By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Rodrigo Fernando Montano is a liar.
You wouldn't think it to look at him. He has an honest face, a big open smile and a nice warm handshake. He's handsome, too, just over six feet tall, with an athlete's build and eyes the color of dark chocolate. Today his collar-length hair has been neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and he's wearing khaki pants and a light blue-and-white-striped long-sleeved shirt.
He is seated in the back row of a courtroom in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. It's a little past 9 a.m. on October 3, and he's shown up a half-hour late -- much to the distress of his attorney. In a few minutes, Montano is supposed to be arraigned on charges of aggregate theft.
Because court is in session, he has to whisper. And the things he whispers are not true -- at least not to anyone but him.
"I decided to go there because my mom said it was the best school I got accepted to," he says. "I know I have my admissions letter. I don't think I made a mistake."
Montano, who says he's 24 (although he's pretended to be younger), is talking about Rice University, the prestigious private school he claims accepted him as a student for the 2002 fall semester. For nearly a month, Montano ate in its dining halls, attended its classes and ran with its track team. He listens carefully to questions about his time at Rice, and his responses are slow and thoughtful, interspersed with the occasional sweet grin. Every so often he leans in to speak to his mother, a Colombian native who understands only Spanish.
Montano says he applied and was accepted just like any other student. He wanted to study biology and become a doctor, probably a pediatrician. He got along well with the other kids at Rice. They liked him, invited him up to hang out in their dorm rooms and watch movies. He says the one they watched the most was the film that transformed Julia Roberts from a prostitute into a society lady, Pretty Woman.
The only problem is that there is no possible way that Rodrigo Montano ever got into Rice University. Houston Independent School District records show he graduated from high school after seven years with a 1.4 grade-point average -- significantly lower than the norm at Rice, where 83 percent of last year's freshmen graduated in the top 10 percent of their class.
But not only could Montano not have been accepted to Rice, university officials say he never even applied. He just started showing up.
"When they kicked me out, they were telling everyone I was a criminal," he whispers. "I'm not a criminal. I've never done anything wrong."
Suddenly Montano's lawyer, Randy Roll, notices from across the courtroom that the young man is speaking to a reporter, and he marches over and admonishes him. Montano, though he's from Colombia, speaks fluent English. But Roll barks at him in gringo-accented Spanish.
"También necesitas cortarte el pelo. Quieres aparecer como todos los otros estudiantes."
You also need to cut your hair. You want to appear like all the other students.
Montano slumps in his seat and mutters in English that he tried to braid it. He says he doesn't want to cut his hair. An exasperated Roll also complains that the photograph that appeared in the Houston Chronicle looked like Montano's mug shot.
"But it was a mug shot," says Montano innocently.
The Montanos retained Roll after Rice filed a charge against Rodrigo for stealing $107.99 worth of college cafeteria food. Roll argues that Montano didn't steal anything; he signed vouchers at the dining hall promising to pay for the meals in the future. It's a minor charge. If he's convicted of the class B misdemeanor, he could serve up to six months in jail and pay a $2,000 fine.
Although all logic points to the contrary, Roll says he believes Montano. He has to trust his client. Roll informs Montano that his arraignment has been reset for three weeks from now. The delay will give Montano time to find proof of a cashier's check he says was given to Rice in the amount of $2,700. Montano's mother backs up her son's claim that she gave him the money. That's their proof he got into the school.
But Montano doesn't need any proof. No matter what the evidence says, he's always maintained he was a Rice student -- even at the moment he was caught, when he showed up at the registrar's office to complain about problems with his e-mail account. It was that slipup that finally tipped off the university and brought an end to the dream, or the lie, whichever it was. It was that slipup that left everyone wondering, is Rodrigo Fernando Montano completely deluded, or is he just the worst con artist in town?
The campus of Rice University is almost too perfect, as if it were designed for a film director who needed a picturesque setting for his movie about American college life. The buildings are neatly arranged on the well-tended green lawns, and everywhere you go there are determined-looking students carrying books and shouldering heavy backpacks. Like many universities, Rice is a secure and secluded world unto itself, with its own police force, bus system, newspaper, restaurants and bars. Its students have little need to venture beyond the high hedges.