The Pretender

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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.

Rice is a factory for the best of the best. U.S. News & World Report regularly ranks the university as one of the ten best in the country. Of the nearly 7,000 students who applied as undergraduates for the class of 2005, only 23 percent were admitted. Their SAT scores were off the charts, and 22 percent of them had been ranked first in their high school class. Many Rice students go on to get a master's degree or a Ph.D., and 70 percent of those who apply to graduate school get into their first choice. They become doctors and lawyers, engineers and architects, musicians and scientists.

It is this exclusive world that Montano briefly became a part of, and authorities are still not sure how exactly he pulled it off. Rice has no record of anything like this happening before, and because of Montano the campus police chief has assigned an officer to an administrative investigation so that whatever crack he fell through can be patched. What they do know is that sometime during O-Week (the orientation period for new students), Montano appeared at the Rice University police station, where students' identification cards are issued.

"Sometime during the week of August 19 he showed up at the station with an old ID card that was in two or three pieces and some sort of paper that looked like a class schedule," says Rice's vice president for public affairs, Terry Shepard. Shepard says the ID card system had just been revamped, and everyone at Rice needed new cards this year, not just freshmen. That meant the police department was busy processing up to 300 new IDs every day.

In addition to the class schedule and a broken ID card with the picture scratched off, Montano provided police with a seven-digit student ID number. "It's possible he might have found out from somebody what their ID number was and said, 'Okay, they're in this range right now,' and he just picked a number in that range," says Shepard. The number Montano used had actually been assigned to a prospective high school junior from Oklahoma. (To better track prospective applicants, the university assigns numbers to all those who request information from Rice.) But nobody checked. The employees processing the cards decided Montano seemed legitimate, and they issued him a new card embossed with the number on it.

With ID card in hand, Montano went about the business of going to college. The card allowed him access to the school library and other academic buildings. Most Rice students have their cards coded so that they can use them to automatically pay for their meals. But because Rice has no record of Montano paying for anything, that wasn't a possibility for him. Instead, dining hall employees allowed him to sign a voucher that proved he had eaten and hadn't paid yet.

"There are the normal start-of-the-year hassles, and the people here tend to want to help the students," says Shepard. "So they said, 'Sure, let us know when you get it taken care of.' "

Montano also claims he went to a few classes, although Shepard says he's never heard from a professor who remembers Montano. If he did attend, it's easy to understand how he could have gone unnoticed. Rice has a so-called shopping period for the first three weeks of each semester, where students are allowed to check out classes they're not enrolled in. If they decide they like a class, they can try to transfer in.

"If he had stayed through the end of the shopping period and the first time he'd turned in homework or anything, when the final rosters came out, it would be clear, 'Hey, you're not on this,' " says Shepard.

No one can be sure how much time Montano spent in class. But there were two places he definitely liked to go during his short career as a Rice student: a dorm called Jones College and the school's track.

The Jones College dining area is light and airy, with sky-blue tile floors and walls. The round tables invite easy conversation between the students. It's clean and inviting -- not the stereotypical image of an institutional college cafeteria. And the lunch choices are staggering: Among the countless options are nine different salad dressings and five kinds of pizza.

Unlike most universities, Rice randomly assigns its new students to residential colleges, where most live for their entire college career. Students eat at their college with their fellow residents, and team up to play competitive intramural sports against other dorms. Professors serve as the college masters, living next to the college and spending time advising and listening to the students. It makes the already small university of 2,700 undergraduates even more intimate.

When asked about Montano during their lunch break, the Jones kids are hesitant to talk about him. Those who do prefer not to use their names. It seems at first like they might be embarrassed -- did the smart kids get duped? But as they continue talking, it appears that they want to protect him. They don't seem to understand why the local media has made such a big deal out of this story.

"He was a really nice person, he was very nondangerous," says one small brunette wearing cat's-eye glasses. "He had so many chances to do something wrong, and he didn't." Nothing was stolen, she rationalizes. Nobody got assaulted.

