Scene 2 (4:30-10:30): Carl Hanratty, the F.B.I. Agent That Nabbed Abagnale

Looking for Sean O’Riley  –  Looking for William Rehder  –  Looking for Carl Schlatter  –  An obituary for Joseph Shea  –  Catch the catchy tunes

Looking for Sean O’Riley

But who’s the cat in this “cat and mouse” game? Let’s see how Abagnale’s criminal career ended! [...] in Washington, D.C., F.B.I. Inspector Sean O’Riley was ordered to drop all his other cases and concentrate solely on nabbing me.” (book “Catch Me If You Can”, page 77)

Actor Tom Hanks as F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty

So, it’s Carl Hanratty (introduced in scene 2 and played by Tom Hanks) in the movie, and Sean O’Riley in the book.

As I indicated in the intro, one of the major objectives of this web site is to document my search for the real Hanratty-O’Riley. And, yes, I will reveal the true identity of the F.B.I. agent that caught Frank Abagnale… Just hang in there!

The dress code of the F.B.I. agents in the movie — black suits, white shirts, black tie — is spot on. “Dark suits, white shirts, dark ties, and haircuts that harkened back to the 1850s were the order of the day, every day. [...] In short, any hint of personal flair was not permitted. I found that out early on, when I got tired of wearing a white shirt and decided to wear a pin-striped shirt to class instead. I thought I looked pretty sharp, but the training supervisor [at the F.B.I. Academy in Quantico, VA] disagreed. He yanked me out of class, demanded to know if I was having some kind of ‘laundry problem’, and strongly suggested that I either get with the white-shirt program or get the hell out.” (William Rehder, “Where the Money Is”, page 22)

(Actually, the hats were typical for G-men too during the Edgar Hoover days!)

F.B.I. uniform of actor Tom Hanks for the Steven Spielberg movie ‘Catch Me If You Can’

There’s for instance scene 17 (1:39:16-1:45:17) at the Miami Airport where Abagnale discovers the place is crawling with undercover F.B.I. agents just by studying the clothes…

F.B.I. agent in white shirt and black suit
Scene 17 — 1:40:13

Fine, but we need to hit the pause button here. Who is William Rehder and why am I quoting him? Is he the real Hanratty perhaps?

Fast rewind


Looking for William Rehder

Let’s start by saying that the real Hanratty was not a man called Sean O’Riley, the name used in the book “Catch Me If You Can”. The careful reader will find this warning in the book’s legend: [...] all of the characters and some of the events have been altered, and all names, dates and places have been changed.” Duly noted!

Or read the interview with Abagnale added to the 2003 edition of the book: “‘O’Reilly’ is still alive and, I’m pleased to say, doing well. I have been on the telephone. He has watched my children grow up.” (page 214) Note that the interview speaks of “O’Reilly” between quotes, indicating that this is not his real name!

On page 202 of the book, prison Lieutenant Combs calls O’Riley the ultimate bank robbery specialist: “I’ve read about this guy O’Riley, [...] he’s supposed to be hell on wheels for nabbing bank robbers.”

And so I started searching for the bank robbery specialist(s) of the F.B.I. Admittedly, that took a while — I didn’t get anywhere with the search engines. I got a break when I studied the movie’s end credits closely. William J. Rehder is listed as “Technical Advisor” for the F.B.I.

F.B.I. technical advisor William Rehder in the end credits of the Steven Spielberg movie ‘Catch Me If You Can’
Scene 22 (end titles) — 2:12:29

(Consulting on the movie set of “Catch Me If You Can” was not a first for Rehder! He collaborated on Kathryn Bigelow’s movie “”. “Before ‘Point Break’ was filmed, I was told by the Special Agent in Charge [“SACs” are in charge of an F.B.I. field office] to take Keanu Reeves, a pleasant but somewhat spacey young man, under my wing and give him some pointers on how to portray an F.B.I. agent chasing bank robbers. Unfortunately, none of those pointers came within a million miles of the finished film.” (book “Where the Money Is”, page 262))

Movie poster of the Kathryn Bigelow movie ‘Point Break’

More importantly, in July 2003, the retired F.B.I. agent William J. Rehder published a book on bank robbers in 2003: “Where the Money Is”, with the help of ghost writer Gordon Dillow.

