The story of the ‘world’s greatest conman’ which was immortalised in the Hollywood blockbuster Catch Me If You Can is actually ‘completely fictitious’, according to an investigative journalist.
Frank Abagnale, 73, from New York, attracted worldwide fame after releasing his memoir in 1980 in which claimed that he’d cashed $2.5 million worth of bad checks as a teenager, and posed in different jobs while on the run from the FBI.
His story was turned into the 2002 Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who poses as a doctor, a lecturer, a lawyer and an airline pilot over the course of a crime spree which eventually lands him in prison.
But a new book, The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can by reporter Alan C. Logan, contends that the tale was, for the most part, fabricated by Abagnale.
Logan told The Pulse Abagnale had only stolen around $1,200 during his time as a criminal, saying: ‘So Abagnale’s narrative that between the ages of 16 and 20, he was on the run, chased all over the United States and even internationally by the FBI. This is completely fictitious. Public records obtained by me show that he was confined for the most part in prison during those years.’
The story of the ‘world’s greatest conman’ which was immortalised in the Hollywood blockbuster Catch Me If You Can is actually ‘the world’s greatest hoax’, according to a new book
Frank Abagnale, 73, from New York, attracted worldwide fame after releasing his memoir in 1980 in which he said as a teenager he had cashed in $2.5 million worth of bad checks and posed in different jobs while on the run from the FBI
The story was adapted into the 2002 Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who poses as a doctor, a lecturer, a lawyer and an airline pilot over the course of a crime spree which eventually lands him in prison (pictured, together on the set)
The author used public records, newspaper archives and interviews with witnesses to discover the truth behind the story, which showed Abagnale was in prison between the ages of 17 and 20.
Logan even spoke to a flight attendant Abagnale met in 1969 in an encounter that would eventually lead to his incarceration.
The journalist argued that what really happened was that Abgnale dressed as a TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot for a few weeks, and befriended a flight attendant called Paula Parks.
‘He followed her all over the Eastern Seaboard, identified her work schedule through deceptive means, and essentially stalked the woman,’ he said.
The Spielberg film, which starred A-listers including Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken was a worldwide hit, with Abagnale saying it had ‘stayed very close to the story’
Separating fact from fiction in Catch Me If You Can
Catch Me If You Can is a 1980 book based on the early life exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr., a former con artist.
As a teenager, he claimed to have cashed in $2.5 million worth of bad checks while impersonating a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a teacher, and an attorney.
The book was co-written by Stan Redding, and was adapted into a 2002 film of the same name by director Steven Spielberg, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an FBI agent who pursues him.
So how much of the tale is true?
CLAIM: Between the ages of 17 and 20 in the mid 1960s-1970s, Abagnale travelled the world while cashing in money from hotels, airlines and banks.
THE VERDICT: FALSE Public records, newspaper archives and interviews with witnesses show Abagnale was in prison between the ages of 17 and 20.
CLAIM: As part of the con, he pretended to be a pilot for Pan American airlines.
THE VERDICT: MOSTLY FALSE Abagnale pretended to be a pilot in order to trick a family for a brief period in 1969 as a 21-year-old, but not for Pan Am.
Pan Am spokesperson Bruce Haxthausen told Ira Perry: ‘I’ve checked with the security people and everyone here, and it never happened. This is the first we’ve heard of this, and we would have heard or at least remember[ed] it if it had happened. You don’t forget $2.5 million in bad checks. I’d say this guy is as phony as a $3 bill.’
CLAIM: Abagnale stole money from Logan Airport dressed as a security guard.
THE VERDICT: FALSE Journalist Stephen Hall debunked this claim in 1978
CLAIM: He stole $1.2 million by signing blank checks.
THE VERDICT: FALSE While tricking Paula’s family, he stole $1,200 from them in blank checks
CLAIM: Before the age of 21, his story went, he had managed to escape from police custody twice – once from a taxiing airliner and once from a U.S. federal penitentiary.
THE VERDICT: FALSE He was imprisoned several times in his early 20s for petty crimes
CLAIM: He served fewer than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government.
THE VERDICT: FALSE In reality, he was arrested in the summer of 1974 in Friendswood, Texas, for theft at a kids’ camp, Camp Manison. The arrest was reported in the local paper
Paula tried to convince Abagnale she wasn’t interested in him, but he ended up showing up uninvited at her home in New Orleans.
He tagged along with her on a trip to Baton Rouge where she was visiting her parents and, days later, he visited the couple again unexpectedly.
He told them he was ‘on furlough as a pilot’ and Paula’s parents let him stay in her old bedroom after he won them over.
While the couple cooked him meals and introduced him to people in their neighborhood, he began stealing $1,200 from them in blank checks.
Eventually, he was caught and arrested. He was paroled in 1974, and moved to Texas where he was once again arrested for petty crimes.
Upon his release, a prison officer encouraged him to tell his story of being a transformed man, and Abagnale leapt at the chance.
He began telling the story that as a teenager during the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, he stole millions from hotels, airlines and banks in over 26 countries while being chased by the FBI.
According Abagnale Jr., he pretended to be a pilot for Pan American airlines, a doctor in Georgia, a lawyer in Baton Rouge, and a professor.
Before the age of 21, his story went, he had managed to escape from police custody twice – once from a taxiing airliner and once from a U.S. federal penitentiary.
The conman said he served fewer than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government.
He began giving small lectures before he landed an appearance on To Tell The Truth in 1977.
The show featured a panel of celebrities who had to identify the one person who was not lying, out of three people claiming to be the same person.
Logan said Abagnale fabricated much of his story and told ‘multiple lies’ on stage.
He revealed that there was no fact-checking on ‘To Tell The Truth’ to determine if the conman was being honest.
After the programme aired, he was invited onto national TV to tell his story, appearing on the Today show and The Tonight Show, which at the time was hosted by Johnny Carson.
Local journalists began questioning the plausibility of the story, with Stephen Hall debunking a claim that he’d stolen money from Logan Airport while dressed as a security guard.
Meanwhile another reporter Ira Perry found the claim he had recruited women at the University of Arizona to tour Europe with him on Pan Am’s dime was also untrue.
However despite the work of the reporters, Abagnale’s star was rising and he soon wrote the best-selling book, which was later adapted into both the Spielberg film and a Broadway play.
The Spielberg film, which starred A-listers including Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken was a worldwide hit and Abagnale said it had ‘stayed very close to the story.’
According to Logan conman Abagnale only stole around $1,200 during his time as a criminal (pictured, in 2002)
The conman turned FBI consultant has since insisted he is not proud of his youthful adventures and said he regretted the Spielberg film.
He claimed he has paid back society with interest $2 milllion of the $2.5 million he took was recovered by the U.S. Government and has spent 40 years helping the FBI catch criminals.
However Logan remains skeptical, saying: ‘No one from the FBI has ever made a public statement about what Abagnale has or hasn’t done for them.’
The conman turned FBI consultant has since insisted he is not proud of his youthful adventures and said he regretted the Speilberg film.