The former police chief of Houston once said of me: Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sign it «U.R. Hooked» and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong drivers license for identification.
There are several bank employees in Eureka, California, who would endorse that statement. In fact, if it were put in the form of a resolution, there are scores of tellers and bank officials around the country who would second the motion.
I was not really that crude. But some of the moves I put on bank personnel were very, very embarrassing, not to mention costly.
Eureka, for me, was my commencement as an expert forger. I was already an advanced student of paperhanging when I arrived, of course, but I took my masters degree in check swindling in California.
I didnt purposely pick Eureka as a milestone in my capricious
career. It was meant merely as a pit stop en route to San Francisco, but the inevitable girl
appeared and I stayed to play house for a few days and to ruminate on my
future. I was possessed by an urge to flee the country, vaguely fearful that a
posse of FBI agents, sheriffs and detectives was hard on my heels. There was no
tangible reason for such trepidation. I hadnt bilked anyone with a bouncing
check in nearly two years, and
The girl and Eureka, between them, allayed my misgivings somewhat after a couple of days, the girl with her warm and willing ways and Eureka with its potential for elevating me from petty larceny to grand theft. Eureka, in Californias northern redwood forests, perched on the edge of the Pacific, is a delightful little city. It has the picturesque allure of a Basque fishing village, and in fact a large and colorful fishing fleet operates out of Eurekas harbor.
The most fascinating facet of Eureka, to me, was its banks. It had more money houses for a city its size than any comparable city Id ever visited. And I needed money, a lot of it, if I were going to be an expatriate paperhanger.
I still had several stacks of worthless personal checks, and I was sure I could scatter a dozen or more of them around town with ease, netting $1,000 or more. But it occurred to me that the personal-check dodge wasnt really that great. It was the easiest of bum-check capers, but it generated too much heat from too many points, and the penalty for passing a worthless $100 check was the same as that for dropping $5,000 in phony parchment.
I felt I needed a sweeter type of check, one that would yield more honey for the same amount of nectar. Like a payroll check, say. Like a Pan Am payroll check, naturally. No one would ever be able to say I wasnt a loyal thief.
I went shopping. I obtained a book of blank counter checks
from a stationery store. Such checks, still in wide use at the time, were ideal
for my purposes, since it was left to the payer to fill in all the pertinent
details, including the respondent banks name. I then rented an IBM electric
typewriter with several different typeface spheres, including script, and some
extra ribbon cartridges in various carbon densities. I located a hobby shop
that handled models of Pan Ams jets and bought several kits in the smaller
sizes. I made a final stop at an art store and purchased a quantity
Thus provisioned, I retired to my motel room and set to work. I took one of the blank counter checks and across the top affixed a pan American world airways decal from one of the kits. Below the legend I typed in the airlines New York address. In the upper left-hand corner of the check I applied the Pan Am logo, and in the opposite right-hand corner I typed in the words expense check, on the premise that a firms expense checks would differ in appearance from its regular payroll checks. It was a precautionary action on my part, since some Eureka bank tellers might have had occasion to handle regular Pan Am vouchers.
I made myself, Frank Williams, the payee, of course, in the amount of $568.70, a sum that seemed reasonable to me. In the lower left-hand corner I typed in chase Manhattan bank and the banks address, going over the bank legend with progressively blacker ribbons until the words appeared to have been printed on the counterfeit check.
Below the bank legend, across the bottom left-hand corner of the check, I laid down a series of numbers with magnetic tape. The numbers purportedly represented the Federal Reserve District of which Chase Manhattan was a member, the banks FRD identification number and Pan Ams account number. Such numbers are very important to anyone cashing a check and tenfold as important to a hot-check swindler. A good paperhanger is essentially operating a numbers game and if he doesnt know the right ones hes going to end up with an entirely different set stenciled across the front and back of a state-issued shirt.
The fabricating of the check was exacting, arduous work, requiring more than two hours, and I was not at all happy with the finished product. I looked at it and decided it was not a check I would cash were I a teller and someone presented the check for payment.
But a thrift-shop dress is usually taken for high fashion when its revealed under a mink coat. So I devised a mink cover for the rabbit-fur check. I took one of the windowed envelopes, hoaxed it up with a Pan Am decal and Pan Ams New York address, stuck a blank piece of stationery inside and mailed it to myself at my motel. The missive was delivered the following morning, and the local post office had unwittingly assisted me in my scheme. The clerk who had canceled the stamp had done such a botched job with the postmark that it was impossible to tell where the letter had been mailed from. I was delighted with the mans sloppiness.
I donned my Pan Am pilots uniform, placed the check in the envelope and stuck it in the inside pocket of my jacket. I drove to the nearest bank, walked in jauntily and presented myself at a tellers booth attended by a young woman. Hi, I said, smiling. My name is Frank Williams and Im vacationing here for a few days before reporting to Los Angeles. Would you please cash this check for me? I think I have sufficient identification.
I took the envelope from my inside pocket, extracted the check and laid it on the counter, along with my phony Pan Am ID card and my illicit FAA pilots license. I purposely dropped the envelope, with its distinctive Pan Am logo and return address, on the counter.
The girl looked at my bogus identification documents and glanced at the check, but she seemed more interested in me. Commercial airline pilots in uniform were obviously a rarity in Eureka. She pushed the check back to me for endorsement, and while she counted out the money she asked chatty questions about my work and the places Id been, questions I answered in a manner designed to bolster her apparent romantic image of airline pilots.
I was careful to take the envelope with me when I left. I had made certain that she noticed the wrapper, and it had patently enhanced her faith in the check. The transaction also verified a suspicion I had long entertained: its not how good a check looks but how good the person behind the check looks that influences tellers and cashiers.