Cover of the William Rehder-Gordon Dillow book ‘Where the Money Is’       Cover of the William Rehder-Gordon Dillow book ‘Where the Money Is’

(with )
Where the Money Is
True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World
W. W. Norton, 2003
ISBN 393051560

The title may require a bit of explanation for many readers. It’s of course a reference to a bank robber’s famous one-liner. Question: “Why do you rob banks?” Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is!” Sutton always denied ever having said that, but he did author a book about his extensive criminal career called “Where the Money Was”. The process of considering the obvious first is now commonly called “Sutton’s law”, it’s mainly taught to medical students as a means to an efficient diagnosis.

Bank robber        Cover of the Willie Sutton book ‘Where the Money Was’

Sutton, like Abagnale, got on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list. In Abagnale’s case, the movie contains an unmistakable hint: when he joins the F.B.I. to serve the remainder of his sentence as a goverment employee, the “wall of infamy” in the lobby lists the Bureau’s most wanted fugitives. You’re of course invited to think: say, wasn’t Abagnale on that wall himself only a few years ago? This image drives home the idea “poacher turns gamekeeper” like nothing else!

Wall with F.B.I. most wanted fugitives list
Scene 20 — 2:01:53

A second later, Abagnale steps into the frame to report for work on his first day and the focus of the camera lens shifts from the wall (in the background) to Leonardo DiCaprio (in the foreground). Which allows me to explain racking focus, a film technique that Spielberg uses consistently throughout the film — much more so than in his other movies! Amongst others, he uses it in scene 8 (39:01-39:04) when Abagnale seduces the stewardess Marci on the airplane by flashing a necklace “that must have slipped right off [her] neck” in front of her. (Other example: Hanratty in front of the fake doctor’s diploma on the wall in scene 13 (1:18:58-1:19:01).)

Racking focus on actor Leonardo DiCaprio
Scene 20 — 2:01:59

The camera assistant called focus puller is responsible for “racking” or “pulling” focus from one subject to another within the frame. Does this seem “over the top” to you? After all, the photo camera you bought for under $100 already has an autofocus lens, right? It isn’t. Professional filmmaking requires manually operated lenses!

Autofocus systems use infrared beams or ultrasonic sound to gauge the distance between the lens and the subject and only “see” things in the center of the frame. These techniques do not anticipate an actor stepping into the foreground of the frame, for instance, exactly the situation we have here! And passive autofocus systems — they don’t direct any energy toward the subject — rely on the analysis of the image that enters the optical system and can’t adjust well to sudden changes.

Hence, a focus puller is present on the set to adjust the focus onto different subjects. And above all, (s)he will “follow” focus when the camera moves in on or away from a subject or vice versa. This too is beautifully illustrated in that short exchange with Marci (scene 8, 38:43-39:14), as it should be with characters moving around in the narrow space of an aircraft fuselage…

Frank Abagnale offers necklace to stewardess Marci
Scene 8 — 39:03

Could Rehder be the real Hanratty-O’Riley with his name cleverly hidden in the end titles as “technical advisor”? Let’s make the case for William J. Rehder then…

Actor Tom Hanks, F.B.I. Technical Advisor William Rehder and Frank Abagnale on the movie set
Tom Hanks, William Rehder and Frank Abagnale on the movie set

William Rehder was indeed the F.B.I.’s number one man when it came to bank robberies.

I spent the next three decades chasing bank robbers for the F.B.I., almost all of it in Los Angeles, my first and last field office assignment after a year in Cleveland. In fact, as far as I can determine, I spent more years chasing bank robbers, and was involved in more bank robbery cases, than any other agent in Bureau history. In time I became known, if you’ll pardon the professional immodesty, as America’s foremost authority on the bank robbery genre.

[...] I developed the position of bank robbery coordinator, a kind of profiling job that required me to track serial bank bandits, to study their methods and habits, and try to predict when and where they would hit next. If you robbed a bank in Los Angeles, or almost anywhere else in America, my job was to get inside your head, to figure out what your story was. Although most of them never realized it, thousands of bank bandits had me looking over their shoulders. (book “Where the Money Is”, page 46)

Years later, CBS’s “48 Hours” TV news magazine would describe me as “the F.B.I.’s secret weapon in the war against bank robbers”. (book “Where the Money Is”, page 69)

Since my retirement I’ve often been asked to talk about bank robberies to various groups of bankers, security officials, and law enforcement officers. They bill me, flatteringly, as “America’s foremost authority on bank robberies”. (book “Where the Money Is”, page 98)

The psychological profile fits: F.B.I. agent or not, Rehder is a humane, mild-mannered person — as is Hanratty in the movie.

