In 2002, Steven Spielberg started filming the life of Frank Abagnale. Fortunately it only took about four months of filming for Spielberg to get the shots he needed. On Christmas Day of 2002, Spielberg’s DreamWorks released Catch Me If You Can. The movie, which was directed by Spielberg himself, starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale along with other Hollywood stars such as Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen.
The film was a box office hit as it raked in over $160 million dollars.
Frank Abagnale himself gave the film that was based on his life story some high praise — but he was quick to point out there were plenty of inaccuracies. According to Frank, “it’s important to understand that it is just a movie…not a biographical documentary.”
So who was Frank Abagnale? And what is the true story of one of the world’s most prolific con artists?
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A year before Steven Spielberg directed his first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a relatively unknown 32-year old New Yorker by the name of Frank Abagnale made a few bucks of his own when he sold the film rights for his autobiography.
The years passed, and Spielberg continued to make Hollywood blockbusters, including E.T., two more Indiana Jones movies and, of course, Jurassic Park.
When he sold the film rights to his autobiography in 1980, most of the world didn’t know who Frank Abagnale was — and he certainly must not have expected much to come of the film rights that lay dormant for so many years.
In 1997, seventeen years after Frank sold the film rights to his life story, these rights would change hands when they were sold yet again to DreamWorks.
Finally, in 2002, Spielberg started filming the life of Frank Abagnale. Fortunately it only took about four months of filming for Spielberg to get the shots he needed. On Christmas Day of 2002, Spielberg’s DreamWorks released Catch Me If You Can. The movie, which was directed by Spielberg himself, starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale along with other Hollywood stars such as Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen.
The film was a box office hit as it raked in over $160 million dollars.
Frank Abagnale is still alive today, and the New Yorker who sold the film rights to his life story 22 years earlier, gave the film that was based on his life story some high praise — but he was quick to point out there were plenty of inaccuracies. According to Frank, “it’s important to understand that it is just a movie…not a biographical documentary.”
So who was Frank Abagnale? And what is the true story of one of the world’s most prolific con artists?
The true story behind Catch Me If You Can
In 1942, a dashing Sergeant in the United States Army’s 276th Infantry Division was taking a break from the war with some other soldiers at a small diner in Oran, Algeria, when he saw the love of his life.
After World War II, Frank William Abagnale and Paulette Noel Anton returned together to Frank’s home in New York City where the two were married.
To support their new family, Frank started a stationary store on the corner of 40th and Madison in New York City, near a present-day McDonald’s.
Frank grew increasingly prominent in local politics and together, Frank and Paulette seemingly lived the American dream. They must’ve been ecstatic when they welcomed a son into the world just a few years later.
Frank William Abagnale, Jr. was born on April 27, 1948.
The American dream continued on for a while, but unfortunately as is the case for many marriages sometimes just don’t survive the test of time.
In the movie, a young Frank, Jr. played by Leonardo DiCaprio comes home one day to find a lawyer in the house with his parents. Frank’s mom sits down to explain that he has to decide who he wants to live with. Frank Sr., who’s played by Christopher Walken, keeps trying to reassure Frank that everything will be okay. Just decide who you want to live with.
Making such a difficult choice is too much for Frank and he runs away.
This telling is quite different from truth, although Frank Sr. and Paulette did get a divorce. It happened when Frank was 12-years-old, and although Paulette had full custody of him, Frank often spent time with his dad.
Frank’s dad never stopped loving Paulette, and would constantly use Frank to try to get back with Paulette. It never worked, but not for lack of trying on Frank Sr.’s part.
Those were certainly formative years for Frank, but perhaps nothing was so formative as something that wasn’t even in the movie. When Frank was just 15-years-old, he experienced something that would change his life forever: Girls.
While an infatuation with girls isn’t unique to a teenage boy, Frank was head-over-heels with them. Not any one in particular, but Frank was … well, let’s just say he was a fan of spreading the love.
It didn’t take long for Frank to realize something about girls. They liked to be spoiled. And Frank liked to spoil them. But, of course, such expenses don’t come for free. So Frank got a part-time job to support his newly-found passion.
Again, it didn’t take long for Frank to realize something about his part-time job. It didn’t give him the means to spoil girls as much as he’d like.
