The Many Lives of James Hogue: America’s Mystery Con Man

You see this man? He was found living in a makeshift shack in the Colorado mountains in late 2016. The 57-year-old, who escaped out of the shack window, was arrested weeks later as he was trying to build a new cabin. He had stolen ski gear and $17,000 in cash. That wasn’t surprising, though, considering he’s a known con man.

Princeton / James Hogue / James Hogue / James Hogue.
Source: Getty Images

James Hogue came into the picture back in the mid-‘80s when he was 26 and posing as a high school student in Palo Alto and later as a star athlete at Princeton University. He kept going, barely escaping the cops through every con he made. Finally, one of America’s “top 10 impostors” came to the end of his road.

The Case of the Missing Bicycle Equipment

In March 30, 1988, a police detective named Matt Jacobson was checking out a storage facility in St. George, Utah, looking for high-end racing bicycles and tools that were stolen from a bicycle-maker in California months before. In the storage room were all kinds of bicycle frames, trophies, papers, letters, and even a sleeping bag.

A collection of file photos of James Hogue.
James Hogue. Photo by Joanne HoYoung Lee/MediaNews Group /The Mercury News/Getty Images

Whoever this thief was, was probably homeless and had been living in the shed for months. Dave Tesch, the bicycle maker, opened his shop one morning only to find that some thief had kicked over a vent, jumped down the hole, and took twenty-thousand-dollars’ worth of stuff. He was certain it was a rival who did it.

The “Professor” Who Lived in His Truck

As it turns out, the thief was someone Tesch knew quite well. During his days as an instructor, he met a guy named James Hogue who said he was a runner as well as a professor at Stanford University. But something about this guy didn’t seem professor-like…

A dated portrait of James Hogue.
James Hogue. Photo by Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Hogue looked more like an undergraduate student; he would drink mustard and Perrier during races and light a cigarette after crossing the finish line… as other runners stared at him in shock. By the summer of ’87, Hogue started helping Tesch around the shop and sleeping in his truck at night. It was pretty unusual for a “professor.” The next March, the truth came out.

The First Time He Got Cuffed

A bicycle enthusiast named Bruce Stucky dropped by Tesch’s shop, telling him that some guy he just met – Hogue – whipped out a Mitutoyo metric dial caliper with Tesch’s name engraved on it. And those trophies found in the storage unit? Those were “obviously meant for an eighteen-year-old,” detective Jacobson said.

James Hogue’s mugshot.
James Hogue. Source: YouTube

Hogue, a man from Wyandotte County, Kansas, had been racing under fake names, depriving actual teenage runners from winning what they were entitled to. When Hogue showed up that March, 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 recalled. “And it didn’t seem to shake him or faze him at all.”

Becoming a Nevada Cowboy

The bike theft was just the beginning, and the stolen goods in that storage locker pointed to a whole web of lies that Hogue had been living. Bike theft was small beans; Hogue had bigger, more imaginative aspirations. And he was going by other names.

A photo from James Hogue’s arrest.
James Hogue. Photo by Dominique Callan

He was going by the name Alexi Santana, whose identity was backed up by newspaper clippings and trophies. The name Alexi Santana was a combination of the first name of cycling gold medalist Alexi Grewal and tandem-bike manufacturer Santana. Alexi was a self-educated cowboy from Nevada who could run a mile in four minutes.

The Star Athlete Is Really a Convict

He used this name to apply for athletic scholarships to some of America’s most elite universities, like Stanford, Princeton, and Brown. But when Jacobson had Hogue in custody, he called Stanford to tell them that their star athlete, Alexi Santana, was in reality a 28-year-old drifter named James Hogue, and he was going to jail in Utah.

A photo of James Hogue running for the college team.
James Hogue. Source: Pinterest

Hogue pleaded guilty to the theft and was sentenced to one to five years in prison. But Stanford was only one of a few universities on Hogue’s list. He had applied to Princeton, too, for the class of ’92.

The Score, the Name, the Story

His SAT score said 1410, which was well above the Princeton average, and his Hispanic-sounding last name meant he had special consideration as a minority applicant. But it was his personal essay – an obviously fake story about being a self-educated ranch hand who read Plato – that put his application at the top of the pile.

An image of James Hogue in court.
James Hogue. Source: Prime Video

He said he “trained on his own in the Mojave Desert,” where he herded cattle. When he visited the campus, he got to sleep indoors “for the first time in ten years.” But Hogue had been sleeping indoors for a while, in that storage locker in Utah.