I went back to my motel room and labored late into the night concocting several more of the sham checks, all in the amount of $500 or more, and the following day I successfully passed all of them in different downtown or suburban banks. Based on my knowledge of the check-routing procedures used by banks, I calculated I could spend two more days in Eureka making and dropping the bum expense checks and then have three days lead time for travel before the first one was returned as a counterfeit.
But an identity crisis, which I experienced periodically, forced me to revise my timetable.
I never immersed myself so deeply in an assumed identity that I forgot I was really Frank Abagnale, Jr. In fact, in casual encounters with people, where I felt no compulsion to play-act and nothing was to be gained by affecting a guise, I invariably presented myself as Frank Abagnale, a foot-loose fellow from the Bronx.
It was no different in Eureka. Away from my motel, where I was registered as Frank Williams, or the girl, who had succumbed to a man she believed to be a Pan Am pilot, and out of the pilots garb, I was simply Frank Abagnale, Jr. To a degree, my actual identity became a refuge from the pressures and tensions of posing.
In Eureka I met a fisherman off a fishing boat in a seafood restaurant. He stopped at my table to tell me he had personally caught the very fish I was eating, and then sat down to converse with me. He was a car buff, it developed, and I told him about my old Ford and what I had done to dress up the car. Hey, thats what Im trying to fix up now, a 1950 Ford convertible, he said. You dont have any pictures of your heap, do you?
I shook my head. I do, but theyre all back in my room at home, I said.
Gimme your address in New York and Ill send you some pictures of my wheels when Im finished with it, he said. Heck, I might even drive to New York and look you up.
It was very unlikely that hed either write me or come to New York to see me, and just as unlikely that Id be there to receive either his letter or him, so I searched my pockets for a piece of paper on which to jot down my name and New York address.
I came up with one of the blank counter checks. I borrowed a pencil from a waiter and was writing my name and New York address on the back of the check when the fisherman was called to the telephone, a pay phone on the wall near the door. He talked for a few minutes and then waved at me. Hey, listen, Frank, I gotta go back to the boat, he shouted. Come by tomorrow, willya? He bolted out the door before I could reply. I gave the pencil back to the waiter and asked for my tab. You need a pencil with heavier lead, I said, indicating what I had written on the back of the counter check. The words were barely discernible.
I put the check back in my pocket instead of tearing it up, an action that was to prove both foolish and fortunate. Back in my room, I dropped it on top of the open book of counter checks, changed clothes and called the girl. We spent a pleasant evening at a fine restaurant in the tall redwoods somewhere outside of Eureka.
It was such a pleasant evening that I was still recalling it early the next morning when I sat down to create three more phony Pan Am checks. There were only three banks left in and around Eureka that didnt have one of my artistic frauds, and I didnt want to slight any of the three. I was caught up in my new scheme. All my fears of a posse pounding down my backtrail were forgotten. I had also completely forgotten the young fisherman of the past afternoon.
Finished with the first check, I slipped it into the now well-used envelope. Less than two hours later I completed the other two and was ready for my farewell foray in Eureka, one that went off without a hitch. By mid-afternoon I was back in my motel room, adding nearly $1,500 to the currency-cushioned lining of my two-suiter.
That night I told the girl I would be leaving the following day. Ill probably be flying out of Frisco or L.A., I dont know which, I lied. Either way Ill be back often. Ill just rent a light plane and come up. Well look at those redwoods from the top for a change.
She believed me. Thats a deal, she said, and suggested
we go down to the wharves and eat seafood. She seemed more hungry than unhappy,
which was agreeable with me. But halfway through the meal I looked out the
window, saw a fishing boat coming in to the dock and remembered the young
fisherman. I also remembered. I had jotted down my real name and my New York
Back in my room, I searched for the blank check, but to no avail. I had a lot of blank checks, but they were all still in the binder. I had to conclude that Id made that particular blank check up as a sham Pan Am expense check and had passed it at one of the three banks. But I couldnt have, I told myself. I had to endorse each check on its back, and surely Id have noticed the writing. But would I have? I recalled how light the pencil had been. My writing had been barely legible, even in the bright light of afternoon. I could easily have overlooked the scrawled words when I endorsed the check, especially in view of the operating procedure Id developed in Eureka. I had found that palming off one of the fake vouchers went much smoother and quicker when I kept the tellers attention on me rather than the check. And to get a womans attention, you have to pay attention to her.
I sat down on the bed and forced a total recall of the
events that had resulted in the situation, and soon satisfied myself as to what
had happened. I had dropped the loose check on top of the open book of counter
checks. I had picked it up first the next morning, my encounter with the
fisherman unremembered, when I made up the three counterfeit expense checks.
And I had placed it in the
And a certain bank in Eureka
had a counterfeit Pan Am expense check endorsed by a counterfeit
I suddenly felt hotter than a blast furnace. I started thinking again of leaving the country, jumping the border into Mexico. Or even more southerly climes. But this time I contemplated the idea reluctantly. In Eureka Id devised what I considered a grand new theft scheme, one that paid off better than doctored dice in a crap game. And heady with the success of the system, Id set aside my fears of being closely pursued and had convinced myself that I was as cool as an arctic ice floe. I had intended to work my counterfeit check scam from coast to coast and border to border. It chafed me to have to abandon my plans because Id stupidly blown my cover.
But did I have to give up the game? Had I blown my cover at this point? If I hadnt noticed the scribbling on the back of the check, maybe no one else had, either.
There was also a good possibility the check was still in the bank. Id cashed it early in the afternoon, and it was possible it wouldnt be routed to New York until the morrow. If it hadnt left the bank, perhaps I could purchase it back. I could tell them Pan Am had issued the check in error and I shouldnt have cashed it, or some such concocted tale. I was sure I could come up with a good story if the check was still on hand. I fell asleep mulling feasible excuses to offer.
