Inspiration for movie "Catch me if you can" visited Cape once

Sunday, January 5, 2003

When he visited Cape Girardeau over 20 years ago, Frank Abagnale Jr. spent an evening teaching merchants how to catch a thief. He ought to know. He had been wanted for arrest in all 50 states.

As the inspiration for director Steven Spielberg's latest film, "Catch Me If You Can," Abagnale's life-of-crime story starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an FBI agent is entertaining millions of moviegoers. But Abagnale has entertained here before. He came to Cape Girardeau in 1980 to educate business owners and managers on the methods used by white-collar and petty thieves at a seminar held at the former Ramada Inn, now Drury Lodge.

"He was very impressive and very debonair," said Bill Stanfield, past president of the former First National Bank of Cape Girardeau. In conjunction with the chamber of commerce and the Small Business Administration, the bank co-sponsored Abagnale's visit. The grifter-catching methods he taught to the audience likely were put into practice by several afterward, Stanfield said. He did.

"I think that after listening to him, unconsciously, we beefed up our security methods a little bit at the bank," Stanfield said. "The most interesting comment he said is that everybody is not what they appear to be."

To make his point, Abagnale asked the audience to look at his fine suit and tie, nice shoes and a silken handkerchief in his suit coat pocket, Stanfield said.

"But not all was as it appeared," he said. "Because instead of a pocket square, he pulled out a pair of women's panties and waved them around to the audience."

Linda Minner was among those educated by Abagnale. In 1980, she was the chamber's office manager. She remembered Abagnale's lessons about writing bad checks, which help her today with work at the Cape Girardeau County Collector's Office.

"We had a full house," she said. "All three banquet rooms were packed, and it was standing room only. He was very suave, yes. He had his own presence in the room. He had people on the edge of their seats -- it was amazing."

Starting at 16

After running away from home at 16, Abagnale began a legendary life of crime. He once was sought by law enforcement agencies in all 50 states and 26 countries for cashing checks totaling $2.5 million. He passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer and a jet pilot -- having neither the licensing nor training for any of those professions.

He easily could cast a spell on people and convince them of what he wanted, Minner said.

"You can't teach that. I think it's something you just have to have," she said. "It was the air about him."

Abagnale finally was caught by French police in 1969. After serving five years in prison in France, Sweden and the United States, he was released in 1974 under the condition that he would help the government without remuneration.

He also started his own consulting firm to teach businesses and law enforcement how to prevent and recognize theft.

He soon began making millions from corporate clients while he created a legitimate business selling his experiences as a con artist.

Thanks to the movie based on his life, Abagnale has become busier than usual, said his executive assistant, Kelly Welbes. He won't be back in his offices in Washington, D.C., and Tulsa, Okla., until mid-January due to speaking engagements and consulting. Though he has not been back to Cape Girardeau since his 1980 visit, Abganale has returned to Missouri several times to speak at other seminars.

Although Minner can't recall how much was paid to bring Abagnale to Cape Girardeau 22 years ago, his seminar fee now runs between $20,000 and $25,000, according to the Brooks International Speakers Bureau of Denver.

Settling with age

Abagnale, now 54, commented on the movie and his book on his Web site, www.abagnale.com.

"I wrote the book, 'Catch Me If You Can,' more than 23 years ago," he said. "When I was 28 years old, I thought it would be great to have a movie about my life, but when I was 28, like when I was 16, I was egotistical and self-centered. We all grow up. Hopefully we get wiser."

After writing his book in 1980 with co-author Stan Redding, Abagnale wrote a second book on fraud prevention, "The Art of the Steal," in 2001.

"Age brings wisdom, and fatherhood changes one's life completely," he said. "I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of. I am proud that I have been able to turn my life around and in the past 25 years, helped my government, my clients, thousands of corporations and consumers deal with the problems of white-collar crime and fraud."

Stanfield, now semiretired, said Abagnale told the Cape Girardeau audience he accomplished many of his capers, including cashing a napkin at a bank, after making a wager with a friend that he could do it.

More safeguards today

However, such scams likely won't fly in today's banking world, Stanfield said.

"I don't think the banking industry would be as gullible today as they were then," he said. "There are more automatic safeguards and sophistication in security that would preclude anyone from doing that now."

Stanfield co-owns three Blimpie franchises with a son and works as a consultant for two other local companies, he said. He put into practice much of what Abagnale said.

"You've got to know who you're dealing with," Stanfield said. "So many people can walk in and be so convincing and persuasive. It was good advice then, and it's good advice now."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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