This left Frank strapped for cash, which made it tough to pay for things he actually needed – like gas to drive his truck to and from his job. Embarrassed, Frank turned to his dad for help and was rewarded with his dad’s credit card from the gas station. He could use that to help pay for gas, and the bill would go to his dad.
Everything would’ve gone according to plan if Frank hadn’t noticed the credit card could be used for more than just gas. That’s when he pulled his first con, although he almost certainly wouldn’t have called it a con at the time.
Basically what he did was to purchase something more than gas. Except instead of taking the items, he made a deal with the gas station attendant. He’d charge full price for a set of tires to the card, for example, and instead take a portion of the price. The rest he’d give to the attendant, who could pocket the money and sell the tires again to someone else.
After the success of Frank’s first con, he did the same thing again at a different gas station. Then again at another. And again, and again.
In less than a month, Frank racked up about $3,400 in charges buying various tires, car batteries or anything else he could. $3,400 in 1963 is about $26,500 in 2016’s dollars — no small amount for a month’s worth of imaginary auto supplies.
The purchases came as a shock for his dad, who was stuck with the bill. And his mom wasn’t too impressed with Frank’s con either, and sent him off to a private school.
While Frank was at this school, his dad’s business went under causing even more strain on an already strained relationship between Frank and his separated parents.
The school was stifling. There weren’t any girls. When he was at home, Frank was the mediator between his two parents. Frank grew increasingly depressed with the situation and, one summer afternoon he simply decided he’d had enough. Frank ran away from home in 1964 at the age of 16.
In the movie, shortly after leaving home, Frank is thrown out of an apartment for bouncing a check. This isn’t really true, although it is true that Frank didn’t have much money. He left home with $200 in a checking account. That was his emergency fund with Frank’s primary source of money being his job.
But it didn’t take long before he had to dip into the emergency fund. He was barely making ends meet. And he quickly realized that girls didn’t pay much attention to him when he was broke.
That wouldn’t work.
Another pivotal moment in the movie happens when Frank notices a well-dressed pilot laughing it up with his stewardesses. This actually happened, and Frank made note of how everyone nearby also noticed the pilot. That’s when Frank had the idea to become a pilot.
And so he did.
Of course, he couldn’t waltz onto a plane, but Frank was a smart kid. He knew he’d need a uniform, so he got that first. Then he learned a pilot needed an FAA license and ID card by observing and casually conversing with other airline personnel. Using skills he picked up at school for graphic design, Frank fashioned new identification.
To give you an idea of the level of bravado that Frank had to obtain his new identity, he posed as a representative of a new, made-up airline that was looking to buy new ID cards similar to those Pan Am has. He went to the supplier, who was more than happy to give him a sample ID card that Frank could take back and show his bosses.
He even convinced the supplier to snap a photo of Frank and build the ID card for him as a sample just so Frank’s bosses at the fake airline could see the great work the supplier could do.
Just like that, Frank Abagnale, Jr. became Frank Williams, a co-pilot for Pan Am.
As a co-pilot, Frank enjoyed a great many benefits. There was the free travel, of course, as he could “deadhead” around the country. Deadheading is a process airlines do where one airline will let crew from another airline fly for free if they need to get to a certain city for a flight. So if Frank wanted to go to Los Angeles, for example, he’d just pretend Pan Am needed him there and pick up a flight on a different airline.
In this way, the country was Frank’s oyster and he could go wherever he wanted.
But there’s another part to Frank’s story.
In the movie, Frank makes his money by cashing checks. There’s a scene where Frank sweet talks a young bank teller into telling him all about her job — routing numbers, how the checks work and more.
While that particular instance likely didn’t happen, that’s pretty much how Frank learned everything he did about checks: Through bank employees telling him what he needed to know. It wasn’t all at once, of course, but here and there Frank picked up the information he needed to run his con.
Basically Frank would go into a bank and ask to open an account there. Not just a normal account, but he always had a great story for why he needed to transfer a significant amount of money. Maybe he’d be a pilot or maybe his construction company would be doing a significant amount of work there.
To open the account, he’d write a check. Depending on where he was at, he’d use his graphic design background to alter the routing numbers to send the check to the opposite end of the country.
Banks had a three day waiting period to make sure the funds would clear, which is how long it should’ve taken. Once that time passed, Frank could access the funds in the new account. But because Frank changed the routing numbers and no one ever checked to make sure the routing numbers weren’t the same as the original, the check wouldn’t actually come back as having insufficient funds until about six or seven days.
