John Friedrich (fraudster)
John Friedrich c. 1988
Johann Friedrich Hohenberger
7 September 1950
|Died||27 July 1991 (aged 40)|
Sale, Victoria, Australia
|Cause of death||Suicide|
|Occupation||Engineer and executive director of the National Safety Council of Australia|
|Criminal charge||Fraud involving over AUD$293 million|
Johann Friedrich Hohenberger OAM (7 September 1950 – 27 July 1991), also known as John Friedrich, was executive director of the National Safety Council of Australia during the 1980s. He was the subject of Victoria's biggest fraud case and known as "Australia's greatest conman".
Early life and career
Hohenberger was a West German national. In August 1972, he began working as an independent contractor with the German road construction company Strassen und Teerbau. Around July 1974, he forged road building orders from distant mountain towns and used them to order Strassen und Teerbau to build roads. No roads were ever built, and no earthworks or materials were ever bought. Hohenberger embezzled DM200,000 from the company.
Hohenberger was on a skiing holiday in Italy at the time German police issued a warrant for his arrest. He never returned to Germany. Having gone out onto the slopes and not returned, it was thought he had died. Although German police were sceptical of his disappearance, believing that somebody had tipped him off to the investigation, the discovery of his bags over a year later reinforced the theory that he had either had an accident or committed suicide.
Move to Australia
On 20 January 1975, Hohenberger arrived in Melbourne on a flight from Auckland, New Zealand. According to Department of Immigration records, Hohenberger left Australia on a flight to Singapore on 22 January. It is thought he tricked Australian Customs into believing he had boarded a plane but remained in Australia.
Using the name John Friedrich and fake qualifications, Hohenberger obtained a contract with construction company Codelfa Cogefar, working on part of the Melbourne underground rail loop. He subsequently worked for the Board of Ecumenical Missions and Relations (BOEMAR), a Uniting Church in Australia organisation responsible for the Church's Aboriginal missions. He was offered the position of community adviser at Ernabella in South Australia, where he was to assist the Aboriginal community with its development and to supervise civil works.
While working in Ernabella, Friedrich became ill with a serious infection and was treated by nurse Shirley Manning. Friedrich and Manning became engaged in October 1975 and married on 10 February 1976 in Sydney. They moved to the BOEMAR mission on Mornington Island, where Shirley was to work as a nursing sister and John as the manager. During his time on Mornington, Friedrich was responsible to the Australian Government as well as to the Church. While the Church was only concerned with the day-to-day running of the island, as an agent of the government, Friedrich acted as a coastal watcher for the Royal Australian Navy, a fisheries officer, a licensee for the government-owned pub, an agent for a shipping company and the airline that serviced the island, a reporting officer for the Department of Civil Aviation. Friedrich also began studying again while at Mornington, working on an external master's degree in engineering science with the University of Queensland. The Friedrichs resigned from BOEMAR in late 1976 but stayed to oversee relief opportunities until January 1977 after Cyclone Ted destroyed 90 per cent of all buildings on the island.
National Safety Council
In November 1976, the Friedrichs had taken a holiday to Victoria. While there, having seen an advertisement in The Age, Friedrich applied for the position of safety engineer with the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA) Victorian Division, to be based at the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) Yallourn power station in the Latrobe Valley. Upon returning to Mornington, Friedrich was informed that the job at Yallourn was his if he wanted it. Friedrich began working for the NSCA in January 1977.
Friedrich became executive director of NSCA in 1982 and began to transform it into a national search and rescue organisation. He built up the company with loans in which 27 banks agreed to lend millions of dollars with little more surety than Friedrich's word. McGregor-Lowndes attributes this lack of probity to the halo effect of NSCA and Friedrich himself. In 1988, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) "in recognition of service to the community, particularly in the area of industrial safety and search and rescue services".
Following the financial collapse of NSCA in 1989, Friedrich went into hiding. After a nationwide and international manhunt, involving all Australian police forces and Interpol, he was arrested in Perth, Western Australia on 6 April 1989. He was initially charged with one count of obtaining financial advantage by deception. On 1 November, he was charged on a further 91 counts of obtaining property by deception.
In subsequent investigations, it was discovered that Friedrich was not an Australian citizen, did not possess any valid birth certificate, and did not appear on any electoral roll. This caused considerable embarrassment to the Department of Defence, which had given him a security clearance and almost unlimited access to Royal Australian Air Force bases.
On 27 July 1991, Friedrich was found dead on his farm near Sale, Victoria with a single gunshot wound to the head in a wide-open muddy field. A helicopter was seen flying low over this area prior to the discovery of the body. His death was ruled to be suicide.
Friedrich was writing an autobiography with the assistance of Richard Flanagan at the time of his death. It was published posthumously. In it, he claimed to have been born in South Australia in 1945 to German parents, attended boarding school in West Germany and studied engineering at the Technische Hochschule. Friedrich also claimed that, while working for an American construction company, he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency and, under the codename "Iago", worked in Laos, Vietnam, Egypt, New Zealand and West Germany against far left-wing extremists before returning to Australia in 1975. Simon Caterson, writing in The Australian, described it as "one of the least reliable but most fascinating memoirs in the annals of Australian publishing". A subsequent 2017 essay by Caterson likening Friedrich to Jeff Tracy is titled "John Friedrich: Australia's Most Altruistic Fraudster".
- Thomas, Martin (1991). The Fraud: Behind the Mystery of John Friedrich, Australia's Greatest Conman. Melbourne: Pagemasters. ISBN 1-875575-01-4.
- Chandler, Jo (29 July 1991). "Friedrich's Official Identity". The Age.
- Myles McGregor-Lowndes (1993), The National Safety Council Fraud – Regulatory Slip or Systemic Regulatory Failure?, Criminology Research Council
- "It's an Honour – Honours – Search Australian Honours". Retrieved 11 August 2011.
- "Twenty years on". www.abc.net.au. 6 April 2009. Retrieved 26 December 2017.
- Friedrich and Flanagan: the con-man and his ghostwriter October 16, 2017 Conversations Retrieved October 16, 2017
- John Friedrich with Richard Flanagan. Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich. Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, 1991. ISBN 0-85561-452-8.
- Caterson, Simon (12 April 2008). "All memoirs are verily unreliable". The Australian.