We’ve already quoted the ultimate proof for this, actually: “‘O’Reilly’ is still alive and, I’m pleased to say, doing well. I have been on the telephone. He has watched my children grow up.” (book “Catch Me If You Can”, page 214) (Rehder lives in Los Angeles; Abagnale lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma for many years and moved to Charleston, South Carolina in 2009, even if he has an office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.) Unless you know many policemen that fraternize with the criminals they put behind bars…

In the book “Where the Money Is”, on page 97-98, Rehder discusses Eddie Dodson [not his real name!] who committed a record number of small-time bank robberies in Los Angeles and was sentenced to long prison terms twice: “And he and I have become — well, friends. [...] We’ve exchanged letters, and spent hours on the phone together — two retirees talking about old times. [...] We’ve even talked about going on the road together after he gets out.” (Eddie Dodson was armed, Abagnale never carried a weapon or committed violence.) Same argument: how many policemen are willing to etc.?

It all looks good so far, doesn’t it? But two things bothered me greatly: for one, Rehder does not mention Abagnale anywhere. How could he not discuss this spectacular case — one he worked full-time at some point, direct orders from the top — in his book? And he certainly didn’t have to protect Abagnale’s identity: Abagnale’s book was first published in 1980, 23 years before Rehder’s book. Talk about a cat out of the bag!

Rehder’s age turned out to be another problem: he joined the F.B.I. in 1966 and started work on bank robberies in 1967 in Los Angeles where he spent his entire career after a 1-year stint in Cleveland as an F.B.I. “rookie”. If indeed he went after Abagnale, it must have been at the very start of his career, not later on when many years of experience had made him the Bureau’s “top dog” to solve bank jobs.

(What do we really know about Hanratty’s age? Nothing! The published screenplay contains a single clue (on page 154). It has the movie end with the following title card: “Special agent Carl Hanratty retired in 1986 [...]”. (That’s specific information because F.B.I. agents retire at the age of 57.) Only, this bit was dropped from the movie and a date is quickly changed to protect somebody’s identity...)

And so my search for the real Hanratty ended in frustration: my candidate was a perfect fit, but the timeline didn’t make any sense! I became convinced that not William Rehder but his predecessor was Carl Hanratty.

(One more thing: you can now get to know William Rehder a bit better by watching the bonus material “The F.B.I. Perspective”. It takes the recent release of “Catch Me If You Can” on Blu-ray to get your hands on it, though! None of the previouses releases I’m aware of include this section — as much as it would have helped me in my search for the real Carl Hanratty...)

Fast rewind


Looking for Carl Schlatter

Following that new hypothesis, I knew that William Rehder must have known the real Hanratty well, must have trained under him etc. Any hints as to who this other G-man might have been? On page 9 in the acknowledgements, Rehder’s book thanks Carl Schlatter, “my mentor and West Coast father figure when I was a young agent”.

Was he Carl Hanratty? That would mean the first name was real but the last name was changed to Hanratty for the movie to protect the man’s identity. Entirely possible, of course…

But my search for Carl Schlatter quickly ended in frustration. The Internet search engines provided no useful information whatsoever, even if I’m happy to report that the Swiss Professor of Medicine Carl Schlatter was a true pioneer in surgery in the late 19th century.

Something else bothered me here: Rehder calls Carl Schlatter his “West Coast” father figure. That didn’t work for me: it’s hard to put in words, but from the movie and the book — I understand that William Rehder will probably take offense here — I always saw Hanratty as an East Coast figure. Tough, down to earth. That dogged pursuit! A quite different sensibility from, say, the laid-back attitude of Los Angeles and the Bay Area. (And on this count, I was proven right in the end...)

The age turned out to be wrong again: if Schlatter retired in the late 60s (which F.B.I. agents do at 57 years), he must have been at least 90 years old by 2003. And we know that Frank Abagnale calls Hanratty “alive and kicking” in his interview added to the 2003 edition of the book! And on the bonus material (shot on the movie set in 2002), Abagnale tells us that Hanratty is 82 years old… (bonus DVD, Cast Me If You Can: The Casting of the Film — Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, 1:32-1:35)

Fast rewind


An Obituary for Joseph Shea

And so Carl Hanratty remained an “unsub” to me in the end. Twice a year, I would hit the search engines again to see if new data had become available. No results for a number of years.

Nevertheless, this story has a happy ending! After his death, Hanratty’s identity was disclosed on the Internet — although it’s still virtually impossible to find much real information on him…

The real Carl Hanratty was — drumrolls please — F.B.I. agent Joseph (“Joe”) Gerald Shea, a man of Boston Irish descent! (Is that “East Coast” enough for you?)