I packed, stowed my gear in my car and paid my motel bill before calling the bank the next morning. I asked for the head teller and was connected with a woman who identified herself as Stella Waring in brisk tones.
Mrs. Waring, a Pan Am pilot cashed a check in your bank yesterday, I said. Can you tell me... She cut me off before I could say more.
Yes, a bogus check, she said, abruptly indignant and without asking my identity or my reason for calling. Weve notified the FBI. Theyre supposed to be sending an agent for the check.
I wasnt challenged. I acted on impulse, an incitement to protect my real identity. Yes, I said. This is the FBI. I wanted to alert you that our agent will be there in about fifteen minutes. Do you have the check, or is there someone else he should contact?
Just have him see me, sir, Ill have the check, Mrs.
Waring replied. Of course, wed like a Xerox of the check for our records. That is all right, isnt it?
Of course, I assured her. I will instruct Mr. Davis to provide you with a copy.
I was at the bank within five minutes, dressed in a blue business suit, but I discreetly cased the interior before entering. The teller who had cashed the check was nowhere in sight.
Had she been, I would not have entered. I didnt know whether she was on a coffee break or what, and I was uneasy about her appearing while I was in the bank, but I was driven to take the risk. I strode into the lobby and the receptionist directed me to Mrs. Warings desk at one side of the floor. She was a trim, handsome woman in her thirties, with the dress and air of the complete businesswoman. She looked up as I stopped in front of her desk.
Mrs. Waring, Im Bill Davis of the FBI. I believe my boss called you earlier? I said.
She nodded with a grimace. Oh, yes, Mr. Davis, she said. I have the check right here. She did not ask for credentials or seem suspicious of my status at all. She merely produced the check from a drawer and handed it to me. I examined it with a professional air, an attitude easily assumed since I was the manufacturer. On the back, barely perceivable, was my real name and my fathers address.
It looks pretty junky, I observed dryly. Im surprised anyone would cash it.
Mrs. Waring smiled sour agreement. Yes, we have some girls here that, well, they see a handsome pilot or some other man that presents a romantic figure, and they tend to lose their cool. Theyre more interested in the man than in what hes handing them, she said in disapproving tones. The girl who took this check, Miss Caster, was so upset she didnt even come in this morning.
I relaxed at the information and began to enjoy my pose as
No, but theres a Xerox machine right there in the corner, itll only take me a minute, she said.
Ill do it, I said, and walked quickly to the machine before she could object. I copied only the front of the check, a factor she didnt notice when I laid it on her desk.
Let me sign this and date it, I said, picking up a pen. This copy is your receipt. You understand we need this original as evidence. It will be in the custody of the U.S. Attorney. I think this is all we need at the moment, Mrs. Waring. We certainly appreciate your, cooperation. I pocketed the damning original and left.
I learned later that I exited the bank barely five minutes
before the actual FBI agent-Eurekas
Posing as an FBI agent was not the smartest move I made at that point in my criminal career. Federal agents are generally highly efficient officers, but they are even more efficient and determined when someone impersonates an FBI agent. I had circumvented, temporarily, the disclosure that Frank Williams, pilot poseur, was in reality Frank Abagnale, Jr., but unknowingly I furnished ORiley a fresh trail to follow and thereafter it was hound and hare to the end.
However, I was still in a learning stage as a forger, albeit an advanced student, and I tended to take risks an experienced check thief would shudder to chance. I was an independent actor, writing, producing and directing my own scripts. I did not know any professional criminals, I didnt seek out criminal expertise and I shunned any place that smacked of being a criminal haunt.
The people who assisted me in my dubious capers were all honest, legitimate, respectable folk whom I duped or conned into lending me help. In reality, my total autonomy was the biggest factor in my success. The usual criminal sources of information for the police were useless to them in their search for me. The underworld grapevine simply had no intelligence on me. While my true identity was established midway in my course, the leads garnered by police were all after-the-fact leads. I was always several days gone by the time my misdeeds were exposed as such, and officers were never able to pick up my trail until I struck again, usually in some far-off city.
Once I embarked on counterfeiting checks, I realized I had reached a point of no return. I had chosen paper-hanging as a profession, my means of surviving, and having chosen a nefarious occupation, I set out to perfect my working skills. In the ensuing weeks and months, I studied check transactions and banking procedures as diligently as any investor studies the markets available to him, and I did my homework in unobtrusive ways. I dated tellers and picked their brains while stroking their bodies. I went to libraries and perused banking magazines, journals and trade books. I read financial publications and created opportunities to converse with bank officials. All my wrongful techniques, in short, were polished with rightful wax.
Of course, as someone once observed, there is no right way to do something wrong, but the most successful check swindlers have three factors in their favor, and any one of the three, or the scantiest combination of the three, can pay off like three bars on a slot machine.
The first is personality, and I look on personal grooming as part of ones personality. Top con artists, whether theyre pushing hot paper or hawking phony oil leases, are well dressed and exude an air of confidence and authority. Theyre usually, too, as charming, courteous and seemingly sincere as a politician seeking reelection, although they can, at times, effect the cool arrogance of a tycoon.
The second is observation. Observation is a skill that can be developed, but I was born blessed (or cursed) with the ability to pick up on details and items the average man overlooks. Observation, as I will illustrate later, is the only necessity for successful innovative larceny. A newsman who did a story on me noted, A good con man reads sign like an Indian, and Frank Abagnale would have made the best Pawnee scout on the frontier look like a half-blind tenderfoot.
The third factor is research, the big difference between the hard-nosed criminal and the super con man. A hood planning a bank holdup might case the treasury for rudimentary facts, but in the end he depends on his gun. A con artists only weapon is his brain. A con man who decides to hit the same bank with a fictitious check or a sophisticated check swindle researches every facet of the caper. In my heyday as a hawker of hot paper, I knew as much about checks as any teller employed in any bank in the world and more than the majority. Im not even sure a great many bankers possessed the knowledge I had of checks.