The Clever Storyteller Who Could Also Run

He was spending his afternoons at the public library, getting information from published statistics that show who gets admitted to universities like Princeton and why. He was clever; he knew what Princeton wanted and had an explanation for everything.

A photo of James Hogue at a college party with friends.
Source: Pinterest

His fanciful tales explained why he didn’t have a high-school transcript or any teacher recommendations. And his “diverse” identity stroked Princeton’s ego by making it look they weren’t only accepting rich white kids. The truth is, Hogue had talent – as a runner and as a storyteller. Both were taking him to where he wanted to go.

The Track Coach Could Use a New Track Star

At the time, Princeton had a track coach named Larry Ellis, and he was particularly impressed with this new “kid” he saw in newspaper clippings. Ellis really wanted a fresh new star on his track team – one who trained himself to run in the desert.

A portrait of James Hogue / An exterior shot of Princeton University.
Source: Pinterest / Photo by Library of Congress, Corbis, VCG, Getty Images

Ellis was the first Black man to be head coach at an Ivy League university, so he wasn’t deterred by this new kid’s foreign-sounding last name. Ellis was the one who urged Hogue (Santana) to visit Princeton and even sent him a round-trip ticket.

Shy, Small, and Speedy

Another member of the track team, John Luff, was told to stay close to the new guy – see what he was like. “He always wore a hat, probably to hide the fact that he was going bald,” Luff recalled. “And he was just kind of shy and kept his eyes on the ground.”

A general view of the university campus.
Source: Pinterest

Hogue was short and weighed only 120 pounds; passing as an 18-year-old was believable. “He seemed just like a young guy who was coming out to look at colleges.” He was shy and small, but the guy could run. Luff, one of Princeton’s better runners, couldn’t beat him.

The Convict Gets Accepted to Princeton

Hogue wasn’t the kind of person Luff expected him to be. He was gentler and more curious than he was used to. The two became fast friends, and weeks later, “Alexi Santana” got his official acceptance letter from Princeton.

An exterior shot of Princeton.
Source: Pinterest

But the spring of 1988 was a tricky time for Hogue as he was being sentenced in Utah and was set to serve a year in prison. No one in Princeton’s admissions office ever saw the article in the San Jose Mercury News reporting a thief who was applying to Ivy League colleges under the fake name Alexi Santana.

The Ex-Convict Arrives at Princeton

But Hogue had a clever solution. He told Coach Ellis lthat he needed to defer his admission for at least a year because he had to care for his mother, a sculptor named Susan Indris-Santana, who was dying of cancer in Switzerland.

An image of students walking at a university campus.
Source: CNBC

Hogue finally arrived at Princeton in the summer of 1989, and he was already being interviewed by reporters. He spoke of his time as a ranch hand, and of the “weeks with just his books, his horse, the cows, and a radio for company.” He said he “just started to run around the canyons in a pair of old tennis shoes, nothing fanatical.”

The Newest, Most Interesting Guy on Campus

Once that first article was printed in the Trenton Times, Hogue’s transformation was complete. He went from James Hogue, petty thief, to Alexi Santana, a gifted runner and the most interesting member of Princeton’s Class of ‘93.

A dated image of James Hogue as Alexi Santana next to his teammates.
Source: Pinterest

He also become the most interesting roommate to his three new roomies, Ben Richardson, Avshalom Yotam, and Austin Nahm, who knew him as an orphan who ran 10 miles a day. His room was neat and filled with books and CDs. There were no photos of his friends or his family. There was, however, a photo of a skier on the wall.

The Roommate With Fancy Stories

“How did you get someone to take a photo like that?” Richardson recalled asking him one day. “Oh, I was doing some stuff, doing some stunts,” Hogue told him. “What were you doing stunts for?” Richardson then asked. Hogue said, “A movie.”

A view inside Princeton University.
Source: Princeton University

But Hogue was not one for long conversations. He would avoid eye contact when he spoke, which deterred others from prying further. Still, he liked to talk about himself, and word got around that this new kid had skied in the Olympics, dropped from a helicopter and did back flips in a ski movie called Hot Dog.

Becoming “Sexy Alexi”

Richardson found Hogue to be quite arrogant, and his reason for why he even came to Princeton reinforced his impression. “I’m here to find a wife,” Hogue said. Hogue didn’t even invite his roomies to his bedroom parties, where a select group of freshmen women would come to listen to his stories while drinking wine and eating cheese.

An image of a romantic picnic with wine, cheese, and red fruits.
Photo by Jupiterimages/Getty Images

He soon earned the nickname Sexy Alexi. While he was in good shape, he would always walk hunched over, with his long hair hiding his face. According to his roommate Avshalom, he constantly avoided eye contact with them and walked fast, “like it was a race.”

