Post-Rehab II: Keeping it real

A con man’s story leads our hero to new heights of second-guessing

Ever have this happen? You wind up having to write a follow-up story that could have been avoided if you’d just put one or two more grafs in the original piece.

I got assigned to profile an ex-con man named Frank Abagnale, who is the subject of the new Spielberg movie, “Catch Me If You Can.” What I thought I’d do is break down the structure of the original piece, and then show you what I wish I had done instead:

Post-Rehab II: Keeping it real

Post-Rehab II: Keeping it real

PORTRAIT OF THE CON ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
December 6, 2002

THIS WAS AN EASY STORY TO STRUCTURE BECAUSE IT OFFERED A GREAT CONTRAST BETWEEN THEN AND NOW. I GOT LUCKY WHEN ABAGNALE, WHO RARELY GIVES PUBLIC SPEECHES ANY MORE, SCHEDULED A PAID CONSULTING GIG FOR A BUNCH OF L.A. BANKS IN LATE NOVEMBER.

SO WE OPEN WITH THE “NOW”…

Frank Abagnale, who is about to become America’s most popular con man, is standing in a darkened auditorium in downtown L.A., scaring the bejesus out of a couple hundred business people. He has been talking in a calm, quick, flawless cadence for more than two hours, flashing his 140 slide projections on a big screen, listing every manner of fraud that could befall these men and women: forgery, embezzlement, bogus checks, identity theft.

As the litany of scam rises, Abagnale’s pace accelerates even more. He recites the con man’s inner monologues. He acts out dialogues between criminal and victim. He tells the audience which brands of tape, nail polish, laser printer and paper stock crooks employ to forge or alter checks, what Web sites they use to steal someone’s identity, how they look over a shopper’s shoulder to grab critical data, how they take advantage of human naivete.

…AND WE EXPLAIN THE CONTRAST…

This is powerful stuff not merely because of who Abagnale is — a 54-year-old consultant who pulls in $15,000 per lecture — but because of who he was: a notoriously creative teenage check forger and impersonator in the 1960s.

…AND WE DO A ONE-GRAF LOOP AROUND THE STORY…

Soured by his parents’ divorce, Abagnale ran away from home in New York at 16 and turned his considerable intellect to passing, by his estimate, $2.5 million worth of bad checks over the next five years. He was motivated at first by the raw craving for money to spend on girls. As he improved the craft of creating counterfeit checks, he assumed a series of trustworthy identities in order to cash them and evade capture: airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, professor. By the time he was 21, the FBI had him. He spent four years behind bars, then began lending his expertise to vulnerable businesses. He wrote one book in 1980 about his cons and another last year about how to avoid being conned.

…AND SEGUE TO THE NEXT BIG CHANGE IN THE GUY’S LIFE–FROM CONSULTANT TO FILM ICON.

Abagnale enjoys a high profile within business and law enforcement communities, including the FBI Academy, where he frequently lectures on white-collar crime. But beginning Christmas Day, the young Frank will overtake middle-aged Frank as Leonardo DiCaprio becomes Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can,” director Steven Spielberg’s comedic dramatization of Abagnale’s teen spree.

I THOUGHT I COULD PLAY WITH “YOUNG FRANK” and “OLD FRANK”

The young Frank would have relished the attention — the thrill of being the latest non-celebrity lionized by a Hollywood biopic, joining folks like Erin Brockovich, David Helfgott (“Shine”), John Nash (“A Beautiful Mind”) and Jim Morris (“The Rookie”).

The middle-aged Frank — the one who tells his audiences that fraud has skyrocketed because of society’s ethical deterioration — has been wary of the buzz. In September, before he saw a cut of the film, he was so worried studio promotion would glorify his crimes James Bond-style that he disavowed young Frank on his business Web site. (“I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of.”)

He now praises Spielberg and DiCaprio for capturing the sadness and moral quandaries of his youth as well as the manic excitement. Yet he’s still bothered by the idea that he’ll soon be recognized any time he hands his credit card to a hotel reservation clerk. He settled long ago in Tulsa, Okla., where he’s been married for 26 years and is the father of three sons in college. “I like to wash my cars in front of my home on weekends,” he says in a restrained tone that has little trace of New York. “I like to garden. I like doing what I do for a living.”

I NOW TRIED TO MOVE INTO A STRUCTURE WHERE I COULD SPRINKLE ABAGNALE’S MORAL-OUTRAGE QUOTES FROM THE BANK SEMINAR (IN ITALICS) THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF HIS AMORAL YOUTH. HERE’S THE GRAF THAT SETS THAT UP.

With no financial stake in the picture, he’s told Spielberg’s DreamWorks to limit his media exposure, but it figures to be a losing battle. There’s an irresistible conflict between the boy and man, and on this day, in Abagnale’s speech inside L.A.’s exclusive Jonathan Club, that tension resonates with each of his pronouncements.

