The love of his wife is what changed the life of one of the world’s most famous con men into one of the most respected authorities on forgery, embezzlement and secure documents.
This was the message relayed from confidence trickster turned FBI instructor Frank Abagnale when he told his incredible story to a packed Ritz-Carlton Ballroom Wednesday morning at the opening session of the Cayman Captive Forum.
Mr. Abagnale’s story has been immortalised in the film ‘Catch me if you Can’, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Having recounted his five-year stint as a con man back in the 1960s, from the age of 16, he has turned his life around. Mr. Abagnale lectures extensively at the FBI Academy and for the field offices of the FBI. More than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies use his programmes.
He reminded attendees what the moral of his whole story is: what it means to be a real man. ‘It has nothing to do with money, achievement, skills, accomplishments, profession, position. A real man loves his wife; a real man is faithful to his wife; a real man next to God and his country will put his wife and his children before anything else in life Please don’t wait until you’re 50 to learn how to do this because after 50 you will have nothing but regrets.’
He also noted the importance of children showing love to their parents. ‘Remember no matter what kind of relationship you’ve had with your parents you’ll miss them when they are gone.’
Although some of his stories from his trickster days are funny, sometimes unbelievable, and reflect a very young man well adapted to observation and cunning, he is clear about how he feels about those days now.
‘Some people write and say I was brilliant, a genius. I was neither. I was 16 years old – a child,’ he said
Had he been a real genius he didn’t think he would have had to break the law to survive.
‘I have turned down three pardons from three presidents, including the present one, because I do not believe, nor will I ever believe that a piece of paper will excuse my actions. In the end only my actions will excuse my actions.’
He was arrested when he was 21 by the French police and served time in French, Swedish and US prisons. After five years he was released on condition he would help the US government, without remuneration, by teaching and assisting federal law enforcement agencies.
‘I was very fortunate to be brought up in a country that always gives you a second chance. I owe my country 800 times more than I could ever repay it for the opportunities it has given me these past 30 years. That is why I’m in the FBI 26 years beyond my legal obligation to be so.’
Speaking fondly of his late father, he said, ‘The world is full of fathers but there are very few men – very few who can be called men. I had a daddy who loved his children more than he loved life itself. He was a man who told you every day of your life he loved you, not only by what he told you but by sheer physical affection.’
Mr. Abagnale recounted how he ended up in NYC on his own at 16 years, causing him to become involved in fraudulent activity.
He was called out of school one day and into a court only for a judge to tell him his parents were getting divorced and to ask him which of them he wished to live with.
He noted that divorce is extremely difficult for children and in having to make a choice between his mother and his father, he ran. ‘That was all I could do’.
He reflected, ‘When I was 16 I was just a child. All 16 year olds are children and I needed my mother and my father. All children are entitled to their mother and father.’
He explained how he cried himself to sleep every night after that until he was 19 and how difficult it was interacting with people who thought he was many years older than he actually was.
In trying to cope in the city on his own he had changed one digit on the date of birth on his driver’s licence and became 26 years old. At six foot tall and with some grey hair he passed off as this age.
One of the first things he did in New York was to open a bank account. And during conversation with the teller she explained that to make a deposit he was to take a blank deposit slip from the stack on the counter and write in his account number until his printed ones arrived.
He took a stack of blank deposit slips and the next day bought magnetic ink and encoded his account number on the slips. He put the stack back on the shelf in the bank and everyone who used the slips put their cheques right into his bank account.
He also impersonated a Pan Am pilot for two years and got to fly for free all over the world and write bad cheques.
He would ride other airlines as a Pan Am pilot in the jump-seat and when he’d get to the destination he’s stay where the airline crew stayed while the room was billed to the airline.
He originally got his uniform by calling the purchasing department with Pan Am, saying he was a pilot with a flight in four hours and a uniform lost in the dry cleaners and his spare in San Francisco.
He was instructed on where to go to purchase one. Since they didn’t take cheques or cash he had to fill in a form where he invented his employee number and the money was to be taken out of his next Pan AM pay-check. ‘Well that’s even better!’ he said.
He also went on to masquerade himself as a doctor and a lawyer.
Thirty one years ago he met his wife.
‘Truth is, that God gave me a wife, she gave me three beautiful children,’ he said, noting that everything he has, everything he has achieved, and who he is today is because of the love of this woman and the respect his three boys have for him.
Nothing has given him as much joy and reward in life as being a good husband and a good father.
Mr. Abagnale’s speech was sponsored by Ernst & Young.