Frank W. Abagnale Jr. was annoyed.
The Times of London had reviewed my 2019 book about serial liars, Duped, and a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio in full pilot regalia accompanied the piece.
It was the famous still from Catch Me if You Can, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film inspired by Abagnale’s best-selling memoir from 1980.
Via email, the “reformed” con artist and author — who now advises businesses, banks, department stores and the FBI on fraud prevention and cybercrime — wanted me to know that it bothered him that “everyday someone writes an article about a bank robbery, forgery, con artist, or even cybercrime and they refer to me.
“The crime I committed was writing bad checks,” he wrote. “I was 16 years old at the time. I served five years total in prisons in Europe and the US Federal prison system. In 1974, after serving 4 years in federal prison, the government took me out of prison to work for the FBI. I have done so now for more than 43 years.”
He added that he had repaid all of his debts.
His distress surprised me.
Abagnale never seemed embarrassed by his past — not on To Tell the Truth nor The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson nor in high-paying speaking gigs around the country.
His grifter-made-good story was a huge selling point.
According to both Abagnale himself and his autobiography, in the mid-1960s and early ’70s, when he was between 16 and 21, he had impersonated a Pan Am pilot, flying some 3,000,000 miles to 82 countries for free.
He claimed to have posed as a doctor in Marietta, Georgia, a sociology professor at Utah’s Brigham Young University, and a lawyer in the lawyer general’s office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
During that period, he allegedly cashed 17,000 bogus checks totalling $2.5 million dollars, with the FBI in hot pursuit.
That’s the legend, anyway — as told in print, film, theatre and speeches worldwide. It’s a story that has brought Abagnale fame, fortune, and most of all, legitimacy.
So why did he object to being in a book about deception?
I asked Abagnale — who founded Abagnale & Associates, a firm that advises companies on fraud prevention, in 1976 — this question in my reply email, but he never responded.
And I put it out of my head until June 2020, when another email popped up in my in-box, this time from a man named Jim Keith.
In 1981, Keith, then manager of security at a JC Penney in St. Louis, heard Abagnale speak at an area high school about turning his life around.
Keith and a local detective were in the audience. Much of the speech was filled with “technical information regarding bad checks” and it was, to Keith, incorrect.
“We walked away with a sick feeling that we and those students were sold a bill of worthless goods,” Keith said.
Infuriated, he began researching Abagnale.
Keith was, his daughter, Heather Crosby, told the Post, “Like a dog with a bone … He was determined to show this guy was a fraud.”
Accusations that Abagnale had fabricated his life story had been swirling for a few years, beginning with the San Francisco Chronicle in 1978 and the Daily Oklahoman soon after.
But with no household internet, those stories never reached critical mass. Abagnale’s fantastical feats remained unchallenged.
Keith eventually teamed up with a professor named William Toney, a former border patrol officer and professor of criminal justice at Stephen Austin University in Nagodoches, Texas.
He, too, had witnessed an Abagnale talk and didn’t buy it. So he enlisted his students to help investigate.
Keith sent me an 87-page file of old newspaper clippings, court documents, letters — from airlines, university officials, government sources and others — along with correspondence from Toney, who died in 2010.
Some of what Abagnale said was true.
He did forge checks, masquerade as pilots, sit in a few jump seats, escape a jailhouse and go to prison in Europe.
But the rest of his not-so-humble brags were “inaccurate, misleading, exaggerated or totally false,” claimed Keith, who died in 2021 at 77.
As Abagnale’s former speaking agent, Mark Zinder, 66, told the Post, “He was a two-bit criminal. I’m embarrassed that I ever associated with the man.”
Abagnale never pretended to be a professor at Brigham Young or a physician in Georgia. He never posed as a lawyer in the Baton Rouge lawyer general’s office.
He was never a consultant to the US Senate Judiciary Committee.
Chief counsel Vinton D. Lides told Keith that an “initial check of employment records for the last ten years, does not indicate that one Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. has ever been employed as a consultant, or in any other capacity, by this Committee.”
(Although Abagnale has claimed to have used the aliases Frank Williams, Frank Adams, Robert Conrad, and Robert Monjo, there’s no evidence he did.)
Nor did Abagnale steal money from a deposit drop at Boston’s Logan Airport while dressed as a security guard, as he’d claimed in his memoir and talks.
And his Pan Am antics were seriously embellished.
“I am sorry not to have the time or the inclination to rebut the same dribble this individual has been peddling for years,” Andrew K. Bentley, Pan Am’s director of security, wrote Keith on Mary 18, 1982.
It’s also impossible for Abagnale to have completed his criminal enterprises between ages 16 and 21: He spent much of those years behind bars.
That’s also why he could never have cashed 17,000 fraudulent checks worth $2.5 million, said Alan C. Logan, author of “The Greatest Hoax On Earth,” about Abagnale. “The time he wasn’t in some prison or jail amounts to about 14 months. Cashing 17,000 checks in that period is 40 checks per day.”
In November 1970, the 21-year-old was picked up in Cobb County, Georgia, after cashing 10 fake checks worth a grand total of …$1,448.60. He was sent to a federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1971 and sentenced to 12 years.
