Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Skywayman: The Story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr.

Outrunning the Law

Frank was luckier than his fellow inmates that he left behind within the walls of the infamous French prison Perpignan. He had just finished a six-month stint in the jail, where he almost died from malnutrition and pneumonia. It was no wonder, living and sleeping in his own fecal matter and urine on a stone floor for the duration of his sentence. Those who remained in the prison continued to live a subhuman existence.

Perpignan Prison from outside
Perpignan Prison from outside

Frank was transferred from Perpignan to a low security prison in Sweden. Within the Swedish prison, the treatment of inmates and the conditions were considerably better -- far cry from the filth hole he left behind. Frank had been sentenced to six months, which sped by quickly in the near luxurious conditions. However, near the end of his sentence his passport was revoked and he awaited deportation from Sweden back to the United States.

Although he feared a harsher sentence in America than that which he had in Sweden, it would be nothing compared to the prisons of the twelve other countries that wanted to extradite him for passing bad checks. Many of the foreign prisons were similar to the nightmarish penitentiary in France. But regardless of where he served his time, just the mere thought of being incarcerated for a large portion of his young adulthood spooked Frank. He decided to make a daring escape.

During his deportation from Sweden, Frank was escorted onto a plane bound for New Yorkwhere officers awaited to take him into custody. Enroute to the United States, Frank plotted a way to escape from the plane. During the last ten minutes before the plane landed in America, Frank made his way to the plane's toilet. He had a working knowledge of the structural components of the aircraft and knew that beneath the toilet was a hatch leading to the underbelly of the plane.

Catch Me if You Can
Catch Me if You Can
  

According to Frank W. Abagnale's autobiography, Catch Me if You Can, he locked himself in the plane's bathroom and immediately began to unscrew the compartment surrounding the toilet. Once it was loose, Frank lifted the apparatus, revealing an open compartment. He then climbed in and crawled beneath the plane, waiting for it to touch the ground during its descent towards the landing strip. In the darkness of the night, he jumped from the plane as it approached the ground and ran from the landing strip. He was free but only temporarily.

Once in New York, Frank made his way to an old acquaintance's house where he kept a stash of clothes and money. He stayed there only briefly before he left for Montreal, where a safe deposit box with thousands of dollars awaited him. Frank intended to use the money to buy a non-stop ticket to Brazil, a place where the extradition of criminals was not practiced.

While awaiting his flight to South America, Frank was recognized and arrested by Canadian police. Shortly thereafter, he was released into the custody of the FBI who made sure Frank was safely delivered to a federal detention center. Several months later, he was transferred to a prison in Georgia to await trial. Once again, Frank decided to attempt another bold escape. This time he enlisted the help of an outsider, an ex-girlfriend.

Abagnale stated that during the time of his incarceration, federal penal institutions were under intense scrutiny by public and government officials. Many of the institutions were investigated following an outcry for prisoners' civil rights. At the time, it was not unusual for undercover agents to pose as inmates in an effort to get information during their investigations into the prisons. Many of the guards working in the prisons made sport of who actually was or was not an inmate or an agent. 

From the moment Frank was committed to the institution, guards speculated that he was an undercover federal agent there to report on the conditions of the prison. He simply looked and acted the part. Frank went out of his way to confirm their suspicions.

Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons patch
Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons patch

Frank's ex-girlfriend posed as a journalist and went to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. to hold a mock interview with an inspector. Before her departure she obtained a business card with the man's name inscribed on it. She later gave the card to Frank to be used in his plot to free himself.

Once in possession of the card, he persuaded the guards that he really was an undercover agent. He showed them the card and told them that he was a prison inspector. The guards laughed stating that they knew who he was all along. Much to his surprise, the men fell for his con and they eventually released him from the prison. Frank promptly fled back to New York and then to Washington, D.C.

While in the capital city, Frank stayed in a hotel where he planned his movement to another location. One day during his stay, he realized that FBI men surrounded his room. Taken off guard, he had moments to plan an escape from his current predicament.

Frank audaciously walked past the armed officers that waited for him, despite their orders for him to freeze. He coolly stated that he too was an FBI agent waiting for the arrival of another inspector. He then ordered the officers to continue their pursuit of the criminal. Surprisingly, the men dropped their weapons that were pointing at him and walked away towards the room where they believed the perpetrator to be. They hadn't realized that they had just let the offender go. Frank walked briskly from the scene and escaped into the sunset. 

There is no doubt that everyone has talents, whether hidden or exposed. Frank W. Abagnale was no exception to the rule. Not only did he have many talents but he was a genius in the truest sense of the word, however misdirected he may have been. The truth is, among some of Frank's best known and least appreciated talents was his remarkable ability to create and utilize false identities as well as bogus checks. He was a con artist extraordinaire and probably one of the century's most cunning swindlers. His talent for deceiving the authorities and cheating banks, airlines and hotels out of millions of dollars was unprecedented. Even more extraordinary was that he was between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one-years old when he committed the majority of his crimes.

Frank Abagnale, Jr.
Frank Abagnale, Jr.

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