After the three day waiting period, Frank would come back to the bank and withdraw some of his cash and then disappear. With Frank’s new job as a carefree Pan Am co-pilot traveling the country, there were a virtually limitless supply of banks who could fall prey to his con.
The movie claims there’s not much time before an FBI agent by the name of Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks, starts tracking Frank — although Carl doesn’t know Frank’s name at first.
This is true, although there’s no FBI agent named Carl Hanratty. In truth, the character of Carl is based on an FBI agent by the name of Joseph Shea. And in the movie, Frank barely escaped from Carl after convincing Carl he’s another agent who was on Frank’s trail. After this, Frank calls Carl on Christmas in something that would start an annual tradition between the two — forming an odd sort of friendship between cat and mouse.
The calls never happened, and neither did the near-scare in the hotel room. Frank was a smart guy, so he knew he was being chased, but he didn’t know who Joseph Shea was. And Joseph certainly wasn’t the only person chasing Frank.
But that doesn’t mean Frank didn’t have some close calls.
One of these close calls came as Frank was deadheading from New Orleans to Miami. It was routine for Frank, who’d run the con so many times he could probably do it in his sleep.
But this time was different.
Before taking off Frank, who was sitting on the jump seat in the cockpit, overheard one side of a conversation between one of the pilots and air traffic control. This in and of itself wasn’t unique, but this was the first time the conversation was about him.
The pilot asked Frank for his FAA license and read off some numbers to the tower. Afterward, the pilot was apologetic, saying it was just a nuisance. The rest of the flight went as usual, although Frank was certainly a bit anxious.
When they landed, Frank was greeted at the gate in Miami by two sheriffs who took him back to the station for questioning. But just like he did in the movie, Frank talked himself out of it. Just not by pretending to be an FBI agent as Leonardo DiCaprio did to Tom Hanks on the big screen.
Instead, in real life, Frank talked his way out of it by convincing the sheriffs he was a Pan Am co-pilot by the name of Frank Williams. He showed his ID and even had the sheriffs call another pilot Frank had recently met on a deadhead trip. The pilot confirmed he knew who Frank Williams was and that he was a pilot for Pan Am.
That was enough for the sheriffs, and Frank was let go.
In the movie, it’s during one of Frank’s parties in Atlanta when one of his friends, Lance Applebaum, gets sent to the hospital when Frank first makes an appearance in the hospital himself. Now as far as the plot in the movie Lance isn’t a very important character, but it’s important turning point because this is when Frank meets Brenda Strong, who’s played by Amy Adams in the movie.
In truth, Frank did date a woman named Brenda Strong, although it was very briefly and Frank wasn’t head-over-heels like he was in the movie. Actually, the woman Frank dated in real life that he was head-over-heels for was a woman named Rosalie — but we’ll get to that.
The true story happened shortly after Frank was let go by the sheriffs. Frank decided it was time to go underground for a little bit; to avoid getting caught.
Like a modern-day sailor, Frank had acquaintances in just about every city he flew to and from — usually stewardesses he’d met or bed. He decided to go to Atlanta and stay with a girl he knew there.
The girl ended up leaving shortly after on business, so Frank rented his own place in Atlanta. When he applied for the apartment, the complex asked for his name and job status. I’d imagine the applications then were fairly similar to the ones today in that regard.
Frank kept using Frank Williams as his name, but he didn’t want to put down that he was a pilot. Doing that would mean he’d have to put down what airline, Pan Am, and would likely mean he could be found. That sort of defeats the purpose of going underground.
So Frank jotted down a career he thought equally important — a doctor.
When the lady saw the application and asked what kind of doctor, Frank tried to think of something he’d never have to prove in Atlanta. So he went with a pediatrician.
Well, that might’ve worked, except for when Willis Granger moved in just below Frank a few weeks later. Willis immediately sought out Frank. Why? Willis was chief resident pediatrician of the Smithers Pediatric Institute and General Hospital in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta.
Willis thought it was amazing that he just happened upon another pediatrician and immediately tried to befriend Frank.
A few months later, as fate would have it, Willis was in a bind where one of his pediatricians had to leave on emergency. He called on his good buddy, Frank Williams, to see if he could help out.
