Uncovering the con man’s biggest lie

Alan C Logan told David Hennessy about his new book that presents compelling evidence that the story of Frank Abagnale Jr- immortalised in an autobiography, a Steven Spielberg film and even a Broadway play- is all a pack of lies.

Everyone knows the story of Frank Abagnale Jr: A con man who had the FBI running around after him for years while he passed himself off as an airline pilot, doctor and lawyer.

His story has already become a best-selling autobiography and the Steven Spielberg film, Catch Me if You Can, which starred Leonardo Di Caprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent on his tail.

It has even been made into a Broadway musical.

A new book shows it was all based on a lie.

The Irish author Alan C Logan presents evidence in his new book The Greatest Hoax on Earth that Frank Abagnale’s outrageous story could not have been true as he was in prison at times when he was claiming to be taking in everyone with his daredevil scams.

Frank Abagnale in Baton Rouge.

According to Abagnale’s accepted story, he was committing massive cheque fraud and flying around the world impersonating a pilot when he was no more than a teenager.

Logan has found evidence that between the ages of 17 and 20, Abagnale was incarcerated. 

His fantastic story was a massive fabrication and that is the biggest con the man ever pulled: Having people believe it.

And far from being a sophisticated fraudster that hit the big corporations, he ripped off ordinary hard-working people.

The tiny grain of truth in Catch Me if You Can is that for a brief period in 1970, when Abagnale was 22 years old, he did dress as a Pan Am pilot for three months.

There was no FBI task force set up to take Abagnale down. The real FBI chase was just three months long.

Despite Leonardo Di Caprio being depicted escaping police custody, he did not escape from the ultra-secure Atlanta Federal Penitentiary as he was never incarcerated there.

After his federal parole in 1974, Abagnale was re-arrested in Friendswood, Texas, for theft from a kids camp.

It was only by accident that Alan started looking into Abagnale’s story.

Alan C Logan told The Irish World: “I had written a book about a medical con man called Robert Vernon Spears. This guy had done multiple cons including acting without a proper license as a Dallas medical doctor for about a decade and then he became the central figure in a still unsolved airline disaster called Flight 967.

“People were naturally comparing him to the best known con man, Abagnale.

“Just to inform myself I said, ‘Well, I better get up to speed and get a handle on what this guy did or didn’t do’, just so that I would be better informed to have a conversation about it.

“And pretty quickly I found a little tiny article from February 14 of 1969, where Frank William Abagnale Jr. had been arrested in Baton Rouge for vagrancy.

“And I’m like, ‘That’s odd because giving these talks at Google he maintained he was arrested only once in his life, and that was in France. So right away there’s something not adding up here.

Frank Abagnale’s mugshot after his arrest at Camp Manison, Friendswood, TX, 1974.

“So over time, I was able to track down the victims of Abagnale in Baton Rouge.

“That was Paula Parks, a Delta Airlines flight attendant and her family.

“She told me a wild story that Abagnale essentially used false pretences to move in with her family.

“I went to the Baton Rouge Police Department and everything that Paula was telling me was there in black and white.

“While he was staying with them, he rifled through their belongings and found their chequebooks and was writing cheques, including taking the parents out to dinner and also buying the mother flowers on their own dime.

“He was also convicted of stealing from a local family and he was facing 12 years in the State Penitentiary in Louisiana.

“But he was treated lightly.

“But in any case, Abagnale, already a recidivist at this point, was given the 12 years as probation and psychiatric treatment.

“Instead he fled to Sweden and France, was quickly arrested there but not before ripping off two local people in Sweden that I was able to track down.

“And one of the first things that the Swedish victim told me was, ‘That man still owes me money’.

Frank Abagnale with Charlotte Parks, inside the Parks home, Baton Rouge, 1969. Photo: Courtesy, Paula Parks.

“You get the fable of him only targeting banks which he propagated.

“There’s many, many interviews where he himself said that he only targeted hotels, banks and airlines and never targeted individuals.”

Logan also found evidence of Abagnale’s crimes in his own words also.

“The Parks family had maintained these letters that Abagnale had written to her parents while he was jailed in Baton Rouge.

“Abagnale’s parents also sent letters expressing the need for psychiatric treatment for their son while he was in Baton Rouge jail.

“The key part about that is that his mother disclosed in one of the letters that for the previous three years, he had been in Comstock Prison, New York.

“So when Paula gave me the letters, I understood the significance of that and went to the New York State archives that sure enough put Frank Williams Abagnale Jr. there the three years prior, between ages of 17 and 20, in prison in Comstock, New York.

“There’s no question about it.

“This whole story started to unravel.”

The 2002 film depicts a game of cat and mouse where Abagnale humiliated the FBI for years.

“The story that most people know in Catch Me if You Can, that there was this five year quest of the FBI task force trying to catch Abagnale- It’s just simply not true.

“Part of the mystique is that he evaded everybody for five years, and was such a slippery character that no one could catch up with him.

“Actually, the reverse is kind of true. He was caught time and time again. Multiple arrests, there really wasn’t any significant amount of time that this guy was unattended and on the run.

“It lasted about three months.

“He did cash ten personal cheques dressed up as Pan Am airline cheques.

“Those became the basis of his conviction. I was able to secure all the federal paperwork on that and it amounted to less than $1,500.

“He only served about three and a half years in the Federal Penitentiary and was released in 1974.

“Again, people think that he immediately was reformed and went to work for the FBI.

“But in fact, he went down to Friendswood, Texas and he had obtained a job working with children under false pretenses.

“Today, they would throw the book at somebody if they went down that route.

“He got off lightly.”

