Wolfgang Beltracchi – The Genius Art Forger

I can’t help but admire con artists who have an extraordinary talent and who are also willing and able to pull off elaborate and imaginative tricks, especially in this increasingly boring era.  My August and September posts are dedicated to a painter followed by a musician who both have extraordinary talents and perhaps a sense of fun.  Their cons seem to be games that went too far because they were simply too good at what they did.  I am well aware that some of the other con artists in my archives are blatant criminals who have hurt other people in order to get what they want.  However, some of my entries are good people, even admirable. I happen to admire my con artist for the month of August: Wolfgang Beltracchi.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, in front of one of his original paintings.
Wolfgang Beltracchi in front of one of his original paintings.

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a brilliant painter and perhaps an even more brilliant con man.  He and his wife, Helene, made millions of dollars and fooled everyone in a career that spanned four decades.  His forgeries made their way into the world’s most famous museums, galleries and private collections:  from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York- to Christie’s, the auction house,  where a Beltracchi fake was famously featured on a catalogue cover.   The actor Steve Martin unknowingly bought a Beltracchi painting – and one of the world’s foremost collectors of surrealist art, Daniel Filipacchi, paid 7 million dollars for a phoney Max Ernst in 2006.  In fact, that particular work was even authenticated by leading art historian, Werner Spies, who is also a close friend of Ernst’s widow.  When Wolfgang Beltracchi was eventually caught in 2010, his haul was estimated at 27 million dollars, though there were still hundreds of paintings unaccounted for at that time.
Beltracchi was able to fool art experts across the globe mainly because he is an exceptional painter.  He was able to copy hundreds of famous artists without raising any suspicion.   However, he was also an exceptional con man – and together, he and his wife, Helene, were brilliant partners in crime.

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi
Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi

Beltracchi’s first step was to completely avoid copying originals. Instead, he and his wife would research artists, looking for any holes in their work…a missing painting, or perhaps a painting that could have been.  He would then immerse himself in the chosen artist to the point of obsession – much the same way an actor like Robert De Niro might prepare for a film role: if the painter was left-handed, then so was Beltracchi.

Beltracchi considered his paintings to be masterpieces – and the art world agreed.  Meanwhile, Helene would scope out flea markets and fairs to find period- appropriate materials, including the right frames.  The pair would take apart their newly acquired  flea market purchases in order to collect the antique dust- and carefully slip it into their forgeries.  They even made their own special oven which they could use to speed up the ageing process of Wolfgang’s paintings.
It didn’t end there, though. Helene would take the time to create elaborate fake photos in order prove a painting’s provenance.  Using period-appropriate cameras, film and photo paper, the duo would stage a perfect scene in their home:  Helene would dress up as “her grandmother” and wear accurate 1930’s clothes, with an accurate hairsytyle and pose alongside antique furniture. Positioned on the wall behind her:  a painting from the time.   It was by using one of these photos that Helene managed to sell a fake Ernst titled “La Foret” for seven million dollars to an esteemed New York art collector.

Beltracchi's forged painting "La Foret" by Ernst, which sold for over $7 million
Beltracchi’s forged painting “La Foret” by Ernst, which sold for over $7 million

By the time the Beltracchis were arrested, they had houses across Europe, an estate and vineyard in France, and a yacht.  They were selling hundreds of paintings and living the good life.

In the end, it was laziness that got them caught.   Beltracchi had failed to mix his own colours while forging a work of the modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk.  Instead, he had bought a tube of paint that didn’t list all of its ingredients on the label.  The company that bought the painting spent 3 million euros, making it the most expensive Campendonk ever sold.  However, the buyer then sent his new purchase to a forensic art scientist (and sworn enemy of Beltracchi) who discovered a titanium white in the painting…a pigment which wasn’t used in Campendonk’s time.  Beltracchi and his wife were charged – first in a civil case, then in a criminal one that stunned the art world.

Helene was sentenced to 4 years in a minimum security prison; Wolfgang to 6 years. He was released in January 2015 and continues to paint.  In fact, Beltracchi paintings now sell for thousands of dollars in their own right.