Frank was hesitant at first. But he’d been spending the last few months studying pediatrics and terminology — just to be able to seem natural in his conversations with Willis. He was already posing as a pediatrician, why not try actually being one?
The challenge of the con stood before Frank. And he couldn’t resist. It didn’t hurt that it paid $125 a day, or about $950 in today’s dollars. That was honest money … well, at least it was enough to mean Frank didn’t actually have to cash fraudulent checks. A perfect cover for going underground.
It was there, as Dr. Frank Williams, where Frank met Brenda Strong, a nurse Frank did date for a while.
In the movie, Frank learns a lot about the medical field from TV. That’s actually true. Frank soaked up terminology and just about anything he could from anywhere he could. One of those sources was M*A*S*H, the Army sitcom about medics in the Korean War.
For the most part, Frank was able to pass off his con as a doctor by just avoiding work. Whenever he’d be asked to do something, he had an array of interns who were more than willing to prove themselves to their supervisor.
Despite this, it only took about a week before Frank realized he couldn’t have interns do all of his work for him. In the movie, it’s a bloodied boy with a broken leg who finally is the one where Frank finally realizes his con won’t last. Leonardo asks one of his interns for an assessment, then turns to the other and asks, “Do you concur?” — just like he saw on M*A*S*H.
This happened, although the details are a little different. The kid had a broken shin bone, and Frank did all he could to avoid going when he was called to the ER. He went to the restroom first, took the stairs instead of the elevator. Hoping that someone else would get there first and handle it.
When he finally got there, just like in the movie, Frank asked his two interns who were there what their assessment was. Satisfied with what they said, mostly because he didn’t know any better, Frank left it in their hands and walked away.
Frank’s confidence in his ability to be a doctor wavered. But he couldn’t just leave. Brenda was there. And another incident happened shortly thereafter that sealed the deal.
It was a baby, who was suffocating due to a lack of oxygen. The nurse helping Frank ended up doing all of the work, but that was the final straw. Frank knew if he continued as a doctor, children could die. While he may have been a con man, hurting someone wasn’t in his plan.
Thankfully, this was near the end of the term Willis needed him to fill in. They hired a full-time replacement, and Frank was able to leave without anyone being the wiser.
Soon after, Frank decided to move on. He didn’t want to stay in any one place too long.
So Frank left Atlanta and went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In the movie, it’s Brenda Strong’s father who is a District Attorney in Louisiana, and that’s the reason Frank gets into law because Frank had mentioned to Brenda that he had a law degree. He just never used it.
The truth isn’t really related to Brenda, but it is fairly similar.
He happened across a flight attendant he’d met in an airport terminal about a year before, and she invited him to a party with one of her friends. This flight attendant, Diane, knew Frank as Robert F. Conrad, and when Frank met her he had grown fond of her – as he did with many women.
Again, as he did with many, when it came to sharing personal details, Frank had to make them up. For this one, Frank had pretended he had a law degree but had decided against practicing law to become a pilot instead.
This stuck in her mind, and at the party, she introduced Frank to one her friends, Jason Wilcox, a state attorney.
Stuck in his lie, Frank had to keep it going. Over the course of the conversation, Frank decided if he was going to go to a law school, he might as well go to the best, so he said he went to Harvard.
And so it was that Jason convinced Frank to tackle yet another challenge: Law.
In the movie, we learned that Frank actually passed the bar to become a lawyer. This is true. Using social engineering tactics, Frank convinced Diane to show him her college transcript to prove how smart she was. When she did, Frank made note of how it looked and even though Diane’s transcript was from the Ohio State University, he used this along with his graphic design skills as the basis for a fake transcript from Harvard.
This transcript was needed to apply to take the bar, and it apparently worked. Thanks to Louisiana’s rules at the time, Frank had three attempts to pass the bar.
He failed his first. But when he was notified of his failure, someone had apparently attached his answers so he could see which ones he got wrong.
Using this, he studied more and tried again. And again, he failed. And again, someone attached his answers so he could see which he got wrong.
After more sleepless nights of studying, on his third and final attempt, Frank finally passed.
It took Frank four months of studying and hard work to pass the bar in Louisiana without an actual degree.
With his certification in hand, Jason Wilcox got Frank an interview with the Attorney General in Louisiana. He aced the interview and was hired at a salary of $12,800 per year – or about $97,000 in today’s dollars. Again, Frank earned an honest salary from a job he got by less than honest methods. But it helped him hide as it meant he didn’t have to cash fake checks anymore.
