By now, a lot of cops had memorized my face, and I could never go anywhere without looking over my shoulder. The funny thing is that I never resorted to disguises. I didn't dye my hair or grow a beard. The reason why I didn't was because I was really sensitive to retaining my true identity. Regardless of the various aliases I adopted, I'd always be Frank Adams or Frank Williams or Frank something. I wanted to keep at least part of my real name intact. And because I didn't take further precautions, I did realize that I was going to get caught, and probably sooner rather than later. Any criminal recognizes that the law sleeps, but it never dies.
Finally, one day I was walking past the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Two plainclothes detectives were standing on the street corner, munching on hot dogs. One of them stared quizzically at me and yelled, "Hey Frank." I turned around, and they identified themselves as police officers and said that I was Frank Abagnale. I vigorously denied it, but they knew better and took me in. Within a couple of hours, I had been positively identified. The following day, I was put in the custody of the FBI.
THE END OF THE ROAD
It didn't take long for the crush of state and federal complaints to pour in: forgery, passing worthless checks, swindling, mail fraud, counterfeiting, and on and on. Prosecutors and U.S. attorneys from around the country competed to be the one who would bring me to trial, as if I were some sort of lottery prize. They all had strong cases. There was a lengthy list of witnesses willing and able to identify me and testify against me.
An arbitrary decision was made to bring me to trial in Atlanta. There were plenty of cities where I was not likely to be honored by the Chamber of Commerce, but I had done a lot of damage in Atlanta. I had spent a year there pretending to be a doctor, and I doubted that I was remembered fondly. And, of course, there was that little incident of escaping from a federal prison. Needless to say, it wouldn't have been my first choice as a trial site. I had a good lawyer, though, and he was able to broker a favorable deal. In April 1971, I appeared before a federal judge and pleaded guilty to all the crimes "known and unknown" that I had committed in the United States. There were hundreds of outstanding charges against me, but the judge collapsed them into eight counts. He sentenced me to ten years on each of seven counts of fraud, to run concurrently, and two years on the one count of escape, which were to be served consecutively. And he remanded me to prison in Virginia.
TWENTY CENTS AN HOUR
The Petersburg jail wasn't the worst place to do time. It was a far cry from the French jail that had shattered my soul and nearly killed me. But it wasn't a great place to be, either. The days merged into one continuous blur.
I kept to myself and did my work diligently. I was assigned as a clerk in this big tire factory that recapped tires for government vehicles. I earned all of twenty cents an hour, and I was definitely not allowed a checking account. On the weekends, they showed movies to the inmates, the same ones that they played in town. The prison used to pay the town projectionist to come in and run the projector. But then they decided to train an inmate to do it, and for some reason they chose me. You had to be licensed to do the job, and so I was trained and took a test and got a license. I was the only one who was taught how to run the projector, and even when I was sick, I had to drag myself out of my cell on the weekends and show the movies.
When we had idle time, we'd sit around and compare war stories. I was constantly bemused by the dumb acts that landed some of the other inmates in jail. There were these two teenagers from Long Island. They were smoking dope one night when they encountered this Jamaican guy who introduced himself only as "Mustard." After hanging out with them, Mustard asked if they wanted to rob a bank. They had never stolen anything, but he made it sound like a rollicking adventure. The plans were a little ragged. Mustard waited for them a few blocks away from the bank. He gave them guns. They drove a car one of them had borrowed from his father and parked it right in front of the branch, where surveillance cameras were whirring. They wore no disguises. They entered, marched up to a teller, and collected five thousand dollars, all while the cameras taped them. They drove the two blocks to their rendezvous with Mustard. He took the five thousand dollars, let them keep the guns, and said he'd meet them that evening. After they drove a few more blocks, the cops had them surrounded. The police said they'd let them off if they gave up the mastermind. All they knew, they said, was his name was Mustard. And he had the money. In court, the judge said they were so stupid that he was giving them each five years.
Excerpted from The Art of the Steal by Frank W. AbagnaleCopyright 2001 by Frank W. Abaganale . Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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