His biggest con? New book claims Frank Abagnale’s fantastic feats in Catch Me If You Can – posing as a Pan Am pilot in 1960s and stealing $2.5M – were inflated or impossible because he was IN PRISON
- Frank W. Abagnale Jr. is notorious for posing as a Pan Am pilot as a teen in the 1960s
- He traveled the world during his ‘Catch Me If You Can’ con and raked in $2.5M from bad checks
- In 1977, he appeared on the show To Tell the Truth and then on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978
- Leonardo DiCaprio starred as him in the Steven Spielberg-directed 2002 hit movie
- A new book says Abagnale was serving a 3-year sentence at a New York prison from 1965 to 1968, per records
- The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can by Alan C. Logan examines Abagnale’s claims
Since 1978, when Frank W. Abagnale Jr. sat down with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, the nation has been fascinated with his fantastic feats – immortalized in a book, movie and Broadway musical. However, a new book claims that not only are Abagnale’s daring and dazzling tales fake or inflated, some are also impossible: He was in jail or prison for much of the time he said he was scamming. Above, Abagnale, then 20, posing as a Trans World Airlines pilot
Frank W. Abagnale Jr. may be running the longest con ever.
Known for Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale was a clever teen who posed as a Pan Am pilot to travel the world in the 1960s. He raked in $2.5 million passing off bad checks – all while evading the FBI and Interpol. His fantastic feats were immortalized in his 1980 book, then in a 2002 blockbuster movie and later on, in 2011, a Broadway musical.
But a new book claims that not only are his daring and dazzling tales fake or inflated, some are also impossible: He was in jail or prison for much of the time he said he was scamming.
Abagnale, who was born in 1948, has said he committed his crimes between the ages of 16 and 21. Records show he was serving a three-year sentence for forgery at Great Meadow Correctional Institute in Comstock, New York from July 1965 until his release in December 1968. He was paroled but was quickly sent back after violating it.
‘There was no ongoing hunt for the guy who later claimed, absurdly, that he was the youngest man ever to make the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list,’ wrote Alan C. Logan in his new book, The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can.
While Abagnale did briefly fool people into thinking he was a pilot, the book maintains he was often swiftly caught and arrested, and that his schemes did not net him millions. For instance, according to the book, during a 12-week period of a Pan Am pilot ruse, he filched $1,448.60.
Presented as a bold mastermind who only committed victimless and harmless crimes, the book paints another picture of Abagnale: A criminal who used his own name on counterfeit checks that he cashed at mom-and-pop businesses and who stole from a summer camp and a hardworking family in Baton Rouge.
Paula Parks Campbell knows this all too well: In 1969, Abagnale pleaded guilty to stealing from her family after they took him in as a gesture of Southern hospitality.
‘He’s still conning,’ she told DailyMail.com. ‘The irreparable harm he has done to so many people, including my mother, needs to be bought to the light.’
Abagnale declined DailyMail.com’s interview request. He wrote in an email: ‘I have not read the book, nor do I think it is worthy of a comment.’
‘When I was sixteen years old I successfully impersonated an airline pilot for Pan American Airlines for two years until I was eighteen. At the age of eighteen I became the chief resident pediatrician of a Georgia hospital where I practiced medicine there for about a year. At the age of nineteen, having never been to law school in my life, I took the state bar exams in the State of Louisiana, I passed the bar and became a licensed attorney. Before my nineteenth birthday was over, I was appointed the Assistant Attorney General of the State, where I practiced law in that position for about a year,’ Abagnale said during a 1994 speech, according to a new book. Above, Leonardo DiCaprio, left, with Abagnale, on the set of Catch Me If You Can, which was released in 2002, in an undated photo. DiCaprio played Abagnale in the film
Paula Parks, above, had just started with Delta in 1969 when she met Abagnale, who was then posing as a TWA pilot, on a flight, she told DailyMail.com. He ended up meeting her family in Baton Rouge, taking them up on their Southern hospitality, staying with them and then stealing checks from them, according to The Greatest Hoax on Earth
Author Alan C. Logan started researching Abagnale after he published a book in 2019 about another con man, Dr. Robert Vernon Spears. Logan wrote DailyMail.com: ‘Reviewers of the book inevitably compared Spears with the man commonly known as the world’s greatest con man, Abagnale.’
His research led to newspaper articles in 1978 that closely examined the con man’s claims and to the Parks family in Baton Rouge.
Paula Parks was a new stewardess for Delta in 1969. In early January, on a night flight from New York to Miami, a pilot from Trans World Airlines hitched a ride – a courtesy airlines extend to one another for on-duty crew members who need to travel for an assignment.
That TWA ‘pilot’ was Abagnale, then 20.