Frank started dating another girl, Gloria, who convinced him to start attending church with her. While at church, Frank was a model citizen. He took part in church committees, youth programs, and even helped out on community projects.
This worked for a while, until Frank met another Harvard law graduate on one of the church committees. He latched onto Frank and started asking too many questions about Frank’s time at Harvard.
While Frank was able to fake it for a while, he decided it was time to move on.
So unlike the movie, nothing about Frank’s actual law career had anything to do with Brenda Strong. However, Brenda’s character in the movie was most likely based on a woman named Rosalie. Frank met Rosalie in Los Angeles and he fell head-over-heels for her.
But that didn’t happen right away. After leaving Louisiana, Frank went to Utah. It was here he did something that wasn’t even mentioned in the movie — Frank taught sociology at a college in Salt Lake City for a summer.
Although Frank had to fake all of his background documents to get the job, Frank’s teaching career itself went off without a hitch. His students loved him. The faculty loved him. He loved it. And again Frank didn’t need to cash fraudulent checks to earn his keep.
After the summer job was done, Frank left Salt Lake City on good terms. He then went to L.A. Here, Frank went back to being a pilot. But he’d learned something from his days earning an actual paycheck. That is simply that paychecks arouse less suspicion when they’re made out for more than a personal check.
So Frank decided to start making payroll checks for himself from Pan Am. In true Frank Abagnale style, it took some excellent social engineering, trial and error, tons of learning and his graphic design skills to pull it off. But eventually he was able to nail down what Pan Am checks looked like and pass off payroll checks.
In the movie, Brenda Strong is a bit of an awkward virgin whose parents are convinced Frank is going to ask for her hand.
Although we already know it wasn’t Brenda Frank fell for, many of the details apply to Rosalie. Frank fell for Rosalie the moment he saw her. She was a stewardess for American Airlines, and the two shared many of the same interests.
It didn’t take long for the two to express their love for each other, and for Rosalie to lose her virginity.
Frank felt bad. How could the relationship continue? She thought he was a pilot. She thought he was Frank Williams. She thought he was much older than the teenager he was.
Rosalie was convinced they would get married. And when the two decided met Rosalie’s parents, who lived just south of L.A., her parents were convinced of the same.
They even went so far as to set a date for the wedding. But Frank knew it’d all fall apart at some point. He had two options, tell the truth or run away. He really cared for Rosalie, so he decided to tell the truth.
It must’ve gone down similar to Leonardo DiCaprio’s expression of the truth to Amy Adam’s version of Brenda Strong in the movie. Shock, tears and a sense of not knowing what to make of the admission. Frank Williams wasn’t his real name. He wasn’t a pilot. He’s a teenager? And he has almost $100,000 in cash? That’s over $750,000 in today’s dollars – not something a normal teenager has in cash.
Although it must’ve been a rough night at Rosalie’s parents’ house when he confessed. When it was all said and done, Rosalie wanted to go home to L.A. Frank decided to let her go alone, so she could have time to process it. He’d meet her there the next day.
In the movie, Frank asks Brenda to wait at the airport. When he shows up, he sees the plainclothes agents and ends up leaving her there.
In truth, it was back at Rosalie’s house in L.A. where Frank left his first real love. When he neared her house the next day, there were two cars out front. One was a police car, the other was a plain car that must’ve been owned by another agent of some sort.
That’s when Frank left.
In the movie, Tom Hank’s FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, finds Frank in Montrichard, France, printing off a ton of Pan Am payroll checks.
In truth, Frank did get caught. But it didn’t happen the way it went down in the movie.
After Rosalie called the cops on him, Frank decided to get out of the United States. But this wasn’t easy. After all, Frank didn’t have a passport. And he couldn’t very well get one as Frank Abagnale without fear of getting caught. After all, he’d just told Rosalie his real name and who he really was.
After a few months of traveling around as a pilot, Frank ended up in Mexico City. At the time, a passport wasn’t needed to travel from the United States to Mexico. While he was in Mexico City, Frank put his social engineering skills to work.
At a bar one evening, he met and convinced a writer he was in a dire position. He convinced her he was a pilot based out of L.A. who was needed in London for a flight the next day. But he had left his passport back in L.A.
