There's this thing they always say about con men: they live a chameleon existence. That was certainly true for me. I'd find myself in an unfamiliar situation and I'd quickly adapt. And that's just what I did when they sent me to prison. I adapted to the role of prisoner, and I lived a life dictated by my imagination. In so many ways, the role felt small and unreal, when in fact it was the only real role I had lived in a long time.
Being cooped up in a confined space didn't suit me, so I sort of half-lived, numbed to my existence, waiting patiently for a second chance. My battle plan was to always be on my best behavior, in the hope that this would enable me to get out early. The problem was, the better I behaved, the more convinced the prison officials were that I was up to no good. Twice I came up for parole and was refused. One of the members of the review committee actually said to me, "I see that your record is perfect, and that's a problem. That tells me you're still conning the prison and getting away with it." In other words, if I had gotten into some fist fights or mauled a guard, then I might have gotten parole.
Everything I did right was always assumed to have an ulterior motive. That's what happens when you have a reputation, and the reputation is that of a master con man.
I had been imprisoned for six months in France and another six months in Sweden, and now I was in my third year of a twelve-year sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia. But I wasn't one of those inmates constantly prattling about his innocence. There was no doubt that I deserved to be behind bars.
For five immature years, I had lived a life of illusion and tricks. I had enjoyed a misguided and regrettable run as one of the most successful con artists the world has ever known. A lengthy list of exploits had added to my iconography, all of them income-producing. I had masqueraded as a Pan Am airline pilot (don't worry, I never actually took the controls), a pediatrician (I let my interns do the medical work), an assistant district attorney (I passed the bar while skipping the law school part), a sociology professor, and a stockbroker, all between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. I had never gone beyond the tenth grade, but I had a limitless talent for fantasy and I lived a million lives in those five years. Before the authorities discovered my true identity, I was known throughout the world as "The Skywayman." The New York Times, in its coverage, referred to me as "The Great Impostor."
What landed me in jail was my other bad habit, which was my enthusiasm for passing bad checks. The main reason I adopted those guises was to give me credibility when I cashed hot checks--and to satisfy my great taste for women. Hotel clerks and merchants didn't question pilots and doctors too closely. Through my various hustles, I passed something like $2.5 million worth of checks, a blizzard of paper that I scattered in earnest throughout all fifty states and twenty-six countries, all before I was legally allowed to drink. I was proficient enough at cashing fraudulent checks that I earned the distinction of becoming one of the most hunted criminals by the FBI.
All bad things come to an end, of course, and I was finally caught by the French police after a stewardess recognized me from a wanted poster when I was doing some shopping. I was twenty-one. Convicted of forgery, I spent six months in a French prison, was extradited to Sweden, where I was again convicted of forgery, and served another six months in the prison in Malmo. Then I was turned over to the authorities in the United States.
That transition, however, got mildly delayed. After my plane landed in New York and was taxiing toward the gate, where the law awaited me, I escaped through the toilet onto the runway and took off. Within weeks, I got caught at the Montreal Airport, and was sent to the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta, to await trial. But I escaped by conning guards into thinking that I was a prison inspector. That kept me on the lam a bit longer. Actually, all of one month longer.
By now, a lot of cops had memorized my face, and I could never go anywhere without looking over my shoulder. The funny thing is that I never resorted to disguises. I didn't dye my hair or grow a beard. The reason why I didn't was because I was really sensitive to retaining my true identity. Regardless of the various aliases I adopted, I'd always be Frank Adams or Frank Williams or Frank something. I wanted to keep at least part of my real name intact. And because I didn't take further precautions, I did realize that I was going to get caught, and probably sooner rather than later. Any criminal recognizes that the law sleeps, but it never dies.
Finally, one day I was walking past the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Two plainclothes detectives were standing on the street corner, munching on hot dogs. One of them stared quizzically at me and yelled, "Hey Frank." I turned around, and they identified themselves as police officers and said that I was Frank Abagnale. I vigorously denied it, but they knew better and took me in. Within a couple of hours, I had been positively identified. The following day, I was put in the custody of the FBI.
THE END OF THE ROAD
It didn't take long for the crush of state and federal complaints to pour in: forgery, passing worthless checks, swindling, mail fraud, counterfeiting, and on and on. Prosecutors and U.S. attorneys from around the country competed to be the one who would bring me to trial, as if I were some sort of lottery prize. They all had strong cases. There was a lengthy list of witnesses willing and able to identify me and testify against me.
An arbitrary decision was made to bring me to trial in Atlanta. There were plenty of cities where I was not likely to be honored by the Chamber of Commerce, but I had done a lot of damage in Atlanta. I had spent a year there pretending to be a doctor, and I doubted that I was remembered fondly. And, of course, there was that little incident of escaping from a federal prison. Needless to say, it wouldn't have been my first choice as a trial site. I had a good lawyer, though, and he was able to broker a favorable deal. In April 1971, I appeared before a federal judge and pleaded guilty to all the crimes "known and unknown" that I had committed in the United States. There were hundreds of outstanding charges against me, but the judge collapsed them into eight counts. He sentenced me to ten years on each of seven counts of fraud, to run concurrently, and two years on the one count of escape, which were to be served consecutively. And he remanded me to prison in Virginia.