FIRST ITAL CAME HERE:

“Today, 60% of all transactions are still paid by check. The check is king….What many Americans don’t understand is that many of those checks are no good.”

CHRONO STARTS

He was 14 when Mom moved out in 1964. He stayed with Dad, an affluent Manhattan stationery store owner, figuring his father needed his help. Around the same age he became girl crazy and began putting thousands of dollars on his unsuspecting father’s credit card. Three thousand dollars later, he wound up for a time in a school for wayward boys. At 16 he moved out on his own, found that minimum-wage work was insufficient for his social life, and figured he could get paid more if he lied about his age.

He was prematurely gray, so when he added 10 years to his resume, it worked. But money was still too tight, and he was routinely cashing checks without money in his account, figuring it didn’t matter because he was a kid. Then one day he noticed a group of airline pilots and thought how easy it would be to cash bad checks in pilot’s garb.

It was a more innocent time, a time when people were far less inclined to ask for your ID, when an airline asked fewer questions of a young man who called to say he’d lost his pilot’s uniform and needed another one. Or a kid who called with questions for his high school newspaper story on pilot procedures and documents. Soon, Abagnale had obtained a Pan Am uniform, forged an airline ID badge and FAA pilot’s license, and was hitching free jump-seat rides across the country and staying in hotels where the crews stayed, cashing bogus checks at banks or airline counters. He started printing his own checks. He compiled a detailed journal of pilot terminology to improve his bluffing, and begged off whenever another pilot offered him a chance to leave the jump seat and take a turn at the controls.

I NEVER FELT LIKE I HAD VERY GOOD QUOTES FROM ABAGNALE. HE LIMITED ME TO A HALF-HOUR IN-PERSON INTERVIEW AFTER HIS SPEECH, AND THE REST OF MY CONTACT WAS RESTRICTED TO E-MAIL EXCHANGES. BUT I WASN’T BOTHERED BY THAT, STYLISTICALLY, BECAUSE THE STUFF FROM THE SEMINAR AND ABAGNALE’S OWN BOOK WERE FUN TO JUXTAPOSE. AND THE STORY IS TIGHTER WITH FEWER QUOTES.

AS I WAS WRITING, I BEGAN SENDING ABAGNALE E-MAILS SEEKING CLARIFICATION. HE’D SAID ON HIS WEB SITE THAT HIS BOOK WAS EXAGGERATED. I LISTED EVERY INCIDENT I PLANNED ON CITING FROM THE BOOK; WOULD HE NOW SAY ALL OF THEM ACTUALLY OCCURRED? HE DID.

The same mental agility and charm that make him a riveting public speaker today helped him to quickly adopt new personas and produce new credentials. “What also helped me a lot was being an adolescent and having no fear,” he said in an interview, “where an adult in the same situation would have analyzed the hell out of it, worrying about the consequences.” Tall, handsome and friendly, he was, by his account, a magnet for attractive stewardesses and always on the lookout for a female bank teller he could innocently chat up for intelligence.

He had no permanent home. He stayed in motion. Slowing down meant confronting an inevitable ache. “It was a very lonely life,” he says. “Even though I met all those girls, they all thought I was someone I wasn’t.” The pilot’s uniform made him special, universally liked and respected; he used it, he wrote in his 1980 book on conning, the same way a junkie uses heroin.

“If you believe you have a foolproof system, you have failed to take into consideration the creativity of fools….There are no criminals looking for a challenge. They’re only looking for opportunities.”

His refinements in his later teens included buying an $8,000 camera that let him duplicate Pan Am expense checks. He improved on that when he met an Air France stewardess whose father, the owner of a printing shop in France, unwittingly helped Abagnale print bogus Pan Am payroll checks. Sometimes he enriched himself through elemental creativity, like the time he walked into a bank, grabbed a handful of deposit slips, used press-type lettering to insert his own account number in the empty space and returned the slips — meaning that the people who used them (without noticing the change) were depositing their money in his account. That netted $40,000 in four days, he said.

“If I’m going to forge Transamerica checks, I’m going to make two phone calls — one to accounts payable, where they’ll give me the account number for wiring instructions and, second, to public affairs, where I can ask for an annual report, which will contain the signature of the CEO.”

After a couple of years of the pilot scam, Abagnale said, he spent almost a full year impersonating a pediatrician in Georgia. It started innocently — he was trying to lie low, and called himself a doctor on an apartment rental application. Neighbors introduced him to a hospital administrator, who asked him to supervise a ward and, unwilling to give himself away, he complied, never having to make a crucial medical decision. Forging credentials subsequently enabled him to pass, for shorter times, as a college professor (he taught sociology) and a Harvard-trained lawyer.