How was he going to get a new passport?
Eventually, she offered a solution. She even called in a favor at the American Consulate in Mexico City. The next day, Frank picked up a temporary passport. He went straight to the airport, where boarded a plane for London.
Paris, Rome, Singapore, Stockholm…the world was Frank’s to explore. And for months, Frank enjoyed his extravagant life.
But then something odd happened. Frank stopped enjoying his lifestyle. He grew tired of always being on the run.
So Frank set himself on his next big challenge: Retirement. He wanted to go underground permanently. And he decided to do this in the small little town of Montpellier, France.
When he arrived in Montpellier, he went with the name Robert Monjo. He pretended to be an author and screenwriter from Los Angeles. He bought a nice little home and car — but nothing too extravagant to attract attention.
He made friends with his neighbor, a winemaker named Armand Perigueux. From Armand, Frank learned about wine and began to settle in as a local in Montpellier. He even visited his grandparents, who were living in France and stayed connected with his mother back in the United States. He didn’t tell them he was living in France as well, but he was finally able to get an update on his family and hear they were doing well.
Four months after settling down in Montpellier, Frank Abagnale was captured. It happened on a day like any other. Frank was at the market in town when he was surprised by four armed men.
At first, Frank thought it was a robbery. But they were French policemen in plainclothes, waiting for Frank. They captured him and took him back to the station.
As he did before when he was captured in the United States, Frank tried to stick with his cover. He tried to convince them he was Robert Monjo.
It didn’t work. Eventually, Frank confessed and told them everything.
Throughout the movie, we see flashes of Frank in a French prison. Leo’s version of Frank has long hair, a beard and is kept in a small cement cell. It’s not a very pretty sight, but it gives us insight into what’s bound to happen for Frank before we ever hear his story.
Part of this is true. Frank did spend time in a French prison. He was sentenced to one year in prison, and was led to a small cement cell. With no light or communication with anyone, Frank’s life had taken a drastic turn.
Frank was over six feet tall and was confined to a five foot by five foot by five foot cell. It wasn’t tall enough to stand. It wasn’t tall enough to stretch out. There was no light at all. There wasn’t a bed. There wasn’t a toilet. There wasn’t a drain. The only thing in the cell was a bucket. And that filled up fast. But it wasn’t emptied regularly.
While Frank lost all sense of time, fortune did shine on him. For some unknown reason, a French judge decided to shorten his sentence from one year to six months. And so, for six months, Frank served time in a dark prison cell in France. He lived, ate and contemplated his life alone and in his own feces.
In the movie, Tom Hank’s character, Carl Hanratty, visits Frank in the French prison and eventually extradites Frank to the United States.
That didn’t happen.
Frank spent six months in a French prison. After serving his time there, Sweden was next on the list of countries who wanted Frank to pay for his crimes. So Frank was transferred from French custody and handed over to the Swedish.
But Sweden treated their prisoners differently, and so it was a shock to Frank when the two women who were to transfer him told him they wouldn’t place him in restraints. Instead, they showed him their guns and said he would never be placed in restraints in Sweden. But if he tried to run, he would be shot and killed.
He was transferred to Sweden, where he was placed in a cell quite different from his hole in France. It was more like a modern-day apartment, complete with a large bed, furniture, its own bathroom and a window overlooking the city.
Frank spent another six months in Sweden, and while he was there he attended school that was provided for the prisoners. He actually enjoyed his time there.
As his time neared an end, it turns out Italy was next on the list for Frank. And he heard rumors Italy treated their prisoners worse than France. This made it hard for Frank to enjoy the last few weeks of his time in Sweden.
That’s when Frank’s fortune changed again.
One of the Swedish judges pulled a favor for Frank. He contacted the U.S. State Department, and made a request that Frank’s passport be revoked. When he did this, Frank was officially in Sweden illegally. So instead of being forced to hand him over to the Italians, Swedish officials were forced to hand him back to the United States.
And, according to U.S. law, once he’d served his time there he couldn’t be extradited back to Europe since the U.S. was his home.
So that’s how Frank made his way back to the United States.
In the movie, Frank escapes custody by climbing through the toilet on the airplane and running down the tarmac. He’s then caught again at his mother’s house when he realizes he’s not a part of that family anymore.
There’s some truth to this, but it was still fictionalized quite a bit for the movie.