Here are some examples of the things I knew about checks and most tellers didnt, little things that enabled me to fleece them like sheep. All legitimate checks, for instance, will have at least one perforated (or scalloped) edge. The edge will be at the top if taken from a personal checkbook, on two or three sides if taken from a business check ledger. Some knowledgeable firms even scallop all four sides of their checks. An ingenious check counterfeiter can duplicate such vouchers, of course, but only if he invests $40,000 or more in a perforating press, and if he did that hed hardly be ingenious. Its not something one can tote around in a suitcase.
There are worthless checks that have a perforated edge, of course, but the checks arent bogus. The account is. In every instance where I passed a personal check, I was actually passing an insufficient check. Whenever I went off on a personal-check-passing tangent, I would first open up a legitimate checking account, using a phony name, in order to get fifty to one hundred personalized checks. And, as mentioned previously, the first one or two I wrote were usually good. After that I was flying kites.
I said earlier that the good check swindler is really operating a numbers game, and he is. All checks, whether personal or business, have a series of numbers in the lower left-hand corners, just above the bottoms. Take a personal check that has the numbers 1130 0119 546 085 across the bottom left-hand corner. During my reign as a rip-off champion, not one out of a hundred tellers or private cashiers paid any attention to such numerals, and Im convinced that only a handful of the people handling checks knew what the series of numbers signified. Ill decode it:
The number 11 denotes that the check was printed within the Eleventh Federal Reserve District. There are twelve and only twelve Federal Reserve Districts in the United States. The Eleventh includes Texas, where this check was printed. The 3 after the 11 tells one that the check was printed in Houston specifically, for the Third District Office of the FRD is located in that city. The 0 indicates that immediate credit is available on the check. In the middle series of numbers, the 0 identifies the clearing house (Houston) and the 119 is the banks identification number within the district. The 546 085 is the account number assigned the customer by the bank.
How does that knowledge benefit a check counterfeiter? With a bundle in his swag and a running head start, thats how. Say such a man presents a payroll check to a teller or cashier for payment. It is a fine-looking check, issued by a large and reputable Houston firm, payable at a Houston bank, or so it states on the face of the chit. The series of numbers in the lower left-hand corner, however, starts with the number 12, but the teller or cashier doesnt notice that, or if she/he does, she/he, is ignorant of the meaning of the numbers.
A computer isnt. When the check lands in the clearinghouse bank, usually the same night, a computer will kick it out, because, while the face of the check says its payable in Houston, the numbers say its payable in San Francisco and bank computers read only numbers. The check, therefore, is sorted into a batch of checks going to the Twelfth District, San Francisco in this instance, for collection. In San Francisco another computer will reject the check because the bank identification number doesnt jibe, and at that point the check lands in the hands of a clearing-house bank clerk. In most instances, the clerk will note only the face of the check, see that it is payable at a Houston bank and hand-mail it back, attributing its arrival in San Francisco to computer error. In any event, five to seven days have passed before the person who cashed the check is aware he or she has been swindled, and the paperhanger has long since hooked em.
I got rich off the ignorance of bank personnel concerning their own numerical codes and the lack of knowledge of checks on the part of people who cashed checks. In San Francisco, where I tarried for several weeks after fleeing Eureka, I manufactured several dozen of the phony Pan Am expense checks and passed them in San Francisco banks, at the airport and in banks or hotels in surrounding communities, coding the checks so they were routed to such distant points as Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Richmond.
No forty-niner ever struck it richer in them thar California hills than I did. My fabricated envelope was still an invaluable aid in cashing the fake vouchers, but I used it so much in the Bay Area that it started to come apart at the seams. I needed a new one.
And why not a real one? I reasoned. San Francisco was one of Pan Ams bases, and I was a Pan Am pilot, wasnt I? Hell no, I wasnt, but who out at Pan Am operations would know that? I went to the airport and boldly sauntered into the Pan Am operations complex. Say, where can I get some writing paper and envelopes? Im a stranger here, I asked the first person I encountered, a radio operator.
The stockroom, around the corner there, he said, pointing. Help yourself.
I did, since the stockroom was unattended. I grabbed a batch of envelopes, a stack of stationery with Pan Ams letterhead, stuffed them in my briefcase and was leaving when another stack of forms caught my eye. check authorization, said the bold letters across the head of the top form. I picked up a sheaf and examined the top document. The forms were requests for advance expense checks or compensation for expenses incurred, authorizing the company cashier to issue a check to the named bearer when signed by Pan Ams San Francisco manager. I put a packet of the forms in my briefcase, too. No one spoke to me as I left. I dont think anyone I encountered paid the slightest heed to me.
The check authorization form was a lovely little helper. Id fold it around one of my bastard brainchildren before slipping the check into an authentic Pan Am envelope. I always made certain that the authorization form, properly if not legally filled out, and the envelope were prominently in evidence when I cashed one of my check creations.
One day I returned from foraging among Berkeleys money houses to find there was no room in either my suitcase or my duffel bag for clothes. They were both full of loose bills. I was stealing faster than I could spend. I took $25,000, went to a San Jose bank, rented a safe-deposit box under the name of John Calcagne, paid three years» rent in advance and stowed the cash in the box. The next day I went to a bank in Oakland and repeated the procedure, using the name Peter Morelli.
Then I went back to San Francisco and fell in love.
Her name was Rosalie and she was a stewardess for American Airlines. She lived in an old house with five roommates, all stews for American, too, and I met her when I encountered the six of them on a bus returning from the airport. They had been to the airport on legitimate business. I had been there perpetrating a little light larceny. We started dating that same night.
