April 23, 1996 in City

Crime Does Pay If It Happened A Long Time Ago

By The Spokesman-Review

‘Why are people still so fascinated by your criminal past?”

Even after selling 3.5 million books, appearing on countless TV and radio shows, being the subject of a Hollywood movie and being paid to speak at hundreds of gatherings, Frank Abagnale still is puzzled by the question.

Moments before he addressed a convention of Washington Parks and Recreation workers in Spokane the other day, the man The Wall Street Journal once dubbed the “greatest con artist of all time” looked at me and shook his head.

“It’s beyond me,” says Abagnale, a tall, handsome and immaculately dressed 49-year-old with flowing salt-and-pepper hair. “I was nothing more than an opportunist, a criminal who saw opportunity and knew how to take advantage of it.”

True enough. But has any other flimflammer ever guffawed at the law with such brazen abandon?

Come on, Frank - it’s no mystery why you receive 300 invitations a year to tell your tale. Your devilish antics tickle that little larcenous kernel lurking in the hearts of all of us.

Get a load of Abagnale’s wild ride:

Impersonating a Pan Am pilot, Abagnale hitched rides with competing airlines and flew more than 3 million miles without paying so much as a nickel.

He cashed 17,000 rubber checks totaling $2.5 million.

He passed himself off as a doctor, landing a job as medical consultant at a Georgia hospital.

Abagnale passed the Louisiana bar exam and helped win 33 civil cases as a state prosecutor.

Using a forged philosophy degree, he taught two semesters of sociology at Utah’s Brigham Young University.

A self-described womanizer, he wined and dined stewardesses around the globe, pulling ingenious swindle after ingenious swindle.

But as unbelievable as all that seems, here’s the most mind-boggling tidbit: Abagnale pulled all of these scams before he was old enough to buy a drink legally. When he finally was arrested by French police in 1969, the con-boy was wanted in 26 countries and all 50 states.

“I was a swindler and a poseur of astonishing ability,” Abagnale wrote in his best-selling 1980 autobiography, “Catch Me If You Can.” (The Simon & Schuster book is still in print.)

“I sometimes astonished myself with my impersonations and shenanigans, but I never at any time deluded myself. I was always aware that I was a check swindler and a faker, and if and when I were caught, I wasn’t going to win any Oscars. I was going to jail.”

He had that right. Abagnale spent one miserable year in a cramped, unheated 17th-century French prison, nearly dying of pneumonia. After that, it was four more years of lockup in the United States.

During his keynote speech at the Washington Parks and Recreation annual conference, Abagnale blamed his parents’ 1965 divorce as the catalyst triggering his unparalleled crime wave.

At 16, Abagnale was tall and mature-looking with a genius IQ. He ran away from his home outside New York City but quickly tired of the low-paying, menial jobs available to a 10th-grade dropout.

A flight crew he saw at a hotel one day inspired Abagnale to take to the skies. Posing as a pilot whose uniform had been stolen, he conned the Pan Am purchasing department out of a new set of duds. He hung around airports to learn the jargon and later perfectly reproduced an airline ID card and pilot’s license.

The freeloading flyboy was so nervy he once took eight college co-eds on a three-month phony publicity tour of Europe, draining Pan Am’s treasury of $300,000.

Whenever he felt the heat closing, this human chameleon adopted a new identity and dreamed up new scams.

Today, however, Abagnale walks the straight and narrow. The FBI that once hunted desperately for the man now considers Abagnale “a good man and a very big help” in its fraud-fighting efforts.

Based out of Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., he travels the country giving motivational speeches and teaching banks such as U.S. Bank and First Interstate how to thwart shifty characters just like him.

“We all grow up,” says the great impostor. “We all get older. We all learn.”

, DataTimes

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email