In truth, when he was deported from Sweden to the United States, Frank did escape through the toilet of the airplane as the plane taxied at JFK in New York. From here, he made his way to the Bronx where he had a change of clothes hidden along with a set of keys to a safe deposit box in Montreal. This actually was quite normal, as over the years Frank had various stashes of cash and other things spread around the country.
He took a train from New York to Montreal, where he picked up $20,000 from the safe deposit box. He was standing in line to buy a plane ticket to São Paulo, Brazil when two Canadian police officers caught him.
He was sent back to the United States, but Frank wasn’t done yet. In the spring of 1971, Frank Abagnale escaped authorities yet again while he was waiting to be put on trial in Atlanta.
With this escape, Frank had the help of a girl he’d met earlier as well as a little bit of luck. Sort of like secret shoppers, apparently the Department of Corrections in the United States would periodically send agents undercover as prisoners to see how officers treated prisoners. As it so happened, the jail Frank was staying at in Atlanta had lost a couple of employees by undercover agents pretending to be prisoners.
Frank was a charismatic person, and so right away the officers running the prison didn’t believe he was a real prisoner. They thought he was there to spy on them, and so they were determined not to lose any more people to this new spy.
Frank’s friend pretended to be his fiancée and snuck in a couple of business cards that she had made. One of them was for Sean O’Riley. O’Riley was the fake name that Joseph Shea, who’s the real Carl Hanratty, had used when trying to capture Frank.
Frank then spoofed a phone call with a superior, where he pretended to have some big info on a case that couldn’t wait. Showing the guards O’Riley’s business card, he pretended O’Riley was his direct supervisor and asked if he could meet with O’Riley for a few minutes outside the prison to give him this hot information.
The guards, who already didn’t think he was a real prisoner, took the question to the warden who called the number on the card. A woman answered. It turns out the woman who had the cards made altered the number so it went to a shopping mall in Atlanta. After giving Frank the cards, she made her way to the mall and waited for the phone to ring.
When it did, she pretended to be a switchboard operator for the FBI. She convinced the prison guards that unfortunately, O’Riley couldn’t be reached at that moment because he was on his way to meet with Frank at the prison.
Then she got in her car and drove to the prison and waited outside while the guards let Frank go out to talk to O’Riley — who they were certain was in the car.
She drove Frank to the bus station, where he bought a ticket to New York City. For the next few weeks, Frank evaded capture in New York and Washington D.C., until he happened to walk by an unmarked police car in New York and the two NYPD detectives inside recognized him.
In the movie, Frank’s sentence is shortened when he starts working for the FBI. He helps Carl recognize forgery in some other checks, and eventually serves the rest of his sentence for the FBI.
As you’ve probably come to expect by now, there are some elements of truth in this. Frank’s father didn’t pass before Frank made it back to the United States, as it did in the movie when Carl told him on the plane from France to the U.S.
It was while he was in a Virginia prison that Frank Abagnale, Sr. passed at on March 11th, 1972. He was 60. Frank Abagnale was sentenced to 12 years, the first four of which he served in a Virginia prison.
Then he was released under the condition, like in the movie, that he help authorities investigate fraud.
As part of this, he had to sign in once a week.
He served out his time in Texas, where he helped solve a lot of cases for authorities.
After his time was served, Frank had a hard time getting a normal job because of his criminal career. So rather than trying to hide his background, he decided to use it. He walked into a bank one day, and made an offer to the manager. He offered to teach the staff the tricks he used to defraud banks. If they didn’t learn anything, they wouldn’t have to pay him. But if they did, they’d pay him $500 and agree to share his name with other banks.
With that, Frank started his life as a security consultant.
Abagnale & Associates was founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and for over 40 years, Frank Abagnale helped develop methods to identify and avoid fraud. He also continued to help the FBI on cases, as well as honing skills he’d learned as a teacher — this time by teaching at the FBI Academy.
In the movie, at the end it says that Frank and Carl are still friends to this day. While that’s not really true it’s mostly because the character of Carl didn’t exist. The person it was based on, Joseph Shea, was friends with Frank until Joseph passed away on August 4th, 2005.
Frank is still alive and has since become a multimillionaire by legitimate means with his consulting business. He currently lives in South Carolina with his wife, Kelly, and their three sons – one of whom works for the FBI.