Rosalie was one of the loveliest women Id ever met, and I still think so. She had frosted blond hair and, as I learned quickly, something of a frosted nature. At twenty-four she was still a virgin, and she informed me on our second date that she intended to stay chaste until her wedding day. I told her I admired her attitude, and I did, but it still didnt stop me from trying to undress her anytime we were alone.
As a companion, Rosalie was delightful. We shared an enjoyment of music, good books, the ocean, skiing, the theater, travel and a score of other pleasures and pursuits. Rosalie was devoutly religious, and like me a Catholic, but she did not insist that I attend mass with her.
«Why dont you preach to me about my sins?» I asked her in a bantering tone one day after picking her up at church.
She laughed. «I dont know that you have any, Frank,» she replied. «You sure dont have any bad habits that Im aware of. I like you like you are.»
I found myself getting closer to Rosalie each time I was with her. She had so many good qualities. She seemed the epitome of the kind of woman most young bachelors dream of finding for a wife: she was loyal, clean-cut, intelligent, even-tempered, considerate, lovely and she didnt smoke or drink. She was all apple pie, American flag, mom and sis and spring rolled up in a Girl Scout sash.
«Rosalie, I love you,» I said to her one night.
She nodded. «I love you, too, Frank,» she said quietly.
«Why dont we go visit my parents and tell them about us?»
Her parents lived in Downey, south of Los Angeles. It was a long drive, and en route we stopped and rented a cabin near Pismo Beach. We had a wonderful evening, and when we resumed our journey the next morning, Rosalie was no longer a virgin. I really felt bad about it, for I thought I should have been more considerate of her virtue, which I knew full well she valued highly. I apologized repeatedly as we drove down the coast in her car, which she had insisted we use.
Rosalie snuggled up to me and smiled. «Stop apologizing, Frank,» she said. «I wanted to do it. Anyway, well just add that one to our wedding night.»
Her parents were nice people. They welcomed me warmly, and when Rosalie told them we were going to be married, they were enthusiastic and congratulated us warmly. For two days all I heard was wedding plans although I hadnt actually asked Rosalie to marry me. But it seemed taken for granted that I had, and her parents obviously approved of me.
But how could I marry her? She thought I was Frank
Williams, a Pan
Or could I? I had $80,000 or $90,000 in cash, ample funds to finance the beginning of a marriage. Maybe Rosalie would believe me if I told her I didnt want to fly anymore, that Id always wanted to own and operate a stationery store. I didnt, really, but it was the one honest trade in which I was versed. I dismissed the idea. I would still be «Frank Williams,» and Frank Williams would still be a hunted outlaw.
What started as a pleasant visit turned into an ordeal for me. I felt I really loved Rosalie, and I felt I really wanted to marry her, but I didnt see how under the circumstances.
However, Rosalie thought she was going to marry me. And her parents thought she was going to marry me. They happily charged ahead, setting the date for a month hence, making up a list of whom to invite, planning the reception and doing all the things parents and a daughter do when the girls about to become a bride. I took part in many of the discussions, outwardly happy and eager for the day, but inwardly I was tortured with guilt, burning with shame and totally miserable. I had told Rosalie and her parents that my parents were on a European vacation, and they agreed they should wait until my parents returned, which I said should be within ten days, before finalizing any plans.
«Im sure your mother will want to have a hand in this, Frank,» said Rosalies mother.
«Im sure she would,» I lied, although I was sure my mother would like to get her hands on me.
I didnt know what to do. I was staying in Rosalies home, in the guest room, and at night Id lie in my bed and I could hear the murmur of her parents voices in their room across the hall, and I knew they were talking about their daughters marriage to such a fine young man. It made me feel rotten.
One afternoon Rosalie and I went bike riding and we ended up in a park, sitting under a giant shade tree, and Rosalie, as usual, was chattering about our future-where wed live, how many kids wed have and so on. I looked at her as she talked and suddenly I felt shed understand, that she loved me enough to not only understand but to forgive. One of the traits I loved most in her was her compassion.
I put my hand gently over her mouth. «Rosalie,» I said, and I was surprised at my calmness and composure. «I need to tell you something, and I want you to try and understand. If I didnt love you so much, I wouldnt tell you this at all, for Ive never told anyone what Im going to tell you. And Im telling you, Rosalie, because I love you and I do want us to get married.
Rosalie, I am not a pilot for Pan American. Im not twenty-eight, Rosalie. Im nineteen. My name is not Frank Williams. My name is Frank Abagnale. Im a crook, Rosalie, an impostor and a check swindler, and Im wanted by the police all over the country.
She looked at me, shocked. Are you serious? she finally said. But I met you at the airport. You have a pilots license. Ive seen it! You have a Pan Am ID card. You were in uniform, Frank! Why are you saying these things, Frank? What is the matter with you?
She laughed nervously. Youre kidding me, Frank!
I shook my head. No, Rosalie, Im not. Everything Ive said is true, I said, and I laid it all out for her, from the Bronx to Downey. I talked for an hour, watching her face as I talked and seeing her eyes mirror in turn horror, disbelief, agony, despair and pity before her emotions were hidden behind a curtain of tears.
She buried her hands in her hair and wept uncontrollably for what seemed an eternity. Then she took my handkerchief, wiped her eyes and face and stood up. Lets go back home, Frank, she said quietly.
You go on, Rosalie, I said. Ill be there shortly, but I need to be alone for a while. And Rosalie, dont say anything to anyone until I get there. When your parents learn about this, I want them to hear it from me. Promise me that, Rosalie.
She nodded. I promise, Frank. Ill see you later.