Abagnale said that after passing counterfeit checks in every U.S. state and two dozen other countries, he was arrested in France, served half a year, was extradited to Sweden, served several months there, and was returned to the U.S. He escaped off the plane in New York, returned to Georgia, was arrested by the FBI in an Atlanta suburb, escaped again and was arrested for good in New York a month later. He was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison and served three — earning his GED and taking some college-level courses — before being paroled to Houston.

Once free, he chafed in a series of dead-end jobs. Then, thanks to the suggestion of his parole officer, and with help from the FBI agent who had arrested him in Georgia, Abagnale was steered into consulting jobs with law enforcement. That led to his first private-sector client, Target, and a new career. He got married and, looking for a quieter place to raise children, moved to Oklahoma. His clients have ranged from banks to title insurance companies to high-security printing companies to Australian businesses worried about fraud during the 2000 Olympics.

Abagnale’s gift is “his uncanny ability to look at a [fraud] situation and say, ‘Well, this is how a person did it and this is what I’d do to make sure nothing like it happens again,’ ” said Phillip Desing, supervisory special agent at the FBI Academy’s Investigative Training Division. “He’s about as close to brilliant as you can get.” Desing said Abagnale has never accepted compensation for his lectures to new and veteran FBI agents.

Abagnale sold his movie rights to a screenwriter in the late ’70s, but the project traded hands without taking shape. Four years ago it began to jell in a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (“Rush Hour 2″) that eventually attracted DiCaprio.

That, in turn, attracted DreamWorks film chief and co-producer Walter Parkes. When a late draft of the script made its way to DreamWorks co-owner Spielberg, he told Parkes he’d like to direct. With Spielberg came Tom Hanks to play an FBI agent who pursues Abagnale throughout the film. Hanks’ character is a composite of Abagnale’s parole officer and the agent who arrested him in Georgia, Joe Shea. (Shea, 83, who worked the case only briefly, was reunited with Abagnale at a convention of former FBI agents two decades ago, and the two remain friends.)

Abagnale said that at DiCaprio’s invitation, he spent two days at the actor’s house before shooting began this spring, and soon had a meeting with Spielberg. He said his confidence in the director’s ability to capture the emotional truth grew when Spielberg volunteered that he too had been a teenager when his parents divorced.

“It’s a devastating thing,” said Abagnale, whose father died in 1974 after trying unsuccessfully for years to win back his wife. He is convinced that the departure of his mother, now 75 and living in New York, was the central cause of his teenage rootlessness, a theme the movie hits far harder than his book. The two speak weekly, but “she knows I’ll go to my grave thinking that….Every child needs its mother, and every child needs its father. I don’t care what people say.”

Suppose young Frank had never veered from the straight and narrow? “I think I would have gone to college. I think I would have been a very successful entrepreneur….Luckily, I was creative and did these things to support myself. But it was always on the run, doing it just to stay ahead.”

He saw the movie, which claims merely to have been “inspired” by actual events, two weeks ago in Spielberg’s office. “It was hard for me to take it all in at once. It was so surreal.”

What does middle-aged Frank want people to take away from young Frank’s story? “Man, this guy did some incredible things — but I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.”

Okay, here was the problem: It was impossible to figure out just HOW much conning Abagnale had done. There was no central repository of FBI information–contrary to the film, the feds never created a task force to get this guy, and when they got him it was on rather limited bad-check charges. In his book, Abagnale takes pains to use NO real names or places, ostensibly to avoid embarrassing his victims. I knew this, but it seemed to keep clogging up the original story, and besides, the point of the story was that a former bad guy was now helping good guys.

The day before the story was to run, I asked my editor if we should add another graf making this clear. She said that ultimately nobody would ever know just what happened, and besides, we were already using a lot of attribution. I didn’t push it. I should have pushed it. Because the day the story ran, I got a phone call from a guy saying: You’re just the latest to have been suckered. (Turned out he had his own business beef with Abagnale.) He sent me a San Francisco Chronicle article from 1978 in which Abagnale’s credentials had been challenged. It didn’t invalidate my story. But it did make and my bosses decide to run a story three weeks later–the weekend the movie opened–further explaining how hard it was to figure out what was true.

Here it is. If you want an exercise, figure out how to compress the 31 inches that follow into 2 or 3 inches that would have been inserted into the original.

THE TRUTH? JUST CATCH IT IF YOU CAN
December 28, 2002

A brazen escape through an airport, with a bevy of comely stewardesses-in-training, right under the nose of the FBI. A deliciously successful impersonation of an emergency room physician — complete with swinging parties and sexy entanglements on the side. A harrowing stay in a French prison. And all before the protagonist was old enough to drink.

Some viewers of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can,” the story of teenage con man Frank Abagnale, may walk out of the theater wondering how much of the picture’s audacious larceny is true.

They’ll never know.

