Cops: Aspen Mountain shack squatter is notorious con man

A shack built on Aspen Mountain above the Shadow Mountain Condominiums featured insulation, a locking front door, a foundation and a window.

James Hogue has been the subject of stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times, People Magazine and a host of other publications that detail a rich history of theft and deception.

Time Magazine even featured him as one of the country’s “Top 10 Imposters” in a feature story related to the trial of a man who claimed he was a member of the Rockefeller family.

Hogue was born in October 1959 in Kansas City, Kansas, and made a mark as a talented runner in high school. He later attended the University of Wyoming on a cross-country scholarship in 1985 but dropped out, according to a 2006 Denver Post article.

In 1986, he enrolled at Palo Alto High School as a 16-year-old freshman named Jay Huntsman, who told officials he was an orphan who grew up on a commune in Nevada, according to the article. As a member of the track team there, he won the Stanford Invitational – the most prestigious high school race in the country, the Post article states.

However, a local newspaper reporter soon checked birth certificates and discovered Jay Huntsman died at two days old in 1969, and the fraud was exposed, according to the Post article. He was 26 years old at the time.

In 1988, he received a running scholarship from Princeton under the fake name of Alexi Indris Santana, another orphan who this time was from Utah. He competed for the team for two years before a senior from Yale who knew him as Jay Huntsman in Palo Alto recognized him at a track meet, according to the Time article.

The then-31-year-old was charged with forgery, wrongful impersonation and falsifying records, spent nine months in jail and had to pay back $22,000 in financial aid, the Time article states.

In 1992, he was hired as a security guard at one of Harvard’s museums, where he was arrested a few months after being hired for allegedly stealing jewels valued at $50,000, according to the Time article. Hogue popped up in Aspen in 1997, when he was arrested for resisting arrest in connection with a stolen bike, said Aspen Police Detective Jeff Fain. A year later, he received community service for stealing food and Rogaine from an Aspen grocery store, he said. An Aspen Daily News employee filed a restraining order against him at one point, he said.

Then in 2006, Hogue fled the San Miguel County area after police found nearly 7,000 items in his home, a storage locker and a horse trailer valued at more than $100,000, according to the Denver Post article. He was later arrested on charges related to those thefts in Tucson, Ariz.

He served time in prison in Colorado for theft and was released in 2012, Fain said.

A man police say has been living in an illegally built shack on Aspen Mountain for possibly the last two years allegedly turns out to be a notorious con man and thief, an Aspen police detective said Wednesday.

“This guy’s the real ‘Catch Me If You Can’ guy,” Detective Jeff Fain said. “We want to get his name and photo out there to see if he’s working anywhere (around Aspen) and to see if there’s anything else missing.

“Because this guy’s a professional thief.”

“Catch Me If You Can” is a 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio that relates the true story of a prolific con man who posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and others in order to bilk people out of millions of dollars.

James Hogue, 57, has a long history of similar exploits, including posing as a Palo Alto high school student when he was 26, fraudulently earning a scholarship at Princeton as a distance runner in the late 1980s, allegedly stealing $50,000 worth of jewels from a Harvard museum in the early 1990s and serving time in prison in the late 2000s for allegedly stealing $100,000 worth of goods from homes in Telluride and Mountain Village, according to news articles.

Hogue also has an Aspen history, Fain said. He was arrested here for stealing a bicycle in 1997 and food and Rogaine from a grocery store in 1998. Hogue also was living in Aspen in 1999 when a former Palo Alto classmate tracked him down and interviewed him for a documentary titled “Con Man” that came out in 2003, according to Aspen police reports, Fain and news articles.

“I’d really like to sit down and have a beer with this guy,” Fain said.

His latest piece of Aspen history came to the attention of police in September, when they received a report from Aspen Skiing Co. employees about an illegal shack built above the Shadow Mountain Condominiums, which are located at the top of Aspen Street next to the bottom of Lift 1A, Fain said. An Aspen police officer and a member of the city’s open space staff on Sept. 19 climbed up to the cabin, which was extremely well-hidden and featured black, camouflagelike spray-paint designs on its plywood siding, he said.

