Master Minds: Catch Me If You Can

By Brian Murphy, DIA Public Affairs, / Published Nov. 6, 2018

Abagnale gets a tour of the DIA History Museum prior to his speaking engagement with the agency's workforce. Photo by Brian Murphy, DIA Public Affairs. Frank Abagnale, the former con man who went on to lecture at the FBI Academy, captivates members of the DIA workforce with stories from his childhood as part of the agency's Master Minds guest speaker series, Oct. 29. Photo by Brian Murphy, DIA Public Affairs. Abagnale's incredible story inspired the 2002 film, "Catch Me If You Can" and six seasons of the USA Network television show, "White Collar." Photo by Brian Murphy, DIA Public Affairs.

When Steven Spielberg, one of the most respected and accomplished directors of all time, decides to make a movie based on your story and award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio signs on to portray you, it’s safe to say you’ve lived a captivating life.

That’s exactly what happened to Frank Abagnale who was immortalized in the 2002 film, “Catch Me If You Can.” And judging by the more than $350 million the movie made at the box office, Abagnale clearly had a story worth telling.

After dropping out of school and running away from home at 16, Abagnale went on to become one of the most successful con men in American history – stealing millions of dollars while posing as a Pan Am pilot, Georgia doctor and a Louisiana prosecutor.

Abagnale visited the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently as part of its Master Minds guest speaker series to share stories from his childhood, how he came to be a con man, check forger and escape artist and a host of other topics during a riveting discussion before a standing room only audience with DIA officers.

“I know that people are fascinated by what I did between 16 and 21, but as a 70-year-old today, I look back on my life and I'm not amazed by what I did,” Abagnale said. “What I'm amazed about is what I did after that. I went to prison. I've served my country for 42 years. I brought three wonderful kids into the world, have five grandchildren, married to my one and only wife for 40 plus years.”

It’s true. Once his life on the run inevitably caught up to him, Abagnale was arrested and served time for cashing millions of dollars’ worth of bad checks. But in a Hollywood-caliber “plot twist,” Abagnale was released from prison early … so he could work with the FBI.

How was Abagnale received when he showed up to work with the FBI?

“Not well. And that's why I thought Steven Spielberg captured that so well in the movie,” he said. “The bureau had someone on the set for 65 days while they were filming the movie. Spielberg really caught that. It was exactly how I felt walking in there. They did not like it. The bureau's not ever done that again since then.”

While he didn’t receive the warmest reception, he was able to overcome the workforce’s initial cold shoulder and become a respected authority on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. In fact, four decades later, Abagnale still lectures extensively at the FBI Academy and field offices.

After Abagnale worked undercover, former FBI Director Clarence Kelly said, "Really Frank has a great deal of knowledge, so we should have him teach at the academy. Not only for his knowledge, but then when agents come through the academy, they will know him from day one, who he is and what he does."

“And that's been the best thing ever,” Abagnale said. “I know all these agents because I've had them all in class. That built a great deal of credibility with those agents from the beginning. That was a great idea of having me teach there.”

One of the conditions of Abagnale’s early release was that he had to work with the FBI until his sentence was fully served. Why does he continue to work with the bureau more than 40 years later?

“I just felt that I owed it to pay my debt back,” Abagnale said. “I was surrounded by wonderful people. I did say to the bureau, ‘You know, I will stay on the condition that you allow me to do other things, because there are things I'd like to do in the private sector to help people.’ So we came to terms to be able to do that. It worked out great. But yeah, I would never want to give that part up. Even after I retire from commercial work, I'll probably still do it until I can't do it anymore.”

Whether he’s speaking to FBI agents, the DIA workforce or folks in the private sector, Abagnale hopes everyone he interacts with takes away one invaluable truth he’s learned over the years.

“I know people are fascinated by what I did, so I use that at the very beginning to catch their attention,” he said. “They want to know how'd you do it. Why'd you do it? But that's all the premise of getting them drawn in, so I can bring them full circle to where my life came to be.

“The important part is the end of the talk,” Abagnale continued. “I want them to walk away and understand that your parents are very special people, and that your wife and your children come first in your life, and that you need to be there for them.”