Make no mistake: that Joe Shea is indeed Carl Hanratty is beyond doubt! Abagnale’s last book, “Stealing Your Life”, contains the following dedication: “In memory of Joseph G. Shea, Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation (Carl Hanratty)”. Well, there you have it!

Cover of the Frank Abagnale book ‘Stealing Your Life’


Stealing Your Life
The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan
Thorndike Press, 2007
ISBN 0786298707

One source even reports that the character was called Joe Shea in the shooting script, but that the name was changed to Carl Hanratty “for unknown reasons”.

I think you can dismiss that “unknown reason” out of hand. It’s pretty obvious that the retired agent Joseph Shea did not seek the publicity that comes with a Spielberg movie and wanted to protect his privacy — an entirely legitimate request on his part! And then there’s the small matter of Bureau policy. G-men are civil servants that operate with the tax payer’s dollar. In that context, acting like a rock star is not acceptable behavior.

(Remember for instance the Apollo 15 astronaut who took a bribe from a German stamp dealer to take a collection of commemorative postal covers to the moon and back for him. Mr. David Scott became an instant “persona non grata” at N.A.S.A. for this bit of chicanery. He and his crew members Alfred Worden and James Irwin, who were in on the stunt, never flew again.)

N.A.S.A. Astronaut Dave Scott          Commemorative postal covers for the Apollo 15 flight

Any collaboration the F.B.I. gives to Hollywood is discrete and often “uncredited” — even after you retire. And I’m not even mentioning the Hoover years when the Bureau exerted the tighest possible control on press relations, certainly a culture that was deeply ingrained in Joseph Shea.

Seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.)          F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover

Another source claims that Tom Hanks himself came up with the name Carl Hanratty, but I never found that bit confirmed. It’s supposedly a combination of Carl Betz, a star on the “Donna Reed Show”, and Terry Hanratty, a former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.

In the end, I never did discover the true identity of Carl Hanratty. Someone — Abagnale himself as far as I can tell — simply spilled the beans after his death. Not that this bothers me: we’re all entitled to our privacy, and my quest was limited to fair, legitimate means — studying the written sources closely, searching among the public information available on the Internet etc. After all, I’m a philologist and movie buff, not a paparazzo or a sleazy reporter!

Even now, there’s hardly any information available on Joe Shea. In the bonus material on the two-disc special edition of the DVD, Frank Abagnale tells us that the real Hanratty is Boston Irish (bonus DVD, Cast Me If You Can: The Casting of the Film — Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, 0:51-0:55). And in a written source, Abagnale reports that Joe Shea died in 2005 at the age of 85.

That date is indeed correct. Joe Shea was born in Brookline, Massachussets, in 1919; his mother was Irish born. (Told you: Boston Irish!) He joined the Army in 1942 and spent the war as Command Sergeant Major in the 36th Division. Sent to the European theatre, he participated in the crucial Battle of Monte Cassino! (This campaign was part of the push towards Rome; it led to 54,000 allied casualties.)

Seal of the 36th Infantry Division (United States/Texas)            Ruins of the town of Cassino during the Battle of Monte Cassino (World War II)

After the war, Joseph studied Accounting at the Boston College and joined the F.B.I. as an identification clerk to become a Special Agent in 1951. During his career, he worked in several regional offices, including Louisville, Atlanta and Chicago — more about the Windy City shortly.

He retired in December 1977 — that date makes perfect sense given our timeline! —, moved to a farm in Kentucky before he returned to Marietta in 1997, where his two daughters then lived.

On to Chicago and more Americana: F.B.I. agent Joseph Shea spent much of his career on the “Organized Crime” task force of the Chicago field office. And so it happens that his name crops up in the “Warren Commission Report”, no less!

Book cover of the Warren Commission Report on the President John F. Kennedy assassination      Book volumes of the Warren Commission Report

But hold your horses: whatever the Bureau did wrong — which is one hell of a lot, actually — Joseph Shea did not do it. Here’s the full extent of his minute and ultimately marginal contribution to the investigation of John Kennedy’s assassination

The week after the president’s execution in Dallas, he was asked to look into Jack Ruby, the murderer of Lee Harvey Oswald, for a few hours and couldn’t come up with anything even remotely interesting. Talking to connected nightclub owners — a long shot to begin with — turned into a dead end after seconds.

Mug shot of Jack Ruby (né Jack Rubinstein), assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald       Mug shot of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy

Anyway, here are the F.B.I. reports in full.