‘He was very charming, very charming,’ she told DailyMail.com.
After landing in Miami, he invited the flight attendants out for a meal, but since it was late, they ended up grabbing hot dogs. The next morning, two dozen roses and a five-pound box of candy were waiting for Parks at the hotel’s front desk. There was also a note from Abagnale asking her to lunch. Not wanting to go alone, a co-worker went with her. After the meal, he asked for her number and she gave it to him.
‘I wish to this day that I hadn’t,’ Parks told Logan, the author of The Greatest Hoax on Earth.
Abagnale then started showing up wherever she landed and she later learned he had gotten her schedule from the airline. ‘It was just creepy. I really felt he was stalking me,’ she said in the book.
‘John and Charlotte Parks had everything Abagnale craved. Love. A wonderful family. A happy home. They had it in spades. They worked hard for everything they had. With their generous hearts, they were beloved in the community. “Bud” to his friends and family, John was a music educator, known locally and throughout Louisiana. Charlotte was a nurse,’ Logan wrote in his new book. Above, Abagnale with John and Charlotte Parks in 1969
‘My parents did what any good-hearted Southern Christian family would do. They opened the door and gave him a room in the house. By the time I heard about this, mamma was cooking his meals and cleaning up after him!’ Parks told Logan. ‘They had even cut him a set of keys to the house!’ After Abagnale moved out of the Parks house, above, local police soon arrested him on February 14, 1969. He then admitted to taking a check from the Parks, forging John’s name and cashing it for $150, which is around $1,000 in today’s money, according to a Louisiana court document
The Parks family were flabbergasted when they saw Johnny Carson interviewing Abagnale on The Tonight Show in 1978. John Parks later told a local newspaper: ‘He made his claim on TV that he’d never done anything to hurt any families. I wanted his address real bad.’ Paula Parks told DailyMail.com: ‘It just broke my mother’s heart. She changed forever.’ Parks also said that Abagnale stole from her younger brother, a teen who was then bagging groceries at a store. Charlotte Parks told the newspaper: ‘I fed him. I cooked. I think the thing that hurt me most that someone would come into our home… I don’t trust people as much anymore.’ Above, DiCaprio in a still from 2002’s Catch Me If You Can
In New Orleans, when she told Abagnale that she was going to Baton Rouge to see her family, he offered to drive her. During the visit, she said: ‘Everybody was so impressed he was a TWA pilot. They just fell in love with him.’
When they were leaving, Parks’ mother, Charlotte, invited Abagnale fishing – an offer that he took her up on a few days later. He then moved in with the family and stayed in Parks’ room while Charlotte cooked and cleaned for him, according to the book. Parks told DailyMail.com that she refused to go home while he was there.
By the time he moved out of the Parks home, local police were on to Abagnale in connection to bogus checks and he was arrested on Valentine’s Day. Abagnale, who had been released from prison on December 24, 1968, was again in jail, according to the book and records.
‘Like a Lifetime made-for-TV drama, Abagnale had been rifling through the family’s possessions when their backs were turned… (H)e discovered what he was really looking for – checkbooks. He peeled off some checks from the back of the checkbook in order to minimize the risk that it would be noticed. Signing John Parks’ name, he had been siphoning their account. One of the checks was for $150, which is the equivalent of over $1,000 today,’ Logan wrote in his new book.
Parks said he also stole from her younger brother, a teen who was then bagging groceries at the store. She pointed out that her father, John, was a teacher, and her mother, Charlotte, was a nurse. Abagnale had taken them out to dinners and brought Charlotte flowers – with money he had stolen from them, according to the book and Parks.
In The Greatest Hoax on Earth, Logan notes that Abagnale had some lucky breaks and this was one of them. After he pleaded guilty to theft and forgery, a judge sentenced him to 12 years. But he got supervised probation instead of being sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which was infamous for its horrid conditions. He was also ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment, according to the book.