The students say they were surprised at what happened, and they can't explain why Montano did it.

"I think it's the prestige of Rice," says one young man.

"I think he's crazy," argues another.

One male student wearing a black "Drunkin' Donuts" T-shirt says it's not up to the Jones student body to try to understand what happened.

"I don't feel like any of us is in a position to comment on his motivation," he says. Echoing many other students, he adds that he doesn't feel any less safe now.

But it's frightening to think what could have happened had Montano been a different sort of stranger. He talked two freshman girls into allowing him to stay in their dorm room for a few nights. Neither girl would speak to the Press, but one of their friends -- a young woman who says she spent several hours talking with Montano -- tried to explain the situation.

"A lot of people are making fun of them, saying they're stupid freshmen for letting him into their room," she says, blushing and nervously scratching the crook of her arm. The girls' parents found out and got upset with them too, she adds. "But they became used to him, and we're a trusting campus."

The girl says Montano "had an answer for everything." When she asked him why he never seemed to have any homework, he said he liked to wake up early in the morning and do it. When she asked him why he needed a place to stay at Jones, he said he had an off-campus apartment and just needed somewhere to crash that was close to class. He seemed at ease hanging out with the Rice kids, watching movies and chitchatting. The girl says Montano was into hip-hop music and often got calls from his mother on his cell phone. She never once suspected he was anything but what he said he was.

"It's just boggled my mind," she says. "It really took a lot of dedication, a lot of planning."

Still, Montano must have stood out. He was a black person on a campus with fewer than 200 African-American undergraduates, and his grammar is sometimes less than perfect. But college is a place to be friendly, to try to meet new people, say the students.

"I think we're very open here at Rice," says a Jones senior named Eileen. "There's a Rice personality. The only way someone would be unfriendly is if someone was unfriendly to them first."

The reason for that, Eileen guesses, is that in high school most Rice kids were outsiders. It wasn't always easy for the smart kids, who regularly aced their exams. But at Rice, the outsiders suddenly become the insiders. It's a nice change.

"In high school, it's about how you dress and how you act and who you know," says Eileen. "You try to impress and show off. But here, you can get into a discussion on quantum mechanics, and it's not necessarily just with physics majors. It's so much more comfortable in college."

The Jones College master is mathematics department chair Robin Forman. He says he's not surprised that Montano made friends at Jones. The Jones students -- he protectively refers to them as "my kids" even though it's only his first year as master -- are the kind of people who look out for one another.

"To some extent, he became a part of that," says Forman.

But it wasn't just the environment at Jones that led to Montano's acceptance. It was Montano himself. Forman describes him as "a bit of a lost soul."

"We're here because we like to help students," says Forman. "He was someone who gave the impression of being receptive to that kind of support."

Montano was soft-spoken and painfully polite, says Forman. He always peppered his conversations with "yes, sir" and "no, sir" if he was speaking to Forman. He's not the type of person Forman wants to imagine behind bars, but he thinks Rice made the right decision in deciding to file charges. Maybe this way, he says, Montano can get help.

"The feelings are very complicated," says Forman. "But the feeling is much more sadness than fear. He seems to really want to be a part of the Rice community, and it's never going to be a reality."

A few days into O-Week, Montano showed up at Rice's athletic department and told Jon Warren, head coach of men's track and field, that he was interested in joining the team. Warren, a Rice alumnus who ran track for the school in the mid-'80s, told Montano he was welcome to sign up. He assumed Montano had to be a student.

"We never turn anybody down," says Warren, explaining that track is the kind of activity that people can improve in if they work hard enough. Walk-ons are always welcome.

But Montano was no newcomer to the sport. He'd run for Hastings High School, he said, and he'd participated in the Junior Olympics.

Before he could start practicing with the team, Montano would have to have a physical, as required by NCAA regulations. There would be more paperwork later on, Warren told him, but Montano said that would be no problem. He went and got the physical, but before he was even able to officially work out with the team, he showed up and watched the other men run.

"He was a very nice guy, personable and polite," says Warren. "He seemed very comfortable with the other students."