Forged Heinrich Campendonk painting, by Wolfgang Beltracchi
Forged Heinrich Campendonk painting, by Wolfgang Beltracchi

“Lori Erica Kennedy”…aka… “Becky Sue Turner” …aka…?????????

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When Jon Blakely “Blake” Ruff met attractive brunette Lori Kennedy from Arizona, she told him that she didn’t like to discuss the past.  She said that she had lost her family and it upset her to speak about them. Blake trusted her and asked no questions…he was a quiet and agreeable man whose closest companion before meeting Lori was his twin brother, David.  Blake’s family tried to get close to Lori but she put up a wall. Any personal questions were met with hostility.   Blake’s family wanted to put a marriage announcement in the local paper but Lori refused.  In the end, Blake and Lori ran off and married in a small church outside of Dallas…the only person in attendance was the preacher.

The new couple bought a house on 2 acres of land in the village of Leonard, Texas- 125 miles from Blake’s family.  According to neighbours, Blake and Lori kept to themselves and lived in their own bubble.  In the evenings, Lori would often walk the perimeter of her property and avoid eye contact with the neighbours. According to her husband, Lori wanted a child more than anything.  The couple suffered through several miscarriages and eventually successfully used IVF treatment for Lori to conceive a daughter. Blake now thinks that Lori may have been older than she claimed, and that may have been the reason it was so hard for Lori to conceive.

Once their daughter was born, Lori’s behaviour became increasingly strange and she continued to distance herself from Blake’s family;  she didn’t want her daughter to spend time with her grandparents even though they had 8 other happy, healthy grandchildren. For Blake, who was very close to his family, the strain became unbearable. Within 5 years the marriage had fallen apart.  Blake and Lori tried marriage counselling at the church to no avail. According to the pastor who was counselling the couple, during the sessions Lori would become obsessed with her hands – fiddling with them, holding them up and staring at them.  She would speak in a loop, repeating what was wrong with her and how she would fix things.  Then she’s start again and repeat what she’d already said. Blake, on the other hand, brought his twin brother to the sessions and sat quietly while his brother spoke on his behalf- almost like a translator. In the summer of 2010, Blake asked for the divorce and moved in with his parents.

Lori started to come undone.

The neighbours started to notice that Lori and her daughter appeared very thin and that Lori was also starting to seem somewhat incoherent.
Meanwhile, she made it extremely difficult for Blake to exchange custody of their daughter, sent threatening emails to his family, and eventually stole their house keys…leading the Ruffs to obtain a “cease and desist” order against her.

On Christmas Eve, 2010, Blake’s dad, Jon Ruff, noticed Lori’s car idling in the driveway.  He called the police, who immediately discovered that Lori had shot herself. She had also left behind an 11 page letter addressed to “my wonderful husband”  and another letter for her daughter, to be opened on her 18th birthday.  The police report stated that the letters contained “ramblings from a clearly disturbed person”.

After Lori’s funeral, Blake’s brother-in-law and a few other family members drove to Leonard.  They wanted to search Lori’s house and get some answers – they had always felt that she was hiding something. However, they had so little trust in her that they phoned the deputy sheriff to come and meet them at Lori’s house….they were genuinely worried that Lori might have booby trapped the house. What they found instead was the home of someone who had given up the will to live:  the baby’s bed was left soiled, and there were unwashed dishes, piles of dirty laundry, shredded documents and full trash bags everywhere.

"Lori Ruff" at the Texas Business Women Region 7 Conference Spring Awards banquet, April 24th 2010.
“Lori Ruff” at the Texas Business Women Region 7 Conference Spring Awards banquet, April 24th 2010.

Blake had told them where to look:  the attic.  He knew that there were boxes that Lori didn’t want him to touch.  In keeping with his obedient character, he didn’t.  But now was the time to start searching for answers, and it didn’t take Miles Ruff long to find a strongbox labelled “crafts”.  Upon smashing that box open, he discovered a court document from 1988 showing she had changed her name. Before she was Lori, she was Becky Sue Turner.

