What do you want to be when you grow up? Sure enough, airline pilot, lawyer or doctor are highly-praised professions, but you would not be expected to choose all of them over a single career. However, if you do, you may become a rightful successor to Frank Abagnale, Jr.
I made a lot of exits through side doors, down fire exits or over rooftops.
Born in 1948 in Bronxville (NY), Frank developed at an early age a knack to fraud and deception, a taste for easy money that he would not get rid of for the many years to come. At 15, he saw the opportunity of a juicy scam after having being handed by his Dad a Mobil card to pay at gas stations. Frank would purchase various car-related items (mostly tires, batteries and gas) to be billed on his father’s card, but leave them to the gas station employee in exchange for cash.
After a while, a Mobil rep went to Mr. Abagnale Sr., wondering how he could “have put fourteen sets of tires on that car in the past 60 days, bought twenty-two batteries in the past 90 days” and highly advising him to “trade that car in on a new one.”
This was the first of a long-lasting swindling career awaiting teenage Frank. Leaving high school, his divorced parents and sweet home behind, Frank set off for New York City, where he followed his ambition to become a pilot for Pan American Airlines. He received his uniform after calling the company supplier and claiming to be an annoyed pilot who had had it stolen; his fake ID was designed at a printing shop and he added the Pan Am logo details from a toy plane bought in a nearby outlet. The stage was set.
Then Frank started to fly. However, he was never to take over the controls – instead, he made the most of a practice known as “deadheading” via which pilots, whatever the company they are employed by, are allowed to board other airlines for free. (The aim of such a practice is to spread airline staff quickly all over the world where needed. But the system is mainly based on trust, a quality that failed young Frank, who by the way pretended to be ten years older at the time.)
He was once offered the plane controls by a friendly pilot. As Frank described, “I promptly put the giant jet on automatic pilot and hoped to hell the gadget worked, because I couldn’t fly a kite.”
A few years and 1,000,000 kilometers later (about 250 flights), Frank found himself in a very tight spot when the FBI started to question his identity. He recognized then that it was time to move and soon impersonated a doctor on vacations in Georgia, under the alias of Frank Williams… His neighbour, a pediatrician himself, asked him for a favour to replace a colleague who had temporarily left.
Dr. Frank became then a regular employee at the local hospital. And he could not stand the sight of blood.
During his shifts, his job was mostly about overseeing: he would leave interns handle the diagnosis-and-treatment-directions part – for which they were really grateful, warmly thanking him for “letting them be real doctors” whereas, ironically, Frank Williams wasn’t even one.
However, it occured that an actual life-and-death situation arise. A nurse came hurrying into Frank’s office, warning him that a “blue baby” was born in Room 608 and that he needed immediate medical assistance. “I’ll be right along, but first I need to check the green baby in 609” he replied. Apparently joking was no help at all: as a matter of fact, a blue baby is a medical term describing a newborn lacking oxygen. An intern handled the case, the baby made it through, but Frank decided to quit his position.
He kept on swindling all the way across North America, some time later impersonating a Harvard Law graduate (passing the lawyer exam on the third attempt), a sociology teacher in Utah for two semesters, and even a FBI agent. He produced a lot of counterfeit checks on the way to finance his luxury lifestyle. Finally caught (looks like they can) in 1969, he was imprisoned in France and started touring other prisons. He was 21 years old.
He only got released after promising to help the authorities on fraud prevention and detection, and has to this day been working hand in hand with the FBI for more than 40 years. He also founded his own company Abagnale & Associates.
Of course, since then, the veracity of what he claims to have done has long been questioned; the book covering his life did admittedly exaggerate the whole story and not intend to respect the truthfulness of a biography, as Frank himself admitted.
Asked about his past, Frank made sure he had dropped all his former pseudonyms. “I was egotistical and self-centered”, he stated. “We all grow up. […] I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of.”
He emphasized the fact that his family brought him more satisfaction than his numerous frauds.
By the way, one of his sons now works for the FBI. Undercover agent, perhaps?
- Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding, Catch Me If You Can, 1980