Warren says it was obvious Montano had spent some time on a track -- he had a runner's body and knew the jargon. And he wasn't a bad athlete. But Warren and some of the team members noticed that when anyone asked Montano about his times in certain events, the numbers he gave were fairly impressive.

"In his defense, that's not unusual for kids who come out and walk on," says Warren. "In an attempt to save face, they say they're better than they are."

But Warren became curious about his new team member and decided to do some searching for Montano's statistics on his computer. "The thing about track and field is that everything is on the Internet," explains Warren. "If you look up a statistic, it's going to be there. You can type in my name and see results that go back to the 1980s."

But Montano wasn't all over the Internet. Warren found a few results from Hastings meets in the mid-1990s, but nothing after 1999 -- and Montano was supposedly a 2001 high school graduate.

Still, Warren decided to cut the kid some slack. He was a decent athlete and very dependable. When the track team members were assigned to help work a Saturday cross-country meet at Rice, Montano showed up at 7 a.m. to assist in the mundane tasks of setting up and assigning numbers to the runners.

As the weeks went on, Warren noticed that the times Montano was claiming were getting better and better. At one point he told some of his teammates that he could run the 400-meter dash in 44 seconds -- a time achieved by only Olympic-level athletes.

When university officials finally informed Warren that Montano had been posing as a Rice student all along, it was as if all the little red flags came together. He says it's the strangest thing that's ever happened to him in his eight years of coaching.

"There was really nothing substantial that he could gain from all of this," says Warren, who isn't going to bother trying to get back the pair of last year's shoes and the Rice track T-shirt he gave to Montano. "There wasn't anything he was really going to get."

But as Warren talks about his own experiences at Rice, it's easy to see that Warren himself has gained something just by being at the school. He speaks of the university with a sort of reverence. He can quote the school's standings in U.S. News & World Report off the top of his head, and he says there's something about Rice that makes people who attend it come back to teach or work or coach.

What is it that makes the school so special? Warren tries to explain it this way: Imagine a Rice kid talking to someone, a friend of their mom or dad, and the friend asks where the kid goes to school. And the kid says, "I go to Rice." And the friend of the parent will inevitably respond with an impressed, lilting little "Oh!"

"It's that little 'oh,' " imitates Warren, halfway raising his eyebrows so as to better convey the awe. "There's an atmosphere of success here. You're surrounded by bright people all the time." He smiles and shrugs his shoulders. "It's just an excellent place to be."

The door of the tiny two-story town house opens slightly and Montano's mother, Ladys, peeks her head outside. The attorney has told her family they shouldn't speak to reporters, and anyway, Rodrigo isn't around.

But after answering a few simple questions, it seems Ladys can't resist speaking about her son, the oldest of her six children. She likes to brag about him.

Ladys shares the simple, tidy town house just outside Beltway 8 with Rodrigo and his four younger brothers. A daughter, the second-oldest, is in the military. Ladys has long been separated from Rodrigo's father, Fernando, who lives in Chicago.

"He's a good son, a respectful son, a wonderful son," says Ladys, motioning to a wall of plaques just to the right of the television. She speaks Spanish at a quick clip, and smiles as often as her oldest child does. The plaques, she explains, are Rodrigo's.

They're mostly participatory plaques from Hastings' track and cross-country teams. There are also a few trophies and medals from various meets carefully placed on top of the television. A thank-you plaque from the Alief YMCA, where Rodrigo helped coach youth basketball in 1998, includes a picture of him smiling broadly with his charges standing beside him.

Photographs of Ladys's children are everywhere, and she's quick to point out the ones of Rodrigo. In her wallet she carries a picture of her son in his yellow and blue Hastings uniform, looking tough and muscular. Ladys mentions that she herself used to run as a young girl growing up in Colombia.

Rodrigo was born in Colombia, too, and came to the United States with his parents when he was four. As a little boy, Rodrigo was something of a wonder child. At least that's how Ladys describes him.