Some of the scribbles found in the strongbox:  "402 months"..."North Hollywood Police...  " Ben Perkins, attorney at law"
Some of the scribbles found in the strongbox: “402 months”…”North Hollywood Police… ” Ben Perkins, attorney at law”

Blake’s family felt triumphant – they finally knew who Lori truly was!  However, their jubilation did not last long.  They asked a private investigator to look into Becky Sue’s past…and ended up with even more questions.  It turned out that the real Becky Sue Turner was a 2 year old girl who had died in a house fire, in 1971.

It took “Lori”  2 months of time during 1988 to take over the identity of someone she wasn’t.  First, she got a copy of Becky Sue Turner’s birth certificate from Bakersfield ,California (much easier to do in 1988).  Investigators were quick to notice that Becky Sue Turner had died in a different state to the one in which she was born…a fact that meant “Lori” must have known what she was doing as it complicates a database search.
Next, she got an Idaho State Identity card in Boise which claimed she was 18 years old.
After getting that ID, she travelled to Dallas to change her name, legally, to “Lori Erika Kennedy”.
Finally, the most important step:  she got a Social Security card, the holy grail of identity theft.
With a clean slate and a new name, Lori got into college. She graduated from the University of Texas in Arlington with a business degree.

Investigators have looked into every item that was found in the strongbox:  a letter of reference from an employer and a landlord.  Some scribbles that read:  North Hollywood Police.  402 months. Ben Perkins, an attorney.
The references were bogus and signed by someone who never existed. The lawyer had never heard of a Lori Kennedy or a Becky Sue Turner.
Lori’s photos were run through every facial-recognition database and came up blank. Her fingerprints were sent both to the FBI and Homeland Security but didn’t match anyone in their files. Investigators looked through Lori’s medical records and discovered that she had breast implants.  They thought that might be a good lead seeing as implants have serial numbers which lead to doctors’ records -but it turned out that Lori’s implants were new- and she’s been cremated, anyway.  Samples of Lori’s DNA have been sent to various databases including Missing Persons and a Genealogy website – without finding any match.  Becky Sue Turner’s mother and father were both interviewed and neither knew who the person was who stole their daughter’s ID.

The trail is now dead.  However, the Ruff family still believes that someone will eventually come forward…after all, Lori went to such great pains to remain off the radar that someone, somewhere – must know something.

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“Lori Ruff” with her husband, Blake, in happier times.

George C. Parker – The Man Who Sold The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge, NY

How often have you been a tourist?  How often have you been scammed as a tourist?  Most people who have travelled abroad have a story to tell about being ripped off, pick pocketed or tricked.  In my experience, I’ve been duped by a hotelier in Rome, and by a taxi driver who took me on a very scenic route to the theatre when I visited London. What’s the worst scam that has happened to you, as a tourist?

Whatever it is, it can’t come close to what happened to those who met George C. Parker on their travels.

George C. Parker was America’s most audacious con man. By the age of 20, he had already forged a career selling famous landmarks to tourists and immigrants.  In 1883, shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, George met a tourist who had just arrived from Europe – and introduced himself as the over-stressed owner of the new bridge.  He explained that he wasn’t interested in setting up toll booths and controlling the business; he wanted to move on and focus on building new bridges in different cities.  The tourist bought the story, and the bridge, for a bargain price and began erecting toll booths the next day…only for the police to arrive and explain to the buyer that he’d been had.

George C. Parker

George continued to sell the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for many years. In that time, he perfected his scam:  sometimes he would give a small cut of his sales to boat and ferry operators – bribing them to tell their cash-carrying foreign clients about the bridge and its desperate owner.  Meanwhile, George would erect some professional looking “For Sale” signs around the bridge.
During the 30 plus years that George C. Parker sold famous New York landmarks, he was arrested 3 times for fraud. The third time, in 1928,  landed him in prison for the rest of his life.  He was an extremely popular inmate with both prisoners and wardens, who loved hearing the many different stories of how he sold the Brooklyn Bridge.  George C. Parker died in Sing Sing in 1936.

Paul Michael Larson, the “Press Your Luck” winner

Paul Michael Larson
Paul Michael Larson

When I was 10 years old I went to Seattle, Washington to stay with my cousins during the long Easter break.  While my cousins were at school, I’d stay at home with our grandma and watch one game show after another.  I was fascinated by them…you didn’t need to answer difficult questions, they were slick, colourful – and literally anyone had a chance of winning.  My favourite American game show was called “Press Your Luck” – probably because it had an animated, evil little creature on it called a “whammy” that the contestants had to avoid at all costs.  There was a big, colourful game board with flashing lights and no difficult questions.  Perfect for a 10 year old from Salford.