TWENTY CENTS AN HOUR
The Petersburg jail wasn't the worst place to do time. It was a far cry from the French jail that had shattered my soul and nearly killed me. But it wasn't a great place to be, either. The days merged into one continuous blur.
I kept to myself and did my work diligently. I was assigned as a clerk in this big tire factory that recapped tires for government vehicles. I earned all of twenty cents an hour, and I was definitely not allowed a checking account. On the weekends, they showed movies to the inmates, the same ones that they played in town. The prison used to pay the town projectionist to come in and run the projector. But then they decided to train an inmate to do it, and for some reason they chose me. You had to be licensed to do the job, and so I was trained and took a test and got a license. I was the only one who was taught how to run the projector, and even when I was sick, I had to drag myself out of my cell on the weekends and show the movies.
When we had idle time, we'd sit around and compare war stories. I was constantly bemused by the dumb acts that landed some of the other inmates in jail. There were these two teenagers from Long Island. They were smoking dope one night when they encountered this Jamaican guy who introduced himself only as "Mustard." After hanging out with them, Mustard asked if they wanted to rob a bank. They had never stolen anything, but he made it sound like a rollicking adventure. The plans were a little ragged. Mustard waited for them a few blocks away from the bank. He gave them guns. They drove a car one of them had borrowed from his father and parked it right in front of the branch, where surveillance cameras were whirring. They wore no disguises. They entered, marched up to a teller, and collected five thousand dollars, all while the cameras taped them. They drove the two blocks to their rendezvous with Mustard. He took the five thousand dollars, let them keep the guns, and said he'd meet them that evening. After they drove a few more blocks, the cops had them surrounded. The police said they'd let them off if they gave up the mastermind. All they knew, they said, was his name was Mustard. And he had the money. In court, the judge said they were so stupid that he was giving them each five years.
Another guy from New York had never done anything wrong, either, but one day, badly in need of money, he decided to rob a bank. Almost randomly, he selected a branch on Lexington Avenue. He went up to a teller and made his demands. She said, "You better turn around." Everyone behind him had a gun trained on him. The branch was beneath what was then the New York City headquarters of the FBI, and all the customers were agents cashing their paychecks.
When the others learned why I was there--for passing $2.5 million of bum checks--they were practically drooling. At least I was put away for being clever.
But I didn't make any friends in prison. I felt no connection to the other inmates. No one I met felt like a defeated soul, a loser, but merely a winner waiting out a temporary setback. They were in a dangerous state of denial. Of all the inmates I met, none was remorseful about the crimes he had committed, and that genuinely bothered me. No one ever said to me, "Gee, I really screwed up my life. I'm going to set things straight." It was very demoralizing to me that in all the time I was in prison, not one of the six hundred inmates ever said that he was going to change. Instead, everyone was planning the next scam. And they were all trying to learn from me. Among inmates, con men are always looked up to as the upper echelon of criminals. Fellow inmates were always pressing me for applicable tips on getting fake IDs and ways to counterfeit checks.
LETTING TIME SERVE ME
I wasn't thinking that way anymore. I had crossed a crucial threshold. Crime no longer seemed romantic or noble, or in any way appealing to me. I had lived a life of incredible intensity. I knew I had made tragic mistakes and I wanted to make amends. So I'd refuse to offer them any advice that would merely perpetuate the treadmill they were on. I'd just brush them off by saying, "Do you just want to come back to the joint again? You know you'll get caught."
Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe prison rehabilitated me, or in any way fostered my moral and spiritual reform. A bright light didn't appear and God didn't speak to me. I simply grew up. I was a teenager when I was forging checks. As I got older, my conscience began to bother me. When I went into a bank at sixteen and wrote a bad check, I'd think, they've got millions of dollars, they won't miss a few hundred or a few thousand. A couple of years later, I would worry that the teller might lose her job. I started to look at things more rationally and as a more mature person. I had tired of a life where everyone you meet believes you to be someone you're not. It's pretty hard to have a serious relationship with a woman when you're lying and using a phony name.
And so, with my changed outlook, I never sat around thinking of my next scam. I had no idea what I would do when I got out, but whether I ended up roping cattle or selling kitchen appliances, the one thing I was certain about was that I would never pull another scam.
There's this whole thing about going to prison and serving time, or going to prison and have time serve you. I wanted time to serve me. I managed to get my GED, and I took some college courses to advance my limited education. Above all else, I dearly wanted to get out and rejoin society while I still had the time to construct a new life. I didn't know what that new life could be, but I was itching to start it.
As a con man, though, I was always given a hard time. My father died, and like all inmates, I expected to be allowed a funeral visit home. But I was denied this routine privilege, because the Bureau of Prisons was afraid that I would escape and embarrass it. All these murderers and violent criminals were allowed funeral visits, but not me.
With my parole rejections, I began to believe that I was going to have to serve every last day of my sentence. I was disturbed and baffled, but in prison you have no rights. Finally, on my third try, after having served three years of my sentence, I was granted parole. When I was asked what city I would like to be paroled in, I said that I didn't really care. I only asked that it not be New York. My mother and brothers were there, and I didn't think that I could handle the family situation just yet. I also thought New York offered far too many enticements for someone just embarking on a legitimate life.
I ended up being paroled to Houston, Texas. My instructions were to report to a United States parole officer within seventy-two hours of my arrival. And I was told that it would very much behoove me to find a job within those three days.
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