Is “stop me if you can” a true story? This book suggests that’s not the case – WHY
This story is taken from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Frank W. Abagnale Jr. may have pulled off one of the biggest hoaxes in the world.
Abagnale’s famous story of forging checks and assuming different professional identities captured domestic audiences through pop culture adaptations, most notably Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, “Catch Me If You Can,” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It was developed from Memory of the same name of Abagnale.
The story goes that between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, Abagnale lived many lives as an impostor. He was posing as a pilot for Pan American Airlines, a doctor in Georgia, a lawyer for the Attorney General’s office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a professor at Brigham Young University. He has also cashed more than $ 2 million in bad checks in more than 26 countries. All of this, he claimed, when he was still a teenager and being pursued by the FBI.
The film was a hit, winning tons of awards and garnering many other nominations.
But while the movie claims to be based on a true story, creating the Frank W. Abagnale Jr. myth might be the best jerk Abagnale has actually shot. A new book claims the story of the charming teenage girl running away from the FBI and pulling off all those knockoffs without getting caught is largely made up.
Science journalist Alan C. Logan remembers watching the film on videotape after it was released and thinking there was just something wrong about it.
“I remember having this nagging feeling and something just was wrong,” Logan said. “And that was it. This thought, you know, has occurred to me for almost two decades.
Logan finally revisited that nagging feeling. In early 2020, he wrote a book on Robert Vernon Spears, a medical con artist who was the suspect in a mysterious commercial air disaster in 1959.
“And everyone who read the book started to compare Spears, which was verifiable… to Abagnale, to ‘Stop me if you can.’ And I just thought, well let me watch [it] a little. And nothing added up, nothing was verifiable.
Logan said he was taken aback by what he found. His book on this subject is called “World’s Biggest Hoax: Catch the Truth, While We Can. “
The real Frank
Logan used public records and newspaper clippings to uncover the real story. He even spoke to people who knew Abagnale before the myth of his life took off, including a flight attendant Abagnale met in 1969 during an encounter that ultimately led to his incarceration.
“What really happened was that, dressed as a TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot, which he only did for a few weeks, [Abagnale] befriended a flight attendant named Paula Parks, ”Logan said. “He followed her all over the east coast, identified her work schedule by deceptive means and basically stalked the woman.
Parks didn’t know what to do with him. She tried to tell him that she wasn’t interested, but he was persistent. He even showed up at his apartment in New Orleans. She then told him that she was going to visit her parents in Baton Rouge, and he followed her.
“So Frank Abagnale meets his parents in Baton Rouge. Frank and Paula… go their separate ways, and a few days later Frank Abagnale returns to [her parents’] house in Baton Rouge and said, “Hey, I’m Paula’s friend. Remember me? I am on leave as a pilot. And they invited him out of kindness.
Abagnale stayed with the family for a while, in Parks’ room, and she was mortified. She didn’t trust him, but her family did. They prepared meals for him and introduced him to the people of Baton Rouge. He would take the family to dinner and buy them flowers, gaining their trust. All the while, he was doing this with checks, he was stealing from them, which he had searched. He stole about $ 1,200 from family and more from local Baton Rouge businesses. In his book, Abagnale claimed that he had never scammed individuals, only hotels, airlines and banks.
Eventually he was caught and arrested.
“So Abagnale’s account that between the ages of 16 and 20, he was on the run, pursued all over the United States and even internationally by the FBI. It’s completely fictional, ”Logan said. “The public records I obtained show that he was for the most part incarcerated during those years.”
To tell the lie
Abagnale was granted parole in 1974 and moved to Friendswood, Texas, where he was again arrested for theft. After Abagnale was released from prison, a parole officer encouraged him to share his story as a transformed man.
It was an idea that Abagnale ran with. At first he started out by giving small lectures, telling this story of redemption, but his story grew bigger and bigger. He teamed up with a producer and eventually landed an appearance in 1977 on a national television show called “To Tell The Truth.”
The premise of the show was that celebrity panelists had to identify the one person who was not lying, out of three people claiming to be the same person. Logan said there had been no fact-checking on “To Tell The Truth”.
“And maybe for the first time in the history of this show, you had three liars on stage. Two of them were ordered to lie. And then Abagnale told several lies about his biography in this show.
Once Abagnale was on “To Tell The Truth” it was a hit. The game show has opened up new opportunities on national television. Later that same year, he appeared on the “Today” show with Tom Brokaw. Shortly after, he was on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
While most people were fascinated by the story of the con artist posing as a pilot, doctor, lawyer, and college professor, some weren’t so convinced.