The Beginning of the End

By 1991, after Hogue established himself as a legend on campus, something happened that could, in hindsight, be seen as the beginning of the end for Alexi Santana. On February 16, a Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet took place in New Haven.

A portrait of James Hogue.
Source: Pinterest

At the meet was a senior at Yale named Renee Pacheco, who came to watch a friend run. There, she noticed a Princeton team member who looked familiar. When their eyes met, she recognized who it was. Of course, she was looking at Hogue, but she knew him as Jay Mitchell Huntsman, a mysterious stranger who had come to her Palo Alto High School in September 1985.

His Chapter as the “Mystery Runner”

Jay Huntsman, or Riivk, as he called himself, was a lot like Santana – a talented runner (who was also an orphan) with an incredible story. He showed up at Palo Alto High School in 1985 to complete his studies before applying to Stanford. He entered a race, won with flying colors, but never claimed his victory.

An image of a man running.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

People were wondering who this “mystery runner” (as the local papers dubbed him) was. One curious reporter, Jason Cole, searched for the runner’s birth certificate to possibly locate him, only to find the document, which said the baby had died two days later of pneumonia. School authorities were told and eventually Hogue admitted what his real name and identity was. He then skipped town.

Hey, Princeton, You’ve Been Fooled

Fast forward to 1991 at the track meet, and Pacheco suddenly saw the same mystery runner. “I walked right up to him. I’m surprised he didn’t recognize me. I just wanted to scream,” she said. She then called up Cole, the reporter, to tell him. Cole then called Princeton to tell them that their sophomore Alexi Santana was in fact James Hogue, an ex-convict from Utah.

An exterior shot of Princeton.
Photo by Michael Mancuso

“We know you don’t know this about your undergraduate, but he’s a phony,” Cole recalled saying. He added, “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.”

James Hogue, You Have the Right to Remain Silent

Despite the fact that he was getting straight A’s in all of his classes, Princeton decided to declare his admission null and void. And so, Alexi Santana officially became a ghost. It then took less than 24 hours to get the guy off the campus.

A photo of a police siren.
Photo by cottonbro/Pexels

On February 26, 1991, two men in suits showed up to Professor John Suppe’s Geology 316 and arrested Hogue in front of everyone. “All of a sudden, they started reading him his rights, and they put him in cuffs right there,” one of the students recalled. Word spread fast…

It Was Only a Matter of Time

Soon enough, the track team found out that their star athlete was really a 31-year-old ex-con. “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,” a team member recalled.

A mugshot of James Hogue.
James Hogue. Source: Utah State Prison

“People were saying, ‘Huh? What did this guy do? Did he commit murder? Did he do something really bad? Who is this guy?’” Obviously, people were in shock. Meanwhile, Hogue was being questioned at the Princeton Borough Police Station. Detective Reading noticed that Hogue was sad but composed and answered all his questions. It’s like he knew this day would come.

The Naïve Professor

It didn’t take long for the story to hit national media, but Hogue refused to speak to reporters. He was charged with theft by deception and three counts of forgery. Unable to make bail, he had to wait for the trial in jail. While there, a chemistry professor from Princeton, Giacinto Scoles, visited him.

An image of a barbed wire fence at a prison.
Photo by Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Scoles believed Hogue wasn’t meant to be in prison – he was a troubled young man who needed friendship and psychological help. Eventually, after Hogue made bail, Scoles helped him relocate to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started taking classes at the Harvard Extension School and was even working part time cataloguing the university’s collection of precious minerals and gems.

Once a Con, Always a Con

But Scoles proved to be naive and his trust toward Hogue was a waste of time. Soon enough, fifty thousand dollars’ worth of minerals and gems and some equipment were discovered in Hogue’s room. At the 1992 trial, Hogue pleaded guilty to the charge of theft by deception.

An image of a man in handcuffs.
Photo by Kindel Media/Pexels

He was sentenced to 270 days, 100 hours of community service, and five years’ probation. He also had to pay Princeton $21,124 upon his release. He served five months, only to be released and immediately arrested for the theft of the gems. He got an additional 17 months. After serving time, he disappeared, again.

Back to Stealing Bikes

In July 15, 1997, Hogue was caught red-handed, trying to steal a bicycle. Pushing one officer back, he ran into the second one. It was now his second charge of bicycle theft. The 37-year-old drifter was going from rented room to rented room in Colorado.