Commission Exhibit 1209 (interview with Tony Leonardi) (PDF file, 57 KB)
Commission Exhibit 1211 (report on Ruby’s acquaintances in Chicago) + Commission Exhibit 1212 (interview with Frank Loverde) (PDF file, 80 KB)

I’m sure every F.B.I. agent on the anti-mob team, if not the entire field office, put in his bit to investigate Jack Ruby, né Jack Rubinstein, of Chicago.

F.B.I. report of agent Joseph (Joe) Shea for the Warren Commission Report

The fact that thousands of reports were published at all is quite a joke, actually. This was done at the insistence of J.F.K.’s successor Lyndon Johnson. Publishing not just the actual report but also 26 volumes of largely irrelevant appendices — including a study of Lee Harvey Oswald’s pubic hair — would prove once and for all that the government had nothing to hide. “The American public don’t read!”, he added cynically.

But has a presidential ploy ever backfired more than that? Private researchers were quick to detect inconsistencies, leads that were never followed, destroyed evidence, altered and omitted documents and what have you… Too bad, Lyndon, but the American public does read!

In interviews, Abagnale describes Hanks’ performance as highly accurate — down to Shea’s mannerisms. And he reports that Joseph Shea visited the movie set. Furthermore, I was told by a close friend that Joseph Shea attended the premiere and sat next to Tom Hanks during dinner. This information I give you for what it’s worth: I never found the photographic evidence you can reasonably expect in such cases to support the claims…

In closing, here are two genuine if small pictures of Joe Shea. In the first photo, Shea (second from the right) poses with Abagnale (first on the left) and some Bureau colleagues. The blowup is meant to put a recognizable face on the name. I know the photos are no bigger than stamps, but that’s all you can find on the Internet. (At least, my stamps are untainted by corruption...)

F.B.I. agent Joseph Shea poses with Frank Abagnale       Blowup of F.B.I. agent Joseph Shea

Then again, you could say that somebody’s missing in the group picture: Abagnale’s oldest son Scott has a law degree and is now with the F.B.I. in Baltimore…

Fast rewind


Catch the Catchy Tunes

The musical” (that opened on Broadway in April 2011) takes this further: in the non-singing part of track 17, “Stuck Together (Strange but True)”, Hanratty is said to have become the godfather of Abagnale’s children! (They’re called Scott, Chris and Sean.) As I found no confirmation of this fact anywhere — Abagnale hasn’t mentioned it once when discussing his friendship with Joe Shea —, we can assume this is poetic liberty.

Frank Abagnale with family at the premiere of ‘Catch Me If You Can’         Frank Abagnale with family on the movie set

His wife and middle son Chris own a fashion boutique in the historic downtown of Charleston. His youngest son creates computer games in China.

In track 11, “Little Boy, Be a Man”, the lyrics describe Hanratty as having no kids. In the movie, he’s presented as a divorcé… with a (grown-up) daughter. In reality, Joseph Shea has two daughters, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. It has no impact on the rest of the story, which makes it a purely private affair…

Besides, it’s a classic screenwriter’s trick to portray Hanratty as a single man. It places him opposite slick, suave Abagnale who picks up girls the way other people pick up their mail in the morning. In scene 11, you see Abagnale seducing a model in a posh hotel while Hanratty is washing, no, ruining his own shirts at the laundrette. And why would he volunteer to spend Christmas Eve at the office in scene 12 (1:01:04-1:03:37) when the other F.B.I. agents are at home with their family? Hell, that government job is all he’s got left, right?

Other than that, it’s just another . It contains hardly any factual data about Abagnale, just simple not to say bland lyrics and — luckily! — catchy, upbeat tunes. No different from any other musical.

Here are the opening lines: “Live in living color / Let me take you for a ride / Yes, I’m live in living color / So sit back and let me be your T.V. guide.” Impressed? I’m not. And to make matters worse, the booklet of the accompanying CD prints the lyrics… ALL IN UPERCASES. JESUS, WHO CAME UP WITH THAT ONE?

        Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway with billboard of musical ‘Catch Me If You Can’

But maybe you find my criticism unfair with the “high-flying” music missing… Be my guest and see the show if you also liked “Cats”, “Hairspray” (another musical by Shaiman and Whittman), or the “The Book Of Mormon”. Or buy the CD recorded with the original cast.

Booklet cover of musical CD ‘Catch Me If You Can’


Catch Me If You Can
Ghostlight Records, 2011
ISAN B0050546MS

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