Catch Fatherhood If You Can, Says Famous Ex-Con

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Chances are you've caught Frank Abagnale's story by now. Even if you haven't seen the movie about him, you may have marveled (or been repulsed) by what he pulled off. Your credit union likely issues checks to members that have been designed with his input.

Already famous for his criminal exploits and the unparalleled chutzpah of his scams, his profile only rose when his life story was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, "Catch Me If You Can." None other than Leonardo DeCaprio played Abagnale, and critics have been quick to note the film almost glamorizes Abagnale's life and gives the impression that check-kiting is not only a victimless crime, it only hurts banks and other financial institutions that can afford it. Indeed, the film gives just a few moments to the time Abagnale anguished away in foreign prisons.

What you may not know is that among those who are stressing the less glamorous and even painful aspects of Abagnale's life is Abagnale himself. But as might be expected from someone who has led a double and even triple life, he also seems to want it both ways. As you'll see below, Abagnale has become deeply sentimental, not to mention spiritual. But he also flew to his remarks before a recent meeting hosted by Harland in a private jet, and collected a healthy speaking fee.

First, Abagnale's take on Catch Me If You Can:

Contrary to the movie, says Abagnale, he never saw or spoke to his father again after he was pulled out of catholic school one morning, driven to the local courthouse, and sent before the family court, where he found out for the first time his parents were divorcing. The judge told him to choose between his mother and father (there's a psychology dissertation to be had in Abagnale's relationship with his father). Instead, he ran out the door, and took a train to Manhattan. And there the 16-year-old who could pass for his mid-twenties began leading the life that would lead to prison, a long consulting career with the FBI, and a movie.

He got his start using his own checkbook and an account his father had started for him. He kept writing checks long after the funds to cover them were gone. Bogus personal checks were soon the stuff of amateurs for Abagnale, who, inspired by the glamour of a crew from Eastern Airlines he saw standing in front of the old Commodore Hotel in Manhattan (today it's the Grand Central Hyatt), decided to impersonate a pilot.

"I looked up and saw the Pan Am building. So I placed a phone call," said Abagnale, who soon had a uniform and ID that he made after conning a guy at the company that manufactured ID cards and getting a Pan Am logo from a model airplane kit. "I flew more than one-million miles, but I never flew Pan Am," he said. Cashing bogus Pan Am paychecks, "I made a great deal of money, and the only reason I stopped at 18 is that the FBI issued a John Doe warrant, estimating my age to be 30 years old."

Captain Abagnale soon gave way to Dr. Frank Abagnale, Atlanta-based pediatrician, and from there to Attorney Frank Abagnale, who did pass the bar in Louisiana ("Not in two weeks as the movie implied, but in 10 weeks.") With the FBI looking for him, Abagnale worked in the Louisiana Attorney General's Office for one year, before resigning.

In between he pulled off some other scams that had the Harland audience nodding its heads in disbelief, such as when he took a stack of preprinted deposit slips from a bank, bought a Burroughs Magnetic Encoder, encoded his own account number on the bottom of the slips, and watched as about $40,000 was deposited in his account in one day.

Arrested by the French police at age 21 at the request of the Swedish police, Abagnale went from 198 pounds to 109, before doing time in Sweden and another four years in the U.S. He was paroled in 1974 after agreeing to work with the FBI. Today, he still teaches at the FBI Academy, and is on the faculty of the Australian Policy Academy, Scotland Yard, and others.

Abagnale said he made no money from the movie and had nothing to do with it, not mentioning he does make a cameo appearance. He said he remains close to the three FBI agents with whom he initially worked, (one of whom was represented by TomHanks in the movie).

Today, he says he's remorseful. "I was not a genius or brilliant. I was just a kid. Had I been brilliant, had I truly been a genius, I don't think I would have found it necessary to break the law."

"Spielberg knew the love I had for my father. The world is full of fathers, but there are very few daddies. Any child to have had the privilege o grow up with a daddy is an extremely lucky child," he told the Harland meeting. "What I remember most of my dad, is that every night at bedtime he'd step into every child's bedroom, and he'd whisper into your ear, 'I love you very much.' When I was 16 I was just a child. All 16 year olds are just children. I needed my father and I needed my mother. All children are entitled to their mother and their father. Though it is not popular to say so, divorce is a very devastating thing for a child to deal with. I cried myself to bed every night until I was 19. I spent every Christmas, every holiday, alone. I never had a relationship with anyone my age."

Abagnale would go on to meet his wife while working undercover, telling her who he was. He's been married 28 years, and has three grown children. He credits God and his wife for everything he has today.

"If you still have your father, your mother, give them a hug and you tell them you love them. Steven Spielberg made a great movie. But I've done nothing more rewarding than simply being a good husband and father, and what I strive to be all my life, a great daddy."

Frank J. Diekmann is Editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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