PUTTING DOWN A POSITIVE CON
There's this thing they always say about con men: they live a chameleon existence. That was certainly true for me. I'd find myself in an unfamiliar situation and I'd quickly adapt. And that's just what I did when they sent me to prison. I adapted to the role of prisoner, and I lived a life dictated by my imagination. In so many ways, the role felt small and unreal, when in fact it was the only real role I had lived in a long time.
Being cooped up in a confined space didn't suit me, so I sort of half-lived, numbed to my existence, waiting patiently for a second chance. My battle plan was to always be on my best behavior, in the hope that this would enable me to get out early. The problem was, the better I behaved, the more convinced the prison officials were that I was up to no good. Twice I came up for parole and was refused. One of the members of the review committee actually said to me, "I see that your record is perfect, and that's a problem. That tells me you're still conning the prison and getting away with it." In other words, if I had gotten into some fist fights or mauled a guard, then I might have gotten parole.
Everything I did right was always assumed to have an ulterior motive. That's what happens when you have a reputation, and the reputation is that of a master con man.
I had been imprisoned for six months in France and another six months in Sweden, and now I was in my third year of a twelve-year sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia. But I wasn't one of those inmates constantly prattling about his innocence. There was no doubt that I deserved to be behind bars.
For five immature years, I had lived a life of illusion and tricks. I had enjoyed a misguided and regrettable run as one of the most successful con artists the world has ever known. A lengthy list of exploits had added to my iconography, all of them income-producing. I had masqueraded as a Pan Am airline pilot (don't worry, I never actually took the controls), a pediatrician (I let my interns do the medical work), an assistant district attorney (I passed the bar while skipping the law school part), a sociology professor, and a stockbroker, all between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. I had never gone beyond the tenth grade, but I had a limitless talent for fantasy and I lived a million lives in those five years. Before the authorities discovered my true identity, I was known throughout the world as "The Skywayman." The New York Times, in its coverage, referred to me as "The Great Impostor."
What landed me in jail was my other bad habit, which was my enthusiasm for passing bad checks. The main reason I adopted those guises was to give me credibility when I cashed hot checks--and to satisfy my great taste for women. Hotel clerks and merchants didn't question pilots and doctors too closely. Through my various hustles, I passed something like $2.5 million worth of checks, a blizzard of paper that I scattered in earnest throughout all fifty states and twenty-six countries, all before I was legally allowed to drink. I was proficient enough at cashing fraudulent checks that I earned the distinction of becoming one of the most hunted criminals by the FBI.
All bad things come to an end, of course, and I was finally caught by the French police after a stewardess recognized me from a wanted poster when I was doing some shopping. I was twenty-one. Convicted of forgery, I spent six months in a French prison, was extradited to Sweden, where I was again convicted of forgery, and served another six months in the prison in Malmo. Then I was turned over to the authorities in the United States.
That transition, however, got mildly delayed. After my plane landed in New York and was taxiing toward the gate, where the law awaited me, I escaped through the toilet onto the runway and took off. Within weeks, I got caught at the Montreal Airport, and was sent to the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta, to await trial. But I escaped by conning guards into thinking that I was a prison inspector. That kept me on the lam a bit longer. Actually, all of one month longer.
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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