Camp Manison was a beloved summer camp in Friendswood, Texas owned by a well-known member of the community, Tom Manison. In the summer of 1974, recently paroled Abagnale told Manison he was a furloughed pilot for Delta and was hired to run errands and as a bus driver, according to The Greatest Hoax on Earth. After valuables like cameras went missing, suspicion fell on Abagnale. It was also uncovered that he was not a pilot for Delta and the police were called, according to the book. Above, Abagnale in a Camp Manison photo in 1974
On August 29, 1974, Abagnale, then 26, was arrested, above, for the thefts at the camp. However, Logan noted in his book, that the judge ‘knocked his low-level felony cases down to misdemeanors and just dispensed fines. So, once again, Abagnale looked set to skate through the system.’ In a November 27, 2017 Talks at Google, Abagnale said he had only been arrested once when he was 21 – an assertion the book disputes
In the late 1970s, Abagnale had a press kit. In the 1978 version reviewed by DailyMail.com, its title page stated: ‘Impostor Extraordinaire, Incredible Hoaxer, Retired Master Forger.’ Then under Introduction to a Legendary Figure, it states that he was ‘once one of the world’s most-sought con men and fraudulent check writers.’ Logan wrote in his book that the story known about Abagnale started in Houston around 1976. The next year, he was on the show To Tell the Truth and in 1978, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Above, Abagnale and Mark Zinder, who was his booking agent, in 1980 – the year Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake was published
The book, which was co-authored with Texas journalist Stan Redding, was a success and by 1981, Abagnale was a highly sought-after speaker. Logan wrote: ‘Abagnale played up his role as a jet-set playboy and international man of mystery. And he always dressed the part… in his top pocket, what appeared to be an expensive pocket square was really a pair of women’s silk panties.’ He then pulled them out ‘like a magician,’ Logan wrote in The Greatest Hoax on Earth, and seen above at Stephen F Austin University in 1981
Later on, Abagnale had a press kit to promote himself as a speaker and security consultant. In the 1978 version reviewed by DailyMail.com, its title page stated: ‘Impostor Extraordinaire, Incredible Hoaxer, Retired Master Forger.’
The dossier described his time in Baton Rouge differently: ‘Cooling off in Baton Rouge after one such escapade, Abagnale learned the state’s attorney general was seeking assistants. Using the name Robert Conrad, and a faked law degree transcript from Harvard, Abagnale applied for one of the positions. After a month studying law and three attempts, Abagnale passed the bar examination and was hired at a salary of $12,000 a year.’
According to the book, Abagnale was in jail from February 14 until his sentencing on June 12, 1969.
Logan, who spent about 18 months researching his book, then traces where Abagnale went after he skipped town that June 1969. Logan wrote: ‘It would not have been difficult for Abagnale to reach Europe – especially by dusting off another airline costume. That summer, Pan Am began offering bargain-basement deals to employees of competing airlines like Delta or TWA – seventy-five percent off a seat to Europe. Qualification for the deal was easy.’
According to records, Abagnale served three months in a French prison and then two months in a Swedish one. He had pushed bogus checks in both countries and stolen two cars, according to the book.
‘I think it is important to underscore that Mr. Abagnale has made outrageous claims for over forty years, claims that cannot be deflected onto his now deceased co-author, Stan Redding. Abagnale was making his primary claims years before the 1980 book was published, and before Stan Redding wrote any article about Abagnale,’ Alan C Logan wrote DailyMail.com. Above, the cover of his new book, The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can
In the early 1970s, he was back in the United States. By August 1974, the then 26-year-old Abagnale was arrested for stealing from a summer camp in Friendswood, Texas. While he was ordered to pay restitution to the camp’s owner, he was not sentenced to any jail time, according to the book.
In around 1976, Abagnale started to build his career as a speaker and security consultant in Houston, according to the book. He would also launch his own firm Abagnale & Associates.
He first spoke to local organizations but after a few newspaper articles about him and his story – one of a misguided teen who pulled off harmless incredible capers to a reformed con man working on the side of law enforcement – Abagnale was chosen to be on a show called To Tell the Truth in 1977. Celebrity panelists had to figure out which one of three people was telling the truth.
He said on the show: ‘I, Frank William Abagnale, am known as the world’s greatest imposter. And no wonder. In the course of my nefarious career I’ve palmed myself off as a doctor, lawyer, college instructor, stockbroker, and airline pilot.’
After an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in April 1978, his book soon followed. Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake was co-authored by Stan Redding, a Texas journalist who had also written an article about the con man.
The book, which was published in 1980, was a success.
Mark Zinder, who was Abagnale’s booking agent around this time, told DailyMail.com: ‘He was so good. I was so good, I would fill up his calendar in a couple months. He’s a master storyteller. He has an amazing memory.’
The two parted ways. Abagnale’s star kept rising and both Zinder and Paula Parks Campbell said they contacted the media throughout the years. ‘The guy has no conscience, he was still telling bald-faced lies. And the media weren’t interested in veracity. And that just enabled and emboldened him more,’ Zinder said in the book.
Zinder told DailyMail.com: ‘No one wanted to ruin the story.’
Logan’s research took about 18 months and he contacted archives throughout the United States and in Europe for records. He wrote in an email: ‘I was really surprised that records professionals in various locations had, to the best of the knowledge of the officials who pulled them, never been requested before. The officials seemed as shocked as I was, especially in Friendswood, Tuckahoe, Baton Rouge and Boston… The implication was immediately clear to them, “so this means he wasn’t on a five year run being chased around the world?”‘ Above, a chart from book, The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can