Abagnale talks about life on the run

Published Oct 3, 2013 at 11:23 am (Updated Oct 3, 2013 at 11:23 am)

At the age of 16, Frank Abagnale was alone in the world. He and his three siblings lived an idyllic life north of New York City and knew nothing about their parents’ divorce until the children were ordered to go to court.

A judge told Abagnale he had to choose between his parents, both of whom he loved dearly. He couldn’t decide and ran from the courtroom. He kept running.

He never saw his father again as he died after striking his head in a subway station. Abagnale didn’t see his mother for seven years.

Without an education, however, he impersonated a lawyer, airline pilot, college professor and pediatrician.

Along the way, he cashed $2.5 million in bad checks and served time in prisons in Sweden, France and the United States.

At the age of 21, he was caught by the French police and his crime spree ended.

A deal with the United State found him out of prison after four years, almost a decade less than his sentence. The government said “work for us” and he has for more than 36 years.

Abagnale is considered one of the world’s most respected authorities on forgery, embezzlement and secure documents.

When he spoke last week to an audience at the first Town Hall South lecture series in the Upper St. Clair High School auditorium, the audience was hushed. Abagnale spoke, without notes, in a staccato, almost halting speech. No one left early and a few people gave him a standing ovation.

His story is told in the film “Catch Me If You Can.” Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Abagnale. The film is based on Abagnale’s book of the same name. But, Abagnale was not consulted on the film by director Steven Spielberg. Because of his arrangement with the federal government Abagnale, also, cannot benefit from his crimes. He received no royalties from the movie.

Abagnale told the audience that after he fled the courthouse, he took a train to New York City. He was unable to find work beyond menial jobs. Because he was about 6-feet tall and had some gray hair, he forged a document and suddenly became 26. Writing bad checks became his main means of supporting himself.

When he learned the police were looking for him, he decided to leave the city. Then, he saw an airline crew from the now defunct Eastern Airlines at the hotel and decided to pose as a pilot. That way, Abagnale could travel the world in style.

He obtained a uniform and identification badge under the name of John Black for Pan Am Airlines. He worked his way as a “deadhead” passenger in the jump seat in the cockpit, but never with Pan Am for fear his false identification would be discovered.

He flew for free on various airlines, racking up more than one million miles and visiting 26 countries. He always stayed in the crews’ hotel.

He quit the flight life when he was 18. Because the FBI had an arrest warrant for him, Abagnale quit the flight life and moved to Atlanta. There he posed as a pediatrician. He even worked two weeks in a local hospital.

Eventually he went to Louisiana where he passed the state bar examination and practiced law for a year before resigning.

A check scam was next. He opened an account with $100 and the bank gave him 200 checks. Another scheme found him taking the deposit slips from bank desks and altering the numbers on the bottom so when anyone used the slips, the money went in his account.

Abagnale’s life took a sudden turn when he was arrested by the French police on a charge of forgery. He served time in prison where he lost almost 90 pounds. Upon his release, he was sent to Sweden to serve time before the United States took him into custody and sentenced him to 12 years.

Four years into his prison term, he was released because the federal government recognized his expertise and hired him. For more then 36 years, Abagnale has worked ferreting out con artists, forgers and embezzlers. He knows the game and he knows how to catch the crooks.

As for his past indiscretions, Abagnale said, “I was just a child.”

But he realizes what he did was wrong.

“It’s a burden I live with every single day of my life,” he told the audience.

Abagnale said he spent every holiday alone in a hotel. He never went to his high school prom. He missed out on his childhood.

“I always knew I would get caught,” he said.

Because of his work for the government, he was offered pardons three times. He turned down each one.

He met his wife, Kelly, while working undercover to catch a criminal. They have been married for 36 years and have three sons, Scott, Chris and Sean.

“The love of a woman made a difference,” he said at the end of his speech.”

Being a man, he said, has nothing to do with money. A real man should love his wife and be faithful.

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