“Unless you were standing right next to it, you can’t see it,” Fain said.

The fully enclosed, insulated cabin on a foundation featured a window in the corner and a front door with two locks and a 2-by-4 across the door for security, he said. The officer knocked on the door and a man’s voice responded, “I’ll be there in just a minute,” Fain said. Instead, however, the man jumped out the window, on to the roof and disappeared into the woods.

“He had a ‘go bag’ ready just in case something like this happened,” Fain said. “They got just a glimpse of him before he vanished.”

Inside, they found the cabin fully equipped with a camp stove, laptop computer, satellite radio, lights, a bed, clothing and food, Fain said. The officers did not chase the man, he said.

But officers returned at 7 a.m. the next morning and found the shack completely cleaned out.

“Everything was gone,” Fain said. “He literally even swept up before he left.”

The officer who initially knocked on the door said it looked as if the person had been up there for years, he said. When police began asking more questions, they discovered that Skico employees had been able to see the structure and the man’s comings and goings from the top of Lift 1A last winter, Fain said.

Employees even located the structure and sent a ski patroller to check it out during the winter, though that information never made it to police, he said.

“We think he’s been up there a year and a half to two years,” Fain said.

Information about the man and the shack finally made it to police because building materials, including 2-by-4s, insulation and plywood, began disappearing from construction sites in the Lift 1A area, he said. Tools belonging to Skico maintenance also went missing, he said.

With the man gone, city open space personnel hiked up to the shack and dismantled it in September, though they left the building materials on site because they were too difficult to haul down the mountain, Fain said.

Then on Tuesday, Skico employees saw the man again. Construction workers at a site near the base of the mountain also spotted him, Fain said. The man appeared to be digging a 6-by-6-foot hole about 100 feet west of the location of the dismantled shack. He’d already lined the hole with plywood left from the dismantled shack, he said.

“He was starting to build a new house, basically,” Fain said.

So two Skico employees hiked up to the spot where the man was building and found two levels stolen from Skico in August 2015 and a power drill stolen in September, he said. The man — who police think was Hogue — told them he’d found the items.

They also discovered two long electrical cords taken from a contractor working at one of the nearby construction sites, Fain said. Fain believes Hogue ran the cords down the mountain to the highest condo at the Shadow Mountain complex, which features a plug that faces uphill, for electricity.

Hogue didn’t say much Tuesday to the Skico employees, who told him he needed to gather up his stuff and leave the area, Fain said. The employees took back the two levels and the drill, he said.

So Hogue began carrying duffel bags full of stuff to a Nissan Xterra parked in a parking lot across from the Skier Chalet used by ski patrol in the winter below Lift 1A, he said. The employees then noticed a ski patrol parking pass hanging from the rearview mirror of the Xterra and called police, Fain said.

At some point, the employees also snapped a picture of Hogue.

Fain showed up at the parking lot in a marked Aspen police car and said he could see Hogue up on the mountain moving his stuff around.

“He could see us,” Fain said. “We could see him.”

So Fain drove to the Shadow Mountain condo parking lot, fired up his car’s loudspeaker and asked him to come down and talk, he said.

“He disappeared,” Fain said.

Hogue left behind his Xterra, which was later towed by Skico, as well as numerous construction materials under tarps, photography equipment, cooking supplies and other personal items.

Fain said he got Hogue’s name from the Xterra’s registration, then Googled him and discovered his unusual past.

Fain said he compared Hogue’s Aspen police booking photo from the late 1990s with the picture snapped Tuesday by Skico employees and is sure it’s the same person

“I’m 100 percent certain it’s the same guy,” he said.

Fain also checked with Pitkin County’s Health and Human Services department, which runs a daytime homeless shelter near Aspen Valley Hospital. Officials there told him Hogue had been coming to shelter regularly for about the past two years, he said.

At this point, Fain wants to talk to Hogue and give him his car back.

“Is it a possibility he could face charges?” Fain said. “Absolutely.”

However, he said any charges would be minor.

Fain has not yet gotten a search warrant for Hogue’s car, though he plans on trying to obtain one from a judge in the near future.

“I think he’s gone,” he said.