She pedaled off, a lovely woman reduced to a forlorn figure at the moment. I got on my bike and rode around, thinking. Rosalie hadnt said a lot, really. She certainly hadnt told me everything would be all right, that she forgave me and wed be married anyway. I really didnt know what she was thinking, or what her reaction would be when I reappeared at her home. Should I even go back? All I had at her house were some sports clothes, a couple of suits, underwear and shaving kit. Id left my uniform in my motel room in San Francisco, and I had my fake ID and phony pilots license in my pocket. I had never told Rosalie where I lived. Id always called her or gone to her home. When she asked me once, I told her I lived with a couple of kooky pilots in Alameda and they were so weird they wouldnt have a telephone or television in the apartment.
That had seemed to satisfy her. She wasnt at all an inquisitive person, tending to take people as they presented themselves. Thats one reason I enjoyed her company and had dated her more than usual. I felt safe around her.
But I didnt feel safe at the moment and I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my impromptu confession. I forced myself to brush aside my misgivings. Whatever else she might do, in light of what she now knew, Rosalie wouldnt betray me, I told myself.
I contemplated phoning her to get a reading on what her feelings were now, but decided to face her and press for a decision. I approached her home from a side street and just before reaching the corner I stopped, laid the bike down and walked along a hedge bordering a neighbors yard until I had a view of her house through the foliage.
Parked in front of Rosalies home was an L.A. black-and-white, and a second vehicle, which, while not-marked, was plainly a cop car, was parked in the driveway. A uniformed policeman was in the squad car scanning the street.
My lovely Rosalie had finked on me.
I went back to the bike and pedaled off in the opposite direction. When I reached the downtown district, I parked the bike and caught a cab to the Los Angeles airport. Within thirty minutes I was in the air, returning to San Francisco. I was plagued with a feeling I couldnt identify the entire trip, and the nebulous emotion stayed with me as I packed, paid my motel bill and returned to the airport. I bought a ticket to Las Vegas, using the name James Franklin, and I left the Barracuda in the airport parking lot, the keys in the ignition. It was the first of many cars I purchased and abandoned.
I was still possessed by the odd feeling during the flight to Las Vegas. It wasnt anger. It wasnt sadness. It wasnt guilt. I couldnt put my finger on it until I stepped off the plane in Nevada. Then I identified the emotion.
It was relief. I was happy to have Rosalie out of my life! The knowledge astonished me, for not six hours past Id been desperately seeking a way to make her my wife. Astonished or not, I was still relieved.
It was my first trip to Las Vegas and the city was everything and more than Id imagined. There was a frantic, electric aura about the whole city, and the people, visitors and residents alike, seemed to be rushing around in a state of frenetic expectation. New York was a city of leisurely calm in comparison. Gambling fever, explained a cabbie when I mentioned the dynamic atmosphere.
Everybodys got it. Everybodys out to make a killing,
especially the Johns. They fly in on jets or driving big wheels and leave on
their thumbs. The only winners in this town are the houses. Everybody else is a
I took a suite at a motel and paid two weeks» rent in advance. The registration clerk wasnt impressed at all by the wad of $100 bills from which I peeled the hotel charge. A big roll in Vegas is like pocket change in Peoria, I soon learned.
I intended Las Vegas to be just an R & R stop. I followed the cabbies advice and played the chicks. He was right about the girls. Most of them were hungry. Actually hungry. Famished, in fact. After a week with some of the more ravenous ones, I felt like Moses feeding the multitudes.
However, as the Good Book sayeth: He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack.
I am feeding a famished gamin poolside. She has been living on casino free lunches for three days while trying to contact a brother in Phoenix to ask for bus fare home. «I blew everything,» she said ruefully while devouring a huge steak with all the trimmings. «All the money I brought with me, all the money in my checking account, all I could raise on my jewelry. I even cashed in my return airline ticket. Its a good thing my room was paid in advance or Id be sleeping on lobby couches.»
She grinned cheerfully. «Serves me right. Ive never gambled before, and I didnt intend to gamble when I came here. But the damned place gets to you.»
She looked at me quizzically. «I hope youre just being nice, buying me dinner. I know therere ways a girl can get things in this burg, but that aint my style, man.»
I laughed. «Relax. I like your style. Are you going back to a job in Phoenix?»
She nodded. «I am if I can get hold of Bud. But I may not have a job if Im not back by Monday.»
«What do you do?» I asked. She looked the secretary type.
«Im a check designer for a firm that designs and prints checks,» she said. «A commercial artist, really. Its a small firm, but we do work for a couple of big banks and a lot of business firms.»
I was astonished. «Well, Ill be darned,» I ventured. «Thats interesting. What do you do when you design and print a check?»
«Oh, it depends on whether were making up plain checks or
fancy ones; you know, the kind with pictures, landscapes and different colors.
Its a simple operation for just plain checks. I just lay it out on a big
Her name was Pixie. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. «Pixie, howd you like to go home tonight, by air?» I asked.
«Youre kidding me?» she accused, her eyes wary.
«No, Im not,» I assured her. «Im an airline pilot for Pan Am. We dont fly out of here, but I have deadhead privileges. I can get you a seat to Phoenix on any airline that serves Vegas from there. All itll cost is a little white lie. Ill say youre my sister. No other strings attached, okay?»
«Hey, all right!» she said delightedly and gave me a big bear hug.
While she packed, I bought her a ticket, paying for it in cash. I took her to the airport and pressed a $100 bill in her hand as she boarded the plane. «No arguments,» I said. «Thats a loan. Ill be around to collect one of these days.»
I did get to Phoenix, but I made no effort to contact her. If I had, it wouldnt have been to collect but to pay off, for Pixie let me into the mint.
The next day I sought out a stationery printing supply firm. «Im thinking of starting a little stationery store and job printing shop,» I told a salesman.
«Ive been advised that
The salesman nodded. «Thats true,» he agreed. «Trouble is,
I was somewhat surprised by the price, but after he showed
me the machines and demonstrated the operating procedure of both, I felt $8,000
was a paltry sum to invest in such gems.