Frank Abagnale while working at Camp manison under false pretenses. Photo: Courtesy, Margie Madona (note: faces of those who agreed to contribute to The Greatest Hoax on Earth book are not obscured, others are obscured).

And there are many examples of Abagnale getting off ‘lightly’.

“In fact, after all this stuff went down at the kids camps in Friendswood, Texas- He’s on parole, that alone should have been enough to send him right back because it’s a major parole violation.

“The parole officer concedes that he next found Abagnale working at an orphanage under false pretences. He had doctored a master’s degree from a local Euston University and was essentially finding foster homes for people in the orphanage.

“The parole officer hears this, comes straight over to the orphanage and finds the place with photos of himself as a pilot up on the wall, the doctor’s master’s degree.

“He says, ‘Hey, you’re out of here’.

“And then Abagnale went to live over the parole officer’s garage so that the parole officer could keep an eye on him.

“There’s many, many mysteries as to why Abagnale was treated lightly so often even though he was caught time and time again.”

Despite these arrests on his record, Abagnale claims that he has only been arrested once and that was in Montpellier.

He would go on the entertainment show To Tell the Truth with his tales of being an imposter and fraud.

Frank Abagnale with his manager, Mark Zinder. Zinder spoke to Alan C Logan about how he felt duped by Frank and his lies. Photo courtesy of Mark Zinder.

“I think that’s the most mystifying part of this: Given that biography, which is indisputable based on public records, how it was that he soared to fame in a very, very, very brief period from 1975.

“This is after he was arrested in Friendswood, Texas. That’s late 1974.

“How on earth did the guy get on the ironically named nationwide television show To Tell the Truth?

“And then he was invited because of that on to other programming, including The Tonight Show, which was the most highly rated programme at the time.

“And there was little in the way of fact checking- Two major exceptions.

“There was a journalist called Stephen Hall for the San Francisco Chronicle  who essentially shredded Abagnale’s tales.

“And so did Ira Perry of the Daily Oklahoman in a really robust takedown of all the claims.

“What they didn’t have though were his actual whereabouts.

“Abagnale was able to say, ‘Well, the people that you’ve gone to wouldn’t admit it because they’re embarrassed to concede that I had spent a year in a Georgia hospital and had been closing 33 cases with the Baton Rouge Attorney General.

“So there wasn’t too much in the way of debunking and then the rest is kind of history.

“He parlayed that into a best-selling autobiography and then ultimately, that was the basis of a film and stunningly, a Broadway play no less.”

What reaction has the man himself given so far to this new book with this evidence? “Abagnale so far has said he has not read the book and it’s not worthy of comment.

“That’s been a standard line.

“But I think we need to move past that now.

“He shouldn’t be asked about the book. He should just be simply asked, ‘Were you in Comstock Prison? Did you victimize the Parks familiy in Baton Rouge? Were you arrested in Friendswood? Are you really an ethics instructor at the FBI Academy?’

“It is just too easy for Abagnale to dismiss me. That’s easy.

“I’ve often been asked, ‘Did you contact Abagnale through the process while writing the book?’

“And I didn’t because I didn’t need to.

“We had volumes of things that he said on cassette tapes, newspaper articles, videos. There’s an abundance of material of Abagnale in his own words.

“My initial fear was that people would be upset that I’m basically saying ‘there’s no Santa Claus’ has been eased, because I think people are interested in the truth here.

“If you’re going to go to a play that’s said to be a true story, if you’re going to watch a film and it’s said to be a true story, I think people are genuinely interested in the truth or at least as close as we can get to the truth of a biography that’s presented to us.

“It’s lucrative. When you’re telling your biographical tales and you’re getting paid somewhere between $20- 30,000 a talk, it’s sort of a lucrative operation.

“If people are listening to this, I think they really want to know the truth. If you’re in the audience and enjoying this after dinner talk, I think people generally want to know if it’s the truth or not.”

Frank Abagnale Jr

In the film Leonardio Di Caprio jumps out of a moving airplane to make good a daring escape. The reality of this is quite different.

“He claimed to have escaped from one of the most secure prisons in the United States which is the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He was never housed there. He never set foot into it.

“He was housed in a very local jail in Cobb County, Georgia awaiting trial.

“While deputies turned their backs, he scooted out the door. He was quickly re-arrested in New York by the NYPD.

“Somehow that he escaped from a relatively insecure location in 1971 translated into him escaping with all kinds of sophistication. It’s just not true.”

Alan does not disagree that Catch Me if you Can is a great film. He just believes it should have no mention of a true story on it.

Frank Abagnale with John “Bud” Parks, inside the Parks home, Baton Rouge, 1969. Photo courtesy Paula Parks.

“The true story, if it were to be true, would largely have Mr. Abagnale victimizing people in Baton Rouge and spending most of his teenage years behind bars.

“Those are the facts. There’s just no way around that.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, well that’s an old movie’. And that was kind of the end of the story.

“But this is an ongoing legend.

“Initially, I was certainly braced for pushback that maybe I hadn’t gotten my facts correct.

“Thankfully, that really hasn’t been the case because I’ve been able to provide indisputable documentation placing Abagnale in known locations between the ages of 16 and into his mid 20s.”

Alan says it is in honouring the victims of Abagnale rather than debunking the story that motivates him.

“I’m really in this so that the suppressed voices can finally find a voice.

“Because it’s not just a debunking exercise.

“If it was strictly that, I don’t even know if I would have done it.

“When I heard Paula Parks’ story, there was no turning back for me.

“This had to be done. And I really did it to honour her voice, her family’s voice.

“Because there’s two things. There’s this sort of elevation of things that didn’t happen but there’s also a suppression of the truth and the voices of victims. That is really why I got into it.”

The Greatest Hoax on Earth is out now.

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