Last October a group of new Rice University students went to Six Flags AstroWorld. Among them was David Jovani Vanegas, a sophomore transfer student from UT. No one knew him too well since he lived off campus, but he was friendly. When the group got lost between the Light Rail and the park entrance, Vanegas hung around. He was a political science major, he told his new friends. He mentioned he was really glad he got into Rice.
At least, that's what he said. Now, roughly a year later, the group knows that none of that information is true. On September 13, Rice police arrested Vanegas for criminal trespass. Turns out he wasn't an actual Rice student but a 20-year-old impersonator. Starting last September, Vanegas began eating in Rice's dining halls, hanging out with students and attending classes. Some nights, he crashed in friends' dorm rooms when he was too tired to go home.
Most of the campus learned about Vanegas's arrest in the undergraduate newspaper, The Rice Thresher. Vanegas's friend, senior Daniel Rasheed, turned him in to the police, the paper reported. Rasheed himself had transferred to Rice the previous winter. For the past six months, he'd doubted Vanegas's student status.
"I just wanted to know the truth," Rasheed told the Thresher. "I just thought they'd be like, 'Okay, he's not a student.'"
The university is doing more than that, though. On the day of Vanegas's arrest, criminal trespass charges were filed against him (but later dismissed). Within the next few weeks, campus administrators alleged that Vanegas had taken close to $3,700 worth of food from Rice cafeterias. On September 28, the district attorney's office filed felony charges for aggregate theft. Bail was set at $2,000.
At Rice many students seem indifferent to these charges. A lot of them could recall seeing Vanegas once or remember him playing Nintendo in a dorm common area. But he formed few lasting connections. Last September, Vanegas hung out around Baker College a lot. Baker is one of nine residential colleges at Rice; every freshmen is assigned to one. For all four years, most students' lives are based at their colleges. They eat, sleep, work and make lifelong friends there.
Vanegas played the part of a 'Bakerite' very well, but he never really infiltrated any social circles, says sophomore Hans Kiessler.
"He never tried to make concrete relationships. He just seemed like a friendly guy, maybe friendly to a fault," he says. Kiessler remembers Vanegas as a people pleaser, floating around, laughing at everyone's jokes, going with the flow.
Kiessler was part of the group that went to Six Flags. For a long time, he didn't question Vanegas's story. After all, it was his first semester at college -- everyone and everything was new. Vanegas was in the same position as all freshmen: He was looking for friends.
But Kiessler stopped spending time with Vanegas in November. He remembers the distinct moment his opinion changed. Vanegas invited him and a bunch of other people to attend a frat party at the University of Houston. It seemed like Vanegas had connections at UH. But once the group arrived, the event seemed "really closed off."
"Then we realized: Wait, he doesn't actually know anyone."
After that, Kiessler says, he lost track of Vanegas, who seemed to come around Baker much less in general. Their quasi-friendship faded.
Vanegas formed "deep acquaintanceships" with many students, says English professor Jose Aranda. Aranda is the "master" at Baker College; he lives there and is responsible for the well-being of Baker students. He'd never seen Vanegas until the day of his arrest; he gleaned information from students afterward.
"This guy was really smooth, charismatic and knew how to turn a lie into a semi-truth," Aranda says. "He basically avoided detection just by moving around."
After police picked up Vanegas in a student dining hall, he said that Aranda would be able to identify him as a Baker student. Vanegas stood on Aranda's patio as Aranda stared at him and then double-checked his Baker rolodex, making absolutely sure he wasn't.
Soon after, police made the arrest. More than a week later, Aranda read in the Thresher about Vanegas's last attempts to guard his secret. Vanegas told "a tall tale about his family being an internationally wealthy family and how he had to attend Rice under a fake name, which is why we would find no record of him on any Rice database," said one of the officers who picked up Vanegas.
So why did Vanegas keep coming day after day for three semesters? He told police officers that he hadn't gotten into Rice, but it would have broken his mother's heart for him not to attend. Attempts to reach Vanegas were unsuccessful.
Vanegas didn't express regret about his actions, according to Bill Taylor, Rice police chief. "His feeling was that if he got caught, he would be given a criminal trespass warning and told not to come back. He felt, 'Nothing's going to happen to me.'"
Baker sophomore Chuck Swanson says he recognizes the genius in Vanegas's plan: "Let's say, for whatever reason, you can't get into Rice. Do you a) go into the workforce, or do you b) decide to crash a college for a year? You get to go to parties, you get free food, you get to hang out with people that are your age and have fun. Pretty much, he did nothing. He's being a bum -- but in an awesome way at a great university." Many students seem floored an impersonator could pull off this act for more than a year. A Rice junior started a "Free Vanegas" group on Facebook.com (a MySpace-type site for college kids). However, he didn't actually know Vanegas, he said. He was just a sucker for con artists.
Vanegas is not Rice's first impersonator in the last few years. Almost four years ago, the Houston Press wrote about Rodrigo Fernando Montano, a 24-year-old Houstonian who spent almost a month on the Rice campus ["The Pretender," by Jennifer Mathieu, November 14, 2002]. Vanegas, of course, lasted much longer than that. But Taylor sees more striking differences.
"Montano didn't understand how to become a student," recalls Taylor. "He thought if he just started hanging out here, went to classes and showed up at a dorm, he would become a student. He actually went to the track coach and got shoes and stuff; he thought he was trying out for the team. In his mind, as far as we could determine, that's what he actually thought he needed to do."
Even after his arrest, Montano always maintained that he was a real Rice student (and his mother backed him up). He even inadvertently turned himself in when he visited the registrar's office to complain about problems. Of course, there was no record of him.
Vanegas, on the other hand, was fully cognizant of his actions -- and incredibly tactful, says Taylor. "He had a lot of stories; he would say, 'I'm a graduate student' or 'I'm a whatever.' It was hard for someone to put a finger on what his status was."
So over the course of last year, Vanegas circulated around campus, forming new "deep acquaintanceships." He met people outside of Baker and, according to many, barely visited the college after a while. But one person at Baker clearly remembers interacting with him periodically throughout the year.
Venora Frazier has been the Baker college coordinator for 17 years. She keeps Baker organized. Students drop by all day long to joke and laugh, get forms signed, whine about school or tell her about their misfortunes. Baker is the most centrally located college on campus, so even non-Baker people often know Frazier. People call her "Mrs. V," and "Mrs. V" is clearly beloved. Vanegas, like so many other students, knew her.
Frazier heard about the impersonator before she saw his picture. When she eventually saw the photo, it floored her.
"I was like, 'This kid is not the guy -- this kid is a Rice student!'" she says. Afterward, Frazier looked through some of her records just to be absolutely sure there wasn't a mistake. "I said, 'Now wait a minute, he had to have been a member of Baker.' But no, nothing."
Vanegas used to stop by Frazier's office last year to chat. Once or twice, he even came to her "tea times," weekly tea-and-dessert events held in her office to promote college bonding.
"He was very polite, very polite," recalls Frazier. "He was always smiling; he had a wonderful persona. It's very hard to imagine that he could do something like this -- but I guess that's what they say about a lot of people that are locked up."
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Now that Frazier knows the truth, she feels sympathy for Vanegas. She wonders what kind of environment he came from.
"Who knows what he's really been faced with, for him to even want to get to this point?" she says. "It's not a bad thing that a person wants an education. And it's not a bad thing to be around people who are seeking an education. So what that says is regardless, he probably really, really does want that."
Ruth Samuelson, an intern with the Houston Press, is a senior at Rice.