In 1984, an unemployed ice-cream truck driver named Paul Michael Larson appeared on the show.  He got off to a weak start, hitting a whammy almost immediately.  However, his luck soon changed and he began to win large amounts of money and trips to Hawaii.  Each time he pressed his luck on the big board, he’d win thousands of dollars at a time.  The money started adding up and the producers started to get nervous. Larson’s winning streak lasted so long that the show had to be aired as two episodes.  In the end, he racked up $110, 237…the largest one-day total ever won on a game show at the time.  The producers didn’t want to pay him.

The reason the producers didn’t want to pay Michael Larsson his prize money was because at some point during the show, they realized that his winning streak had nothing to do with luck.  They suspected that Larson had figured out exactly when to press his button in order to win money on the big board, and that the big board wasn’t as random as everyone had believed.  In fact, Michael Larson had discovered that the light indicator used for the 18 square big board always moved in one of 5 looping patterns.  He spent 6 weeks, with the help of his vcr, memorizing these patterns so that he would be able to predict which squares the indicator would move to next.  He knew which squares had the most money, and he knew which squares never had a Whammy in them.

The CBS network initially refused to pay Larson his winnings, but the producers and the head of CBS’ daytime department, Michael Brockman, were unable to find a clause in the game’s rules with which to disqualify him. He hadn’t broken any rules.

Paul Michael Larson had studied the game, practised…and then used nearly all of his saved money to make the trip to Los Angeles to audition for the show.  He had taken a risk, and won.

Some of the people who I pay tribute to on my page aren’t con artists in the typical sense of the term…they just figured out how to beat the system and had the balls to go through with it.

Elaine Parent, the “Chameleon Killer”

Elaine Parent is beneath respect or admiration.  She is on the list as a different kind of imposter, not through cleverness, or bravery – she was successful only because she was lacking in so many human qualities. She was empty, and could only gain a personality by stealing someone else’s. She was a ruthless con woman and a monster.

Elaine Parent 1
Elaine Parent

In June 1990, 34 year old Beverly McGowan placed an ad in the newspaper looking for a room mate…

It didn’t take long before a woman named “Alice” answered, claiming to be a British employee of IBM who had just been placed in Florida for work.  The two women met, and Beverly McGowan phoned her friends afterwards to tell them that she had found a charming and glamorous room mate. She was excited for them to meet Alice.

The beautiful, British blonde also claimed to be a numerologist who could predict the future.  McGowan was fascinated, and Alice offered to give her a free numerology session.  Using her skills, Alice predicted that her new room mate would come into money, have no worries and meet the man she would marry when she turned 40.

Little did Beverly McGowan know that her fate was now sealed.  The numerology session was a trap set up by Alice to find out McGowan’s National Insurance Number, bank account details and any other crucial personal data that could be used for identity theft.

On July 19, a mutilated body was found in the canal. The head had been removed, along with anything else that could lead to identifying the victim, such as tattoos.  However, the killer had made a mistake and missed a tiny ankle tattoo. From this, the police were soon able to identify the victim as Beverly McGowan.

Meanwhile, Elaine Parent had flown to London using Beverly McGowan’s credit card. She bought the tickets disguised as a man who was dressed as a woman. She flew under the name Sylvia Ann Hodgkinson, this time disguised in a black wig. At Heathrow airport, Parent attempted to hire a car using McGowan’s credit card but it had already been canceled.  She talked her way out of it, and drove off. The next known sighting was in October when she flew from London to Los Angeles under yet another name: Charlotte Cowan.

Elaine Parent is thought to have stolen and used over 20 identities (both male and female) while on the run.  Her specialty was stalking single women (often choosing those with a similar appearance to her), seducing them …and stealing their identities by whatever means she could.  To this day, police are unsure of the number of people she killed. At least seven people whose identities she was known to have used are still missing.

