his sisters were Teresa, Vicki, and Betty. His father, Eugene, routed boxcars on the Union Pacific railroad. His mother, Maria, liked to listen to classical music at home.
In junior high school, he said, he was the best runner in Wyandotte County. In high school, the runners were more talented and better coached, and it took him a year to realize that he could run with them, too. He learned to visualize himself winning races. He learned that, in some sense, every race you run is a failure. He learned that there is a time in which you are capable of running the race that stays the same no matter who you become or where you are.
He said he barely remembered the night on the mountain that had so impressed Keith Mark; it was “maybe a little hairy,” but it did not affect him in any way. He never expected to be able to beat the Kenyans he ran with in college; they were Olympic-calibre athletes. “You’re talking about a one-in-a-billion person. I never thought I would be that good.” After the death of a grandmother who lived in Wyoming, he left Laramie and moved to Austin. He stopped taking classes when he ran out of money. He felt it was wrong to ask his parents for money, he said. He worked in a lab and built houses.
Q: Is there anything that you’ve done in your life that you wish you hadn’t done?
A: I don’t know. I mean, the things that interested me are the abstract things. The specific things I think are boring.
Q: Abstract things? Like what?
A: Why did I do this? Why did that work? Why didn’t that work?
Q: Why did you do it? Why didn’t it work?
A: Because they found out it was all a fraud.
The questions I was asking him weren’t real questions, he explained. They were the products of a story line in my head, whose relation to his life was at best coincidental.
Santana was created when Hogue was living in Las Vegas, building houses during the day and hanging out at the casinos at night. He had remembered hearing about a kid in Wichita, Kansas, who invented a new identity, and he had been struck by the idea. His friends in Las Vegas had helped him create Santana. He said he didn’t remember their names. He said a chef from Switzerland had loaned him an address in that country, to which Princeton could send mail.
At Princeton, he remembered, he felt as if he were an actor in a play: “The message I got was that they wanted at least one person who was from a construction site in Las Vegas to go to school here,” he said. Princeton wasn’t as intellectually rarefied as some might imagine, he added. “They certainly weren’t talking about Plato,” he said. “I don’t think anybody at this school does that.”
What stuck in his mind about Princeton, he said, was the way the students often seemed to take their privilege for granted. One student he’d met had forty ties in his closet. “I was thinking to myself, Why does a college student need forty ties?” People seemed unaware that they were rich. He remembered having lunch one day with a girl he didn’t know well. “She would be describing her house,” he recalled, “and say it has five bedrooms, and they have five cars or something, and I’m, like, ‘Wow! You’re rich!’ And she goes, ‘Oh, no. Not at all. You know, we’re poor.’ ” He didn’t understand how someone like that could go through life thinking she was poor. “Are these the details that you wanted?” he asked.
Were these his actual impressions of Princeton? There was no way of knowing. He was quick to say that he also met people like Peter Hessler, who ran track, and who went to the library most nights and took reams of notes on the books he read. He came from a town in Missouri, Hogue recalled, and later became a Rhodes Scholar. He liked to shoot water balloons across the quad with launchers made out of surgical tubing. So it was hard to say that the people he met at Princeton were alike in any one way.
“How would the world be different if people were allowed to make up any story they wanted, and call it their story?” I asked him.
“They are allowed to do that,” he said. “Somebody invented whatever name you got. And, up to a certain point in life, that’s all you have. And then you start obtaining your own things. So I guess I see it more as an evolution within the self. And I think it occurs in everybody.” He admitted that what he had done belonged, perhaps, to a different category of invention. “I was just using the basic fact that people are going to believe whatever they’re told unless they have a good reason not to,” he said. What made his actions possible, he explained, was his ability to tolerate guilt. His habit of wearing a mask was simply an impulse that he couldn’t control. “Say you’re a diabetic,” he explained. ‘’You know you can’t eat certain foods, but you do it anyway.” He paused for a moment. “Somebody might hypothesize about it, but I don’t see that anyone knows enough about why people do things to be able to tell me why.” We had been together at Princeton now for three days straight, and there were still many questions that I wished to ask, and that I hoped he might answer.
“What are you doing now?” I asked him.
“I’m building a house,” he said.
What I discovered by the end of our interviews was how difficult it would always be to disentangle the facts of his life from the fabrications. Some of the stories were verifiable. Others were not. And the indeterminacy of his story, its resistance to interpretation, was clearly intended by its author. The story of his life would have little, if anything, to do with whatever version of that story I might choose to write.
At one point during our conversation in Holder Hall, a Princeton freshman named Dennis Dugan entered the room to retrieve his coat.
“It seems like everyone is a Princeton alumnus,” Dugan said. The freshman was open-faced and enthusiastic. He was eager to meet somebody who had lived in his room however many years ago. Hogue was eager to talk to him, too. He was glad to play the role of a Princeton alumnus, offering avuncular advice about the eating clubs and the food.
“A lot of people tend to put the little stickers on their cars,” he said. “So you’ll see that and you’ll probably stop and talk to them. There’s one fellow in Aspen. Oh, he must be sixty or seventy. He’s got a bright-orange car, with the tiger on the antenna and stickers in the windows. You’ll see stuff like that. And you’ll probably go to work on Wall Street, and I’m sure you’ll run into people there.”
“They say college is the best time of your life,” Dugan said. “Do you believe that?”
“I think it’s supposed to be,” Jim responded.
“What are some of your memories, Jim?” I asked.
“He’s living them,” Hogue answered. “He’ll remember.” He turned to Dugan. “I mean, have you had your nude Olympics yet?”
The freshman seemed to want to maintain the fleeting connection to a person who had gone this way before. “I bet he has great memories of this place,” Dugan said, turning to me. “I bet he had a lot of fun here. I bet it really helped him out. Not just the diploma itself but the actual things that he learned while obtaining that diploma . . . Not just the actual facts and figures and theory, just the existence, how to exist with people.”
Dugan had worked hard to get to Princeton, he said. He had grown up in New Jersey in a middle-class family, just above the line that allows you to raise your head to see the path before you and win a scholarship to prep school. The day he found out he was accepted at Princeton was the best day of his life. “For the week after that, I was sort of in disbelief” he went on.
“So you would tell all your friends to work hard and to do—”
“Yeah. I tell my little brother every day,” Dugan said.
“How old is he?” Hogue asked.
“Because,” Hogue said, “they really like to let in brothers and sisters and friends.”
The freshman nodded. He liked that idea. He would grow older, protected by the circle of shared experience and tradition that binds Princetonians together, secure in the benefits of a good education and a wealth of useful contacts that would ease his way through the snares and thickets of life. Being accepted at Princeton was a blessing, he said. Everything he had seen about the place was exactly as it was described in the brochures. ♦