I located a warehouse storage firm and rented a
welllighted cubicle for a month, paying in advance. I then obtained a
cashiers check for $8,000 and bought the
The next day I closeted myself in my makeshift workshop
and, using the various materials, created
I was astonished and delighted. The camera reduction had taken away any infractions and discrepancies in lines and lettering as far as the naked eye could discern. Using the paper cutter, I sliced one from the card stock and examined it. Save for the four smooth edges, I might have been holding a genuine check!
I ran off five hundred of the counterfeit checks before
shutting down the little press and abandoning both it and the
The tiger, for me, was a pussy cat. I ironed out Vegas like a bed sheet. That afternoon and night, and the following day, I hit nearly a hundred casinos, bars, hotels, motels, night clubs and other gambling spots, and in Vegas almost any place you walk into offers some kind of action. Therere slot machines in the grocery stores. No cashier showed the slightest hesitation about cashing one of my phony checks. «Would you cash this and give me $50 in chips?» Id ask, and promptly Id be handed $50 in markers and the balance in cash. For appearances sake, Id usually stay in a casino for twenty or thirty minutes, playing the tables, before hitting the next place, and much to my amusement I whacked out the casinos that way too.
I came out $300 ahead playing the slots. I won $1,600 playing blackjack. Without the slightest inkling of the game, I picked up $900 playing roulette, and I won $2,100 at the dice tables. In all, I murdered Vegas for $39,000! I left Nevada driving a rented Cadillac, although I had to put up a $1,000 deposit when I told the lessor Id probably be using the car several weeks.
I had it for nearly three months, as a matter of fact. I made a leisurely, meandering tour of the Northwest and Midwest, maintaining the pose of an airline pilot on vacation and alternating in the role of Frank Williams and Frank Adams. Since I didnt want to leave the hounds a trail that could be too easily followed, I didnt exactly scatter my counterfeits like confetti but I did stop to make a score now and then. I picked up $5,000 in Salt Lake City, $2,000 in Billings, $4,000 in Cheyenne and I bilked Kansas City banks for $18,000 before ending up in Chicago, where I simply parked the Cadillac and walked away.
I decided to hole up in Chicago for a while and give some serious thought to the future, or at least where I wanted to spend a great deal of the future. I was again entertaining the idea of fleeing the country. I wasnt too concerned about my immediate security, but I knew that if I continued to operate in the U.S. it would be only a matter of time before I was nabbed. The principal problem I faced in trying to leave the country, of course, was obtaining a passport. I couldnt apply for one in my own name since blabbing to Rosalie, and by now the authorities must have linked Frank Williams and Frank Adams to Frank Abagnale, Jr. I mulled the situation as I went about settling in Chicago, but as things turned out I didnt have too much time for mulling.
I leased a nice apartment on Lakeshore Drive, using the name Frank Williams. I did so primarily because I was out of personalized checks and I always liked to have a supply in my possession. A lot of motels, I had learned, would not cash a company check but would accept a personal check in the amount of the bill or in cash amounts up to $100. I had forsaken personal checks as a means of swindling, but I still used them as a means of paying room rent when necessary. I didnt like to lay out hard cash when I could slide one of my soft checks.
Accordingly, I dropped into a bank a week after alighting in Chicago and opened a checking account for $500. I identified myself as a Pan Am pilot, and gave as my address for the checks that of a mail service firm in New York to which Id recently subscribed as another means of covering my trail. «But I want my checks and my monthly statements mailed to this address,» I instructed the bank officer who handled the transaction, giving him my Lake-shore Drive address.
«You see, the reason I want an account here is because Im in and out of Chicago all the time on company business and its much more convenient to have an account in a local bank.»
The bank officer agreed. «Youll receive your regular checks in about a week, Mr. Williams. In the meantime, herere some temporary checks you can use,» he said.
Observation. A great asset for a con man, Ive said. I had observed a very lovely teller when I entered the bank. Her image remained in my mind after I left the bank, and when she persisted in my thoughts over the next few days I determined to meet her. I returned to the bank several days later on the pretext of making a deposit and was filling out a deposit slip I had taken from a counter in the middle of the lobby when an even higher power of observation took command of my mind.
In the lower left-hand corner of the deposit slip was a rectangular box for the depositors account number. I never filled in the box, for I knew it wasnt required. When a teller put a deposit slip in the small machine in his or her cage, in order to furnish you with a stamped receipt, the machine was programed to read the account number first. If the number was there, the amount of the deposit was automatically credited to the account holder. But if the number wasnt there, the account could still be credited using the name and address, so the number wasnt necessary.
There was a fellow beside me filling out a deposit slip. I noticed he neglected to give his account number. I dawdled in the bank for nearly an hour and watched those who came in to deposit cash, checks or credit-card vouchers. Not one in twenty, if that many, used the space provided for his or her account number.
I forgot about the girl. I surreptitiously pocketed a sheaf
of the deposit slips, returned to my apartment and, using
The following morning, I returned to the bank and just as stealthily put the sheaf of deposit slips back in a slot atop a stack of others. I didnt know if my ploy would succeed or not, but it was worth a risk. Four days later I returned to the bank and made a $250 deposit. «By the way, whats my balance, please?» I asked the teller. «I forgot to enter some checks I wrote this week.»
The teller obligingly called bookkeeping. «Your balance, including this deposit, is $42,876.45, Mr. Williams,» she said.
Just before the bank closed, I returned and drew out $40,000 in a cashiers check, explaining I was buying a home. I didnt buy a home, of course, but I sure did feather my nest. The next morning I cashed the check at another bank and that afternoon flew to Honolulu, where a pretty Hawaiian girl greeted me with a kiss and put a lei around my neck.
I was a cad when it came to reciprocating. During the next two weeks I fashioned a $38,000 lei of fraudulent checks, spent three days hanging it around the necks of banks and hotels on the islands of Oahu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai, and then jetted to New York.