Composite Sketch of Elaine Parent (disguised as a man dressed as a woman)
Composite Sketch of Elaine Parent (disguised as a man dressed as a woman)

Parent continued to change her appearance, her background and move to different countries – all while taunting the FBI. At one point she sent Florida police a photograph of an oil painting of herself, with the phrase “Best Wishes: your Chameleon” typed on the back.

In May 1991 police in Miami Beach apprehended a woman who had been sleeping in an overdue rental car with a stolen plate. When they discovered that she was carrying several different IDs, she was taken into custody. However, the police didn’t realize that the woman was in fact Elaine Parent, and she was able to post bail the next day. She disappeared again, briefly surfacing in New Mexico as a restaurant manager before returning to Florida as a homeless South African woman.

In 1992, while being pursued by Florida police for the murder of Beverly McGowan, she used another false identity to file a civil negligence suit against the State after she slipped and injured herself in a restaurant.  She won.  Then, in 1994 the Chameleon Killer disappeared without a trace.

On April 6 2002, Elaine Parent was featured on the tv program: “America’s Most Wanted”. As soon as it aired, the producers received a tip off. The Chameleon Killer had been spotted at an apartment building in Panama City, Florida. The police immediately checked it out, but the woman they found didn’t resemble Elaine Parent at all -and the ID was not a match.  Nevertheless they weren’t about to take any chances and asked the suspect to come with them to the station. They waited outside her room as she got dressed.  Then they heard a gun shot.  Upon entering the room, it was clear to the police that Elaine Parent had made a final escape by shooting herself in the heart.

Among the few possessions they found in Elaine Parent’s home was a book on stage makeup, a book called “Learn to speak French”, a disguise that would have enabled her to dress as a man,  and a notebook containing a local man’s social security number, parents’ names, date of birth and credit card numbers.

Ali Dia, the “Fake Footballer”

While Ali Dia might have had a very brief career as an imposter compared to the others on my list, he shares a common trait…he definitely has balls.

It began when George Weah (World Player of the Year) made a call to Graeme Souness (manager of Southampton), to convince him to sign his cousin Ali Dia to Southampton. Weah told Souness that his cousin was an exceptionally gifted footballer who had been capped 13 times for Senegal, played for top French team Paris St. Germain and had just scored 2 goals for Senegal a few days before the phone call.  Following the phone call, Ali Dia was signed to Southampton…

Unbeknownst to Souness, it was not actually the international superstar George Weah on the phone – and none of the information about Ali Dia was true.  In fact, the biggest club Ali Dia had ever played for was the non-league club Blyth Spartans- and even that was just one match.

Ali Dia was not George Weah's cousin
Ali Dia was not George Weah’s cousin

Then, thanks to series of good luck (or bad luck for Souness and Southampton) Dia ended up being put straight into a match against Leeds United. He had been due to play a reserve game the week he joined, but because of bad weather conditions the game was postponed. He still wouldn’t have played the match, if Matt Le Tissier hadn’t been forced off the pitch early in the first half.  So on went Ali Dia, the exciting new signing.   He managed to play for 43 minutes, during which time his playing was described by Le Tissier as “like watching Bambi on ice”.

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Graeme Souness, former manager of Southampton

He was also seen on the televised “Match of the Day” by a shocked Peter Harrison, who was Ali Dia’s former manager at Blyth Spartans. News soon spread to George Weah, who denied ever having heard of Ali Dia, let alone being related to him or recommending him as a gifted footballer.

Here is Matt Le Tissier’s hilarious first hand account of the saga:

Princess Caraboo

Portrait of Princess Caraboo
Portrait of Princess Caraboo

In 1817, a mysterious young woman surfaced in Almondsbury, a small village near Bristol, England.  She wore exotic clothes, including a turban, and spoke a language that was incomprehensible to the baffled locals.  She also appeared to be disoriented.  The woman was taken to the local magistrate, Samuel Worrall, who lived in Knole Park.  Here, she insisted on sleeping on the floor and continued to utter a few words of Indo-European descent. Worrall decided that she was a beggar and took her to Bristol to be tried for vagrancy.

However, during her imprisonment, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel surfaced and said he spoke the woman’s language.  He translated her incredible story, telling her hosts that she was, in fact, a princess from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean.  She had been abducted by pirates, and escaped by jumping overboard in the stormy Bristol Channel before swimming to shore.

