Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Friedrich, John (1950–1991)

by Frank Bongiorno

This article was published online in 2016

John Friedrich (1950–1991), company director and fraudster, was born Friedrich Johann Hohenberger on 7 September 1950 at Munich, West Germany, the younger of two sons of Johann Christian Hohenberger, possibly a textile manufacturer, and his wife Elisabeth Sophie Christina, née Wehner. Neighbours recalled that Fritz, as he was known in childhood, attended a nearby school and joined the local rescue patrol. He later claimed to have been born at Mount Davies, South Australia, in 1945.

In December 1974 Hohenberger was working for a road maintenance company in Munich when it was discovered that he had defrauded it of 300 thousand deutsche marks. He disappeared before police could apprehend him, giving the impression that he had committed suicide or been killed in a skiing accident in Italy. On 20 January 1975 a man calling himself Friedrich Johann Hohenberger arrived at Melbourne Airport on a flight from Auckland, New Zealand. Although he was booked to fly on to London and airline records showed that he had departed, Hohenberger almost certainly remained in Australia.

In March, using the name John Friedrich, he took up a position as a community officer at Pukatja (formerly Ernabella), a remote Aboriginal settlement in South Australia, in which role he revealed both his organisational skills and a controlling personality. While there, he met Shirley Kay Manning, a nurse, whom he married at St David’s Presbyterian Church, West Strathfield, Sydney, on 10 February 1976. In the following year he made false claims regarding his qualifications to secure an appointment as a safety engineer at the National Safety Council of Australia (Victorian division) (NSCAV), a non-profit public company founded to prevent road and industrial accidents. With his ‘hypnotic personality’ (Evans 1991, 1) and talent for cutting through red tape, he rose quickly, becoming its director in 1982. He lived a modest lifestyle with his family on a property at Seaton near the organisation’s base at West Sale in Gippsland.

A physically robust man with a large bald head and, at the height of his powers, an impressive dark beard, ‘Freddo’ was an autocratic but respected leader who often joined his staff on training exercises and rescue operations. The ‘affable, motivated workaholic’ (Goodsir and Silvester 1989, 9) quickly transformed the Victorian division into a sophisticated search and rescue organisation by fraudulently borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars, at times using as security empty crates that he persuaded bankers contained expensive equipment.

Organised on paramilitary lines, the NSCAV boasted a fleet of helicopters, fixed-wing planes, a forty-two-metre flagship, a midget submarine, decompression chambers, and an infrared scanner. Pigeons were being trained to assist with rescue missions, and dogs to be parachuted with their handlers into remote areas to look for missing people. Friedrich was especially proud of the elite para-rescue group, or PJs (parachute jumpers) as they were known. As an advanced search and rescue organisation, the NSCAV gained the admiration of politicians and had prominent clients such as the Department of Defence. Its staff grew from one hundred in 1984 to 450 in 1989. By this time, the NSCAV was winning contracts overseas. Friedrich, fearing exposure if he attempted to use a passport, invariably sent members of his staff abroad to negotiate with clients. In 1988 he had been awarded the OAM.

When in March 1989 the organisation’s chairman, Max Eise, asked Friedrich to explain anomalies in the accounts, he disappeared, becoming the target of a police manhunt that attracted feverish media attention. After sixteen days the police located him near Perth. The Victorian division’s debts on its collapse in 1989 were estimated at about a quarter of a billion dollars, with the State Bank of Victoria the biggest creditor at over $100 million. Rumours abounded that Friedrich was a Central Intelligence Agency officer, or that he had been involved in clandestine activities such as arms and drug running, and money laundering. Friedrich fuelled the rumours with cryptic public statements and a posthumously published memoir of demonstrable unreliability, Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich (1991). While it is plausible that intelligence services had shown interest in utilising the resources of the NSCAV, no evidence has come to light to indicate that it was an intelligence front.

Extradited to Victoria, Friedrich spent six weeks in prison before being released on bail in late May 1989. In December he applied for permanent residency but no decision was made pending the outcome of fraud charges. Over the following months he made numerous court appearances that included attendance at the liquidation hearing into the collapse of the NSCAV in the Supreme Court. On 26 July 1991 Friedrich, fearing imprisonment and deportation as an illegal migrant, committed suicide near his home by shooting himself in the head, shortly before he was due to stand trial for fraud. Survived by his wife, daughter, and two sons, he was cremated.

The scandal at the NSCAV, one of the largest and most infamous frauds in Australia, resulted from inadequate government regulation, reckless bank lending, and the influence of a charismatic and driven man. A deeply flawed visionary, Friedrich had immense intelligence and energy, matched by dishonesty and a talent for self-promotion. He did not act out of a desire for personal monetary benefit but to build up the organisation to which he had tied his own reputation and identity. It was later found that he had been planning a further fraud related to land surveying in Queensland shortly before his death.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Evans, Louise. ‘Friedrich’s Mother Disowns “Fritz”.’ Canberra Times, 2 August 1991, 1
  • Friedrich, John, with Richard Flanagan. Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich. Port Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1991
  • Goodsir, Darren, and John Silvester. ‘The Man Behind the Mask.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 30 March 1989, 9
  • Monks, Suzanne. ‘John Friedrich’s Last Hours.’ Woman’s Day, 10 September 1991, 14–16
  • National Archives of Australia. A8680, 9
  • Sykes, Trevor. The Bold Riders: Behind Australia’s Corporate Collapses, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994
  • Thomas, Martin. The Fraud: Behind the Mystery of John Friedrich, Australia’s Greatest Conman, Richmond, Vic.: Pagemasters, 1991

Additional Resources

Citation details

Frank Bongiorno, 'Friedrich, John (1950–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/friedrich-john-15506/text26720, published online 2016, accessed online 21 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hohenberger, Friedrich Johann
Birth

7 September 1950
Munich, Bavaria, Germany

Death

26 July 1991
Seaton, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

suicide

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