"He had teeth and could walk at four months," she says. "He loved to play with Transformers and take them apart and put them together."

After the family arrived in Houston, Ladys started telling her children how important it was to become professionals when they grew up, to work hard and never drink or do drugs. Just before he started high school, Rodrigo began talking about Rice University. Ladys says he often mentioned wanting to go there. Sometimes Rodrigo's sister would say, "Why Rice? There are plenty of other schools in town." But Rice, Rodrigo said, was the best.

When Rodrigo got older and after his father left, Ladys says, her oldest son took charge of the house. His duties increased especially after she was diagnosed with lupus. As a young teenager, Rodrigo did the grocery shopping, cleaned up around the house and made sure the bills were paid.

Ladys insists her son worked hard at school and is very smart, but his efforts aren't well exhibited in his spotty attendance record. The Alief Independent School District verified that Montano -- claiming a birth date of June 14, 1982, which would make him 20 years old now -- attended Hastings High School on and off from 1994 until 2000. He ran track, but none of the current coaches at Hastings was there when Montano was on the team.

He withdrew from Hastings twice, claiming he needed to work. In the summer of 2000, after six years, he had completed only the 11th grade. That's when he transferred to Robert E. Lee High School in the Houston Independent School District.

The registrar's records for Lee say that Montano claimed a birth date of June 14, 1978, making him 24 years old today. (Rice University police checked Montano's driver's license with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which confirmed Montano is 24.) He finally graduated on June 2, 2001.

Ladys says she doesn't understand why her son got arrested. She thinks he's smart, and he had a goal, so why can't he just go to Rice?

"He's a good son, he's never been in any trouble," she says.

But that's not exactly true, either.

Houston Police Department records show that on November 3, 2000, Montano walked into a Wells Fargo bank on Bellaire Boulevard and approached a teller with a driver's license and a withdrawal slip requesting $2,500 from a savings account. The license and the account belonged to a man named Alejandro Martinez, the father of one of Montano's friends.

The teller looked at the license, recognized that the photo on it was not Montano's and called the police, who confirmed the license had been reported stolen and arrested Montano.

It was the third time Montano had impersonated Martinez; the other two times it had worked. According to Martinez, Montano withdrew a total of $7,000 from two of his bank accounts.

"For me, he's not a good guy," says Martinez, in broken English. "He changed my life."

Martinez says he was working in New York City as a building superintendent, sending money back to his wife and teenage daughter in Houston. When he came to visit his family one weekend, he met Montano, who had managed to ingratiate himself with the Martinez family.

"They permitted him to live here for a while," says Martinez. "When he lived here, he was a respectful guy. They trusted him. He helped around the house, worked on the yard, worked on the car. My wife is too soft. She thinks everyone is nice."

Martinez says he didn't like a strange person living in his house when he wasn't around. And he became even more suspicious after he mailed his driver's license to his wife so she could cash a check made out to him. His wife never got the package. Sometime later, money disappeared from Martinez's accounts, and Martinez reported his license stolen.

"I don't know how he got the information; they said maybe my daughter was involved," he says. "I had problems in New York, problems with my wife, problems with my daughter. I thought, 'I am going to be crazy.' "

Martinez says the Montano family pressured him into dropping the charges; Ladys even came to his house crying. Since the banks reimbursed Martinez's money, he agreed. Montano, of course, moved out.

"I guess he thought we had a lot of money," Martinez says. "He is a liar. He pretended he was me."

Martinez's daughter Alexa, who's still friends with Montano, won't talk about the situation between him and her father. She'll say only that Montano is a good person who sometimes "gets caught up in between things, and he should know better." When asked if Montano exaggerates the truth or tells lies sometimes, Alexa pauses then asks, "Is this going to be in the newspaper?"

She evades the question about lying and continues to praise her friend. He was going to Rice, he wants to be a pediatrician, or maybe a biologist. One of the most impressive things about him is that he knows a little bit about everything and can have a conversation about anything.

"Remember, he is a very, very smart person," she says. "Write that down."