It was the first time Id been back in New York since hitting the paperhangers trail, and I was tempted to call Mom and Dad and maybe even see them. I decided against any such action, however, as much from shame as anything else. I might return home a financial success beyond either Moms or Dads comprehension, but mine was not the kind of success either of them would appreciate or condone.
I stayed in New York just long enough to devise a new scam. I opened a checking account in one of the Chase Manhattan branches, and when I received my personalized checks, in the name of Frank Adams, with the address of an East Side flat Id rented, I flew to Philadelphia and scouted the citys banks. I selected one with an all-glass front, enabling prospective depositors to see all the action inside and providing the bank officers, whose desks lined the glass wall, with a* good view of the cash inflow.
I wanted them to have a very pleasant view of me, so I arrived the next morning in a Rolls-Royce driven by a chauffeur I had hired for the occasion.
As the chauffeur opened the door for me, I saw one of the bank officers had indeed noticed my arrival. When I entered the bank, I walked directly to him. I had dressed befitting a man with a chauffeured Rolls-Royce-custom-tailored three-piece suit in pearl gray, a $100 homburg and alligator Ballys-and the look in his eyes told me the young banker recognized my grooming as another indication of wealth and power.
«Good morning,» I said briskly, taking a seat in front of his desk. «My name is Frank Adams, Adams Construction Company of New York. Well be doing three construction projects here during the year and I want to transfer some funds here from my New York bank. I want to open a checking account with you people.»
«Yes, sir!» he replied enthusiastically, reaching for some forms. «Will you be transferring all your funds here, Mr. Adams?»
«As far as my personal funds are concerned, yes,» I said. «Im not sure about the company funds as yet, and wont be until I look closer at the projects, but in any event well want to place a substantial amount here.»
«Well, for your personal account, Mr. Adams, all you have to do is write me a check for the remaining balance in your New York bank and that will close that account out.»
«Is that all?» I said, feigning surprise. «I didnt realize it was that simple.» I took my checkbook from my inside pocket and, holding it so he couldnt see it, ran my finger down an imaginary column of figures, murmuring. Then I looked up at him. «May I use your adding machine, please? I wrote some checks yesterday and didnt balance my checkbook and Im not much on adding figures in my head.»
«Certainly,» he said and turned the machine for my use. I ran a few figures and then nodded.
«Well, I make my balance $17,876.28, and Im sure thats correct,» I said. «But lets just open an account for $17,000. Ill be going back to New York on occasion and Id like to maintain a small balance there.»
I wrote him a check for $17,000 and gave him the necessary information for setting up an account. I gave my address as the hotel where I had registered. «Ill be staying there until I can find a suitable apartment or house to lease,» I said.
The young banker nodded. «You realize, of course, Mr. Adams, you cant write any checks on your account until your check has cleared in New York,» he said. «That shouldnt take over four or five days, however, and in the meantime if you run short of funds, come to me and Ill take care of it. Here are some temporary checks for such an event.»
I shook my head. «Thats kind of you, but I anticipated the delay,» I said. «I have ample funds for my needs.»
I shook hands with him and left. That night I flew to Miami and the following afternoon I appeared in front of another glass-fronted bank, again in a Rolls-Royce but at the wheel myself, and casually but again expensively attired. I glanced at my watch as I entered the lobby. The Philadelphia bank would be open for another thirty minutes. A strikingly handsome and chicly dressed woman who had noted my arrival greeted me as I stepped into the lobby.
«May I help you, sir?» she asked, smiling. On closer inspection she was much older than I had first thought, but she was still an alluring woman.
«I hope so,» I said, returning the smile. «But I think Id better speak to the bank manager.»
Her eyes lit impishly. «I am the bank manager,» she said, laughing. «Now, whats your problem? You certainly dont appear to need a loan.»
I threw up my hands in mock defeat. «No, no, nothing like that,» I said. «My names Frank Adams and Im from Philadelphia and Ive been looking around Miami for years for a suitable vacation home. Well, today I found a fantastic deal, a floating house near Biscayne Bay, but the man wants cash and he wants a $15,000 deposit by five oclock today. He wont take a personal check and I dont have a bank account here.
Im wondering, could I write you a check on my bank in Philadelphia and you issue me a cashiers check, payable to cash, for $15,000? I realize youll have to call my bank to verify that I have the money, but Ill pay for the call. I really want this house. It would mean I could spend half my time down here. I paused, a pleading look on my face.
She pursed her lips prettily. Whats the name of your bank in Philadelphia, and your account number? she asked. I gave her the name of the bank, the telephone number and my account number. She walked to a desk and, picking up the telephone, called Philadelphia.
Bookkeeping, please, she said when she was connected.
Then: Yes, I have a check here, drawn on account number
I held my breath, suddenly aware of the burly bank guard standing in one corner of the lobby. It had been my experience that clerks in bank bookkeeping departments, when asked to verify a check, merely looked at the balance.
They rarely went behind the request to check on the status of the account. I hoped that would be the case here. If not, well, I could only hope the bank guard was a lousy shot.
I heard her say, All right, thank you, and then she replaced the receiver and looked at me with a speculative expression. Tell you what, Frank Adams, she said with another of her brilliant smiles. Ill take your check if youll come to a party Im having tonight. Im short of handsome and charming men. How about it?
You got a deal, I said, grinning, and wrote her a check on the Philadelphia bank for $15,000, receiving in return a $15,000 cashiers check, payable to cash.
I went to the party. It was a fantastic bash. But then she
was a fantastic
I cashed the check the next morning, returned the Rolls-Royce and caught a plane for San Diego. I reflected on the woman and her party several times during the flight and nearly laughed out loud when I was struck with one thought.
I wondered what her reaction would be when she learned shed treated me to two parties on the same day, and the one had been a real cash ball.