Directors and screenwriters routinely take liberties with real life, usually in the belief that it suffers from a poorly timed dramatic arc or insufficient conflict. But this film — which claims merely to be “inspired” by actual events — has an even trickier relationship with the truth because its source material is largely unverifiable.

What’s known: In 1970, Abagnale was arrested by the FBI, which suspected him of posing as a Pan Am pilot and cashing forged checks in a number of cities. He served almost four years in prison. Once released in 1974, he began working as a check-fraud consultant to the government as a condition of his parole, then gradually expanded to a private-sector consulting business. His appearances on several “Tonight” shows in the late ’70s led to a 1980 first-person book whose title the movie borrows.

What’s unverified are most of the intriguing claims in both the book and the movie, all of which Abagnale says are true: That, beginning at age 16, he cashed $2.5 million in bad checks in every U.S. state and two dozen foreign countries. That his impersonation of a Pan Am pilot — which helped him wangle free transportation to stay one step ahead of the law — went on for the better part of five years. That he also posed for months at a time as a hospital pediatric supervisor, a college sociology professor and an assistant district attorney. That he spent six months in French prison when authorities there caught up with him.

Abagnale, now 54, with a highly successful business catering to financial institutions, is a man of charm, polish and evident intelligence whose nuts-and-bolts knowledge of fraud melds perfectly with his teenage scenario. Over the years, those who have tried to independently verify his escapades have been told by Abagnale that he would never embarrass the people or institutions he conned by naming them.

In 1978, after Abagnale had been a featured speaker at a San Francisco anti-crime seminar, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter took apart Abagnale’s assertions at the seminar and on a subsequent “Tonight” show appearance. Phone calls to banks, schools, hospitals and other institutions Abagnale mentioned turned up no evidence of his cons under the aliases he used, the Chronicle said.

Abagnale’s response then: “Due to the embarrassment involved, I doubt if anyone would confirm the information.” Asked recently about the incident, he said he had intentionally used incorrect names.

Two years later, Abagnale’s account of his years of fraud, written with a professional writer, the late Stan Redding, was published by a Manhattan publishing house. Although it read like an autobiography, it featured a strange prefacing sentence: “This book is based on the true-life exploits of Frank Abagnale. To protect the right of those whose paths have crossed the author’s, all of the characters and some of the events have been altered, and all names, dates and places have been changed.”

Several efforts to turn the book into a film stagnated. Finally, Spielberg’s DreamWorks prevailed. As the film began to attract media attention this fall, Abagnale added a page to his business Web site to acknowledge the gaps between the book, the film and the truth.

“I was interviewed by the [book’s] co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted,” Abagnale wrote. “He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography. This is one of the reasons that from the very beginning, I insisted the publisher put a disclaimer in the book and tapes.”

The filmmakers were not shy about changing Abagnale’s story. To heighten the pain of his parents’ divorce, they made him an only child, rather than one of four. To enrich the relationship with his father, they turned his straight-arrow dad into a hustler. They compressed the narrative from five years to three. They doubled the amount of money Abagnale said he stole. They invented an FBI agent who pursued Abagnale around the country early on in his scam and eventually to France, when in fact the lack of a coordinated law enforcement effort allowed Abagnale to avoid detection for years. (The epilogue goes so far as to credit the fictitious FBI agent — a composite character — with the career honors won by the real FBI agent who arrested Abagnale but spent little time on the case.)

I COULD HAVE HAD THE FOLLOWING TWO GRAFS IN THE ORIGINAL STORY, BUT DUE TO AN INNOCENT E-MAIL ROUTING MISTAKE, THE QUOTE DIDN’T GET TO ME IN TIME. IT WAS UNUSED FROM A FILM WRITER’S PROFILE THAT HAD RUN THE MONTH BEFORE ON SPIELBERG. (SEE WHY PEOPLE IN THIS BUSINESS HAVE NERVOUS BREAKDOWNS?)

Said screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who worked on the script for three years, “Nobody really cares about … having to know exactly what happened. But it does matter that we stayed true to sort of what we know happened emotionally to him as a kid.” Still, Nathanson said, the “focus on what’s true and what’s not true” is “very hard for me … after spending all these years on it, because it sort of deflates the effort that we’ve all been making” to get to the emotional validity.

“Frank’s an interesting guy and I consider him a friend, but … he doesn’t really allow people to get to know him all that well,” Nathanson said. “I don’t know if anyone will ever know the actual truth.”

Abagnale acknowledged that the movie audience will be watching a cinematic approximation of his life based on an already stretched literary approximation. “Basically, I felt the movie was more accurate than the book, but in the final analysis only I really know,” he said.

Now married, the father of three sons and living in Oklahoma, Abagnale says he has taken pains throughout his adult life to condemn his youthful behavior, and had no role or financial interest in the making of the movie. He feels it is unfair for people to challenge his veracity. “I hope some day people will judge me on how I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life and not on a few years as a teenager,” he said.