Abagnale has claimed that the government sprung him from Petersburg to work with the FBI, but “There is no evidence to support this claim,” said Logan. The FBI would not comment.
While an FBI agent was looking for him, there is also no proof that the bureau set up a task force dedicated to his capture.
In fact, Abagnale was arrested again, in 1974, for stealing art and photography equipment from a Texas summer camp where he was working. He was 26.
In 1982, Toney presented his findings on Abagnale at the International Platform Association, a speakers’ convention in Washington, DC. Others on the schedule included Carl Sagan, David Brinkley, F. Lee Bailey — and Frank Abagnale, Jr.
But after getting wind of Toney’s talk, “How to Catch a Con Man,” Abagnale never showed up.
According to records obtained by The Post, Abagnale threatened to sue Toney for libel and slander; Toney filed suit against Abagnale for “damages”.
They settled out of court in 1985.
As for Abagnale’s justification in his memoir and in speeches that he only robbed large corporations, that’s news to Paula Parks Campbell, a former flight attendant who met him — wearing his TWA pilot uniform — on a plane from New York to Miami in 1969.
“TWA was the giant,” says Campbell, 75, who lives outside Baton Rouge.
Abagnale sent two dozen red roses and a 5-pound box of chocolate to her hotel. When she landed in New Orleans the following day, he was there at the airport.
“He was very charming, but he smelled bad,” Campbell told The Post. “It wasn’t body odour. It was fear.”
When he surprised her at four other airports, she began to get uneasy but decided to have him meet her parents in Baton Rouge.
“My parents and brother fell in love with him,” she said.
After dinner, her mother invited Abagnale to return and she’d teach him to fish. But on the ride back to New Orleans, Campbell told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.
A few days later, however, Abagnale popped up at her parents’ door unannounced, telling them he was on furlough from TWA.
They invited him to stay over — it ended up being six weeks.
Her parents, a nurse and teacher, treated Abagnale like one of their children.
He thanked them by rifling through her parents’ checkbooks and getting into the savings accounts of her brother and a family friend, stealing about $1200 from them.
“He said he never hurt little people, just went after big businesses,” said Campbell. “That’s the one that sticks in my craw. My mama’s heart was broken.”
Soon after, Abagnale sent a mea culpa to the family.
“There are no words to express how ashamed and sorry I am,” he wrote. “You people have showed me more love in six weeks than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Even though I will go to prison, every cent I owe you will be repaid.”
Campbell, whose parents are long gone, is still waiting.
So is Mark Zinder, who sued Abagnale for breach of contract and lost commission for
speeches Abagnale never gave, and said he is still owed $15,000.
And Nelda McQuarry, who said she invested $20,000 with Abagnale in what turned out to be a real-estate scam.
Abagnale moved from Houston to Tulsa in 1985, along with his wife, Kelly Welbes Abagnale.
In 1991, the couple, who had three sons, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, claiming to have $308.752 in assets and $1.6 million in debt. (They now live in Daniel’s Island, South Carolina, and are apparently no longer in bankruptcy.)
There are signs that the ruse might be slowing down.
Abagnale was appointed a “Fraud Watch Ambassador” for AARP in 2015, educating consumers on scam prevention.
He co-hosted AARP’s podcast “The Perfect Scam” from 2018 until at least 2022.
But, according to a company spokesperson, Abagnale is “no longer associated with AARP.” A July 2022 article on the company’s web site notes that “many of his tales have since been debunked”.
Google added a disclaimer to a 2017 Abagnale talk that has garnered 15 million views, noting that it “does not lay claim to the validity of the actions described therein.”
Abagnale doesn’t like to talk about his past, especially not to journalists (through a rep, he declined to comment).
When “Catch Me If You Can” came out in 2002, he issued a statement about the book and film.
The author, the late Stan Redding, “overdramatised and exaggerated some of the story … He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography,” Abagnale wrote.
(On the Penguin Random House website, the book is featured in the biography and memoir category.)
In March 2022, Abagnale surprised students at a Ringgold, Georgia, high school for a performance of the stage adaptation of the movie. He reiterated that, “Everything I did I did between the age of 16 and 21. I was caught when I was 21.”
That same month, Javier Leiva, host of The Pretend podcast, which devoted eight episodes to Abagnale’s faux shenanigans, attended a speech Abagnale gave in Las Vegas.
Ninety per cent of the lecture was about IT security/fraud prevention, but “the undertone of his false life-story was palpable,” said Leiva.
Abagnale walked on stage to John Williams’ theme song for “Catch Me If You Can,” and elaborated on his alleged check-forging scheme.
At the end of his email to me, Abagnale asked, “Is 50 years not long enough to receive some redemption for a crime committed when one was a teenager?”
“Everyone has a right to a second chance,” said Leiva. “Forgiveness is a virtue. But basing your entire career on a lie and continuing to profit from it isn’t redemption — it’s just a different version of the same con.”
This article was originally published by the New York Post and reproduced with permission
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