The Worrall family brought the Princess  to their home.  Her story spread quickly and she quickly catapulted to fame.  Princess Caraboo was wined and dined by all the local dignitaries. Her portrait was painted, then printed in the local newspapers.  She used a bow and arrow, swam naked, and prayed to her God, “Alla-Tallah”.  Her authenticity was verified by a Dr. Wilkinson, who identified her language using Edmund Fry’s “Pantographia” and confirmed that the strange markings on the back of her head were the work of Oriental surgeons.

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However, after reading the story of Princess Caraboo in a local newspaper, a woman recognized the phony princess as her former servant.  According to the woman, this servant used to entertain her children by speaking in invented tongues. Princess Caraboo, it turned out, came from no more exotic a locale than Devonshire, England, where she was born Mary Wilcocks, the daughter of a cobbler.

The Worralls arranged for Mary to travel to Philadelphia on 28 June, 1817.

On 13 September, 1817, a letter was printed in the Bristol Journal, allegedly from Sir Hudson Lowe (the official in charge of the exiled Emperor Napoleon).  The letter claimed that Princess Caraboo’s Philadelphia-bound ship had in fact gone off course due to a large storm.  The princess had gone adrift in a life boat and rowed to the island of St. Helena, where she met the emperor. According to the letter, the emperor had become so fascinated in Princess Caraboo that he was applying to the Pope for a dispensation to marry her.  The story was unverified, and Princess Caraboo contacted the Worralls from New York in November 1817.

Princess Caraboo returned to England in 1824. She pretended to be a widow called Mary Burgess (her cousin’s surname) before eventually marrying Richard Baker and having a daughter.  Mary Baker aka Princess Caraboo died on 24 December, 1864.

 

Frank Abagnale Jr

Frank Abagnale Jr in the role of pilot
Frank Abagnale Jr in the role of pilot

Frank Abagnale Jr:  one of the greatest con men in history, who went on to become a great man.

Frank was a teenaged high school dropout and an incredible imposter.  Some of his most impressive feats include fraudulently working as a Pan Am pilot (clocking up millions of air miles while traveling around the world), as a paediatrician in Atlanta, working as a professor at the prestigious Brigham Young University, and as an assistant attorney general for the state of Louisiana (passing the state bar exam beforehand).  He had a gifted, artistic ability at making false cheques, ID cards and other legal documents.  His altered cheques made him approximately $2.5 million while he was still a teenager.  They also made him a most wanted man.  After a long and dedicated chase by the FBI, Frank Abagnale Jr was finally caught in Montpellier, France when he was still only 20 years old.

Like many con men, Frank Abagnale Jr was charismatic and gifted.  However, unlike many other con men- he eventually chose to use his charisma and talents solely for good.

Frank Abagnale Jr in a laboratory
Frank Abagnale Jr in a laboratory

Today, Frank is a motivational speaker and continues to do pro bono work for the FBI.  He advises on fraud prevention, identity theft, and document security products.  He is loved and respected by his FBI colleagues.  His gifts at spotting security loopholes have not faded…here is an example from a while ago:

A client asked Frank to try out a new ATM prototype.  After a quick glance, Frank was able to spot a flaw…the ATM machine had a door that electronically opened for users to retrieve their cash.  Frank simply took Super Glue, glued the door shut, then sat back and watched as several ATM users inserted their card, entered their PIN number, and waited for their cash.  When the door failed to open, they assumed the machine was out-of-order and moved to the next machine.  After they left, Frank walked up, broke through the glue, and there was the cash – which is why ATM machines today use open slots for cash delivery, not doors.

Frank Abagnale Jr’s incredible story was eventually turned into a highly successful film by Steven Spielberg, starring Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.  The film is called “Catch Me If You Can” and was the inspiration behind the name of my blog.

Frank with Tom Hanks, Leo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg. He had a cameo as a police officer in "Catch Me if You Can", the film based on his teenage years.  Copyright of Amblin Entertainment
Frank with Tom Hanks, Leo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg. He had a cameo as a police officer in “Catch Me if You Can”, the film based on his teenage years.
Copyright of Amblin Entertainment