Former con speaks at NMU

Alex Belz

After completing his film “Catch Me If You Can,” Steven Spielberg said of Leonardo DiCpario’s character in an interview, “I did not immortalize Frank Abagnale on film because of what he did 40 years ago as a teenager; I immortalized him on film because of what he’s done for his country these past 30 years.”
Abagnale, in a speech this past Monday, Feb. 22 in the Great Lakes Room, told an audience of 900 people that while he spent four years forging checks and impersonating a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, he has spent most of his life trying to make up for it.
“I know that you hear often that famous saying life is short. That is false. Life is long. Real long. When you live 80 years, 90 years, or as you will, 100 years, that’s a long, long time. So when you make a mistake in life, you have to live with that mistake for those 80, 90 years of your life.”

Frank Abagnale, writer and former con artist spoke to NMU students about how he has spent the latter part of his life fighting fraud.

Abagnale, 61, spoke from experience. When he was 16, he was brought before a judge at his parent’s divorce hearing and asked to choose between them. Unable to make a choice, Abagnale left the courtroom and ran away.
“I never like to use my parents’ divorce as a crutch. I did what I did. I take full responsibility for what I did,” he said. “It was my own choice, my own fault.”
He never saw his father again and wouldn’t see his mother for seven years.
At first, he got a job. But he quickly realized his part-time job would not be enough to support him in New York City where he used to live with his parents. Frustrated, he turned to forging checks and other cons to try and make more money for himself.
When it became clear the New York Police were looking for him, he decided he had to switch locations. He was able to get hold of a Pan Am pilot’s uniform by pretending to be a pilot whose uniform got lost at the dry cleaner’s. He paid for the uniform out of pocket, but once it was his, he looked the part for his con. He acquired a Pan Am identification card and was able to fly anywhere he wanted. Though he never flew a plane himself, he was able to fly for free.
Abagnale was caught in a small town in France when he was 21.
“You know that if you stop you’re going to get caught. Basically, I did stop,” he said. “I knew it was only a matter of time until they caught up with me, and, sure enough they did. I didn’t have it in me to turn myself in, yet I also knew I would get caught. So it was just a matter of waiting it out.”
He was sentenced to a one-year term in Perpignan’s House of Arrest in France. The term was later shortened to six months. Then he was extradited to Sweden, where he spent an additional six months in prison. He was then taken to the United States, where he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
He was released during his fifth year in prison under the condition that he would help the FBI in fraud and forgery cases for the remainder of his sentence. He continues to this day to help the FBI, having been with them for 34 years.
“Needless to say, I was not looked upon very kindly. I went through a great deal of animosity from people. They didn’t like the idea that I was there,” Abagnale said.
Abagnale said that after a while, he realized the people he was working with were giving their lives for their country and was inspired by their dedication.
“When you start working with people like that, you understand their character and their ethics, that’s somewhere you want to be,” Abagnale said.
Tom Rosencrants, president of Platform Personalities, said that the event went far better than expected. Over 900 students, faculty and community members were in attendance.
“He had a great message. It was very inspirational. At times he was funny, at times he was serious. I heard great things from people who thought he did an amazing job,” Rosencrants said. “I’ve never had that happen where we filled the Great Lakes Rooms that full. Normally we’re right around 400, maybe 500.”
Senior Brian Wildey said he was very engaged by Abagnale’s speech.
“It was really informative. It was kind of different the way he wrapped up the end of it,” Wildey said. “He kind of focused more on his reformation then his exploits when he was sixteen. I liked that.”