A picture of a bicycle next to a brick wall.
Photo by Leandro Boogalu/Pexels

It was around this time that a reporter from The New Yorker named David Samuels started looking into Hogue’s life. He found a guy named Keith Mark, a labor lawyer from Kansas City, who was once Hogue’s closest friend. He remembered how Hogue would always order a Big Mac without the burger when they went to McDonald’s.

His Legitimate Chapter at University

He said how Hogue always slept on the floor in a sleeping bag and read running magazines. Hogue would also run with bells on his feet – to hear the rhythm of his stride. Mark remembers Hogue’s parents were an older, quiet couple.

An image of an auditorium at Princeton University.
Source: Pinterest

Hogue legitimately went to university in 1977 in Wyoming and he was a part of the men’s track team. He was dedicated but eventually broke down under the stress of it all. He was trying to beat the ever-so fast Kenyan runners… and couldn’t. He got injured and started running in the swimming pool. He and Mark would meet up in the summers and backpack together in Colorado.

The Storm That Changed Him

When Samuels asked Mark about why his friend would come to invest such an imaginative past in his cons, he thought of the moment when things changed. On the last day of one of their summer trips, they were stuck at the top of a mountain during a summer storm.

A picture of a stormy sky.
Photo by Alex Conchillos/Pexels

Hogue and Mark were about half a mile apart on the mountain, and lightning started striking. Hogue was yelling up to Mark, “Get down! You gotta get down!” The mountain was wet, slippery, and starting to freeze. They eventually ran for cover by the tree line. “And we just sat there. Nobody said anything. We’re soaked to the bone. Scared. Cold,” Mark recalled.

Things Start Going Missing

They finally made it down alive, but Mark remembers Hogue remaining silent. After that day on the mountain, 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,” he insisted years later.

An image of a bicycle lying on the floor.
Photo by cottonbro/Pexels

The next summer, when he visited Hogue at his dorm room, he saw car stereos and bicycles that didn’t belong to him. Then, after a visit from Hogue in Mark’s home in Kansas City, he noticed he was missing a gold medal from a relay race – the one major high-school event that Hogue didn’t win.

From the Horse’s Mouth

Mark asked Hogue about the missing medal. He denied it at first, only to call the next day to say his mom found the medal on the driveway. That marked the end of their friendship. Hogue then moved to Texas, studied engineering, then quit before graduating.

A photo of a male chin and neck.
Photo by Image Source/Getty Images

Finally, Samuels got the chance to interview Hogue in person in 1997. He told Samuels that he was just an average person, the son of rural people who grew up in the West with three older sisters. He started getting noticed as a runner in junior high school. Oh, and that storm on the mountain with Mark? He said he barely remembered it.

The Birth of Alexi Santana

He said he stopped taking those engineering classes because he ran out of money. He didn’t want to ask his parents, so he quit school and started working in a lab and building houses. He created the Alexi Santana person while building houses in Las Vegas, he told Samuels.

A mugshot of James Hogue.
James Hogue. Source: Wikipedia

While hanging out at the casinos, he heard about some kid from Wichita, Kansas, who invented an identity. Struck by the idea, he and his friends came up with the Santana character. Without naming names, Hogue said a chef from Switzerland loaned him an address, to which Princeton could send mail.

Fast Forward to 2017

Samuels eventually published his piece on Hogue and titled it The Runner. Come 2017, Hogue was being interviewed again, but this time he was 57 and had just been caught for theft at his makeshift shack in Aspen Mountain. By then, he had already been in countless newspapers and was even the subject of an HBO documentary called Con Man.

An image of James Hogue being escorted in jail.
Photo by Craig Turpin

It was the last thing he – or any con man – would want: to be a public figure. When two Aspen police officers knocked on the front door of his shack, he popped his head out the back window, said nothing, and lowered himself down a ladder and ran off into the woods.

Was He Trying to Get Caught?

When the officers peeked into the shack, they noticed he was living better than the average squatter. He had a bed, shelves, a cook stove, and a satellite radio. He also had a lot of high-end ski gear and apparel. By the time the officers came back the next day, the place was completely cleaned out.

An image of James Hogue’s storage for the stolen merchandise.
Source: Aspen Police Department

When officers located Hogue, he said his name was David Bee, his latest alias. He was building yet another shack only 200 feet away from the last one and was stealing more equipment from the same people he stole from before. Was he trying to get caught?

A Media Blackout

Aside from far-and-few-between interviews, which revealed little to nothing personal, Hogue remained a mystery. His life was a series of spaced-out chapters with details that weren’t easily distinguished between real and fake.