On the morning of September 17, at around 11:15, Rodrigo Montano walked into the Rice University registrar's office wearing a Rice University track team T-shirt. He approached the desk and told the staff that he had forgotten his Rice University e-mail address. As usual, he was polite.

Staff members couldn't find Montano in their first computer check, so they checked the old computer system. Still no Montano. They looked for his paper file -- absolutely every student has one of those -- but it wasn't there, either. They called the admissions department, which checked its records. They called the Jones College coordinator, who went through all of her records. In the world of Rice University, Rodrigo Fernando Montano did not exist.

Registrar Jerry Montag and associate registrar Laura Branch approached Montano, who was sitting quietly, and told him that they could find no evidence he belonged there. Montano seemed confused, put both hands up to the side of his head and said -- as if it would explain everything -- that he had recently received his athletic handbook from the track coach.

Montag and Branch asked him, if he was indeed a Rice student, how had he paid his fees?

Montano took out his cell phone and called his mother, then told the registrar that she had indeed sent in a check.

The registrar decided he should call the Rice police, and officers arrived and escorted Montano off campus. He went peacefully. Later, university officials decided the school should file charges, and Rice police obtained an arrest warrant. Posters were put up all over Jones College, warning residents that if they saw Montano, they needed to call the police right away.

On September 19 Montano was stopped by a Houston officer for a routine traffic violation and was arrested.

After posting bond, Montano says, he was embarrassed over the mild media frenzy that followed. He got calls from friends, wondering what was going on.

"I told them I thought I was really going to school up there," he says over the phone, a few days before his rescheduled arraignment. "The kids up there know I'm a good person." Montano claims he still talks to one or two of his Rice friends on the phone from time to time.

When asked about the cashier's check Ladys supposedly sent to Rice -- the proof he needs to have for his next appearance in court -- he says his mother is taking care of it.

He tries to explain his long school record by saying he often had to take care of his sick mother. Sometimes that would involve trips to the hospital that made him late for class. He says he didn't mind cooking and cleaning because he likes being busy. His favorite dish to make for his brothers and sisters was lasagna.

Montano says he's not going to let the charge pending against him ruin his future. He hasn't been doing much lately, just hanging out at the mall and looking for a job, but he still wants to go to school and get some kind of degree. His mother and father want him to try the military; he says they've been suggesting it since before he graduated from high school. But that idea doesn't appeal to him.

"I don't like guns," he says. "I'm not into the whole military thing. I just can't do it."

Montano will not admit he wasn't accepted to Rice. And when he's asked about his previous run-in with the law -- the money he took from Alejandro Martinez -- he brushes off the question without skipping a beat.

"I went to do something for him and his wife," he says. "Basically, I went to make a deposit."

Montano's rescheduled arraignment falls on a bleak, rainy Wednesday morning. This time, Montano has shown up early. His hair has been trimmed short and he's wearing a sharp olive-green suit. A large diamond stud sparkles in each ear.

Ladys sits quietly to the right of her son. Once in a while Montano leans in to whisper something to her in Spanish, and she cracks up.

The judge calls name after name to appear before him, and Montano fidgets with boredom. When he's asked if he knows what's going to happen today, he shakes his head no. He doesn't seem concerned, even when his attorney arrives and takes him out into the hallway to speak privately.

When they come back into the courtroom, Roll seems slightly pained. It's clear that Montano and his mother have not come up with proof of the cashier's check. He'll have to get the arraignment reset again.

"We're going to have to subpoena records from Rice," says Roll. "He's maintained 100 percent that he's a student. His mother says she remembers giving him the money for school. And I can only go with what they're telling me."

It would be so much simpler for Montano to just plead guilty, but he won't, says Roll, which means he must really believe he's innocent.

Suddenly, Montano breaks in.

"I'm not guilty, and I didn't do anything wrong," he begins, but Roll quickly quiets him. It looks like Montano wants to say something more, like he could stand there all day and defend himself if he had to -- telling the world he's still the track star, still the future doctor, still the Rice student.

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