Officers walk James Hogue through the jail.
James Hogue. Photo by Craig D. Turpin

He kept a media blackout where he hardly talked to any reporters or regular people. One reporter, John Fayhee, managed to get Hogue talking. At this point, Hogue was in all orange and probably felt that he didn’t have much to lose. He agreed to meet the reporter, but told him, “I’m not really interested in being interviewed.”

A Victim of His Public Persona?

On their first visit, when asked why he agreed to meet, Hogue said, “It gets pretty boring in here,” while maintaining his trademark trait of making little eye contact. How did he spend his days? Reading “a lot” and watching TV. He worked out, did yoga, played cards.

Police escorts James Hogue at the station after his arrest.
James Hogue. Source: YouTube

Molly Owens was Hogue’s court-appointed public defender. At trial, she argued that Hogue was partially a victim of his public persona – someone who’s “sneaky, as someone who is a folk hero of sorts.” But the man she came to know is “simple and humble and has recently lived a life of isolation.”

It’s a “Kind of Compulsion”

A long-time acquaintance of Hogue’s, Peter Hessler, was an author and staff writer at The New Yorker. He also ran track with Hogue at Princeton. “In my conversations with Hogue, he has described his thefts as a kind of compulsion,” Hessler wrote.

A portrait of James Hogue.
James Hogue. Source: Pinterest

“Hogue is in many ways a very functioning individual, with a range of skills both intellectual and practical,” he wrote, adding, “There should be some way that such a person can become a productive member of society.” It looks like some people are fans of the con man.

“You’re a Very Consistent Thief, Mr. Hogue”

Owens asked the judge to sentence Hogue to probation or community service. The prosecutor reminded the judge that Hogue stole nearly $17,000 in cash and was a bona fide criminal and asked the judge to give him the maximum sentence (three years for the possession of burglary tools).

A photo of wads of U.S. bills fastened with rubber bands.
Photo by Adam Gault/Getty Images

In the end, the judge sentenced him to a six-year aggravated sentence, a three-year concurrent sentence, and an extra 138 days to account for all the crimes he committed. “You’re a very consistent thief, Mr. Hogue, but apparently a very bad one because you get caught a lot,” the judge told him in court.

The System Is Corrupt, He Says

Hogue told the judge, “It’s hard to explain why I do this. It’s nothing I can really understand myself.” After being called back to his seat in the jury box, he was visibly shaken. The man who impersonated teenagers finally looked old.

An interior image of a courtroom.
Photo by Comstock/Getty Images

During his next visit with Fayhee, all he talked about was the corruption of the judicial system (no one’s really arguing with him on this one). He raved about the social injustices in high-brow towns like Vail and Aspen…

Back in Trouble

He hated how “the highest premiums and the worst coverage was for the lowest-paid employees, the ones who were most likely to need health insurance and the ones least able to afford it.” Despite his six-year sentence, Hogue was paroled in 2019 and then discharged.

A video still of James Hogue in court.
Source: YouTube

He then went back to Aspen, and − surprise, surprise – he got into trouble again. In 2021, at 61, he was arrested for burglary, parking illegally, and stealing power from a nearby apartment building. He wasn’t taken to jail, though, but rather issued a summons for trespassing and tampering.

Once a Thief, Always a Thief

Officers had come to investigate the reported burglary when Hogue walked into the garage through an unsecured front entrance. Once he saw the cops, he left through a back door. Half an hour later, they found Hogue’s BMW SUV parked illegally, and he was running a power cord from an apartment building into his car.

A mugshot of James Hogue.
Source: Pinterest

Inside his car were all kinds of items, but none of them matched the reported stolen goods in the recent burglary they were investigating.

The 2005 Chapter

Although the crime that made him famous was his impersonation at Princeton, the crime that landed him in the most legal hot water was in Telluride in 2005. Andy Krueger, Hogue’s former neighbor in Telluride, could tell you all about it.

A photo of a judge holding a gavel in a courtroom.
Photo by Chris Ryan/Getty Images

Over the course of a year, Hogue stole over 7,000 items valued at over $100,000 – things like fancy rugs and sporting goods. He kept them in a storage locker, horse trailer, and cache he excavated under an abandoned water tower.

Sentenced to Ten, Served Four

“I lived two doors away,” Krueger said. “Seemed like a nice enough guy. We talked a bit, but he wasn’t real friendly.” When Krueger started building an addition to his house, he noticed that some of the lumber was disappearing.

An image of an empty prison cell.
Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images

A few months later, Hogue starts building his own addition to the house he was renting, “using lumber stolen from the people who were watching him work,” Krueger said. “We couldn’t prove it,” he added. Hogue was arrested two months later. He was sentenced to 10 years but served four.