When it comes to the perpetrators of Australia’s greatest cons and hoaxes, truth is stranger than fiction. The forthcoming novel by Richard Flanagan, First Person, was inspired by the author’s own brief encounter in 1991 with John Friedrich, one of Australia’s most notorious and enigmatic imposters. But Flanagan, speaking in a pre-release interview about First Person, is not claiming to be recounting the real story.
Back when his career as a writer had barely begun, Flanagan was hired by a publisher to help Friedrich put together a publishable memoir – the book eventually came out as Codename Iago. Not long after he spent three weeks working with Flanagan on the book, Friedrich was found dead at his modest family property in East Gippsland having apparently shot himself in the head with an antique pistol he kept in a desk drawer. At the time of his death, Friedrich was out on bail awaiting trial in one of the biggest corporate fraud cases in Australian legal history.
Codename Iago was not finally proofread by Friedrich, but the manuscript was published nevertheless. Full of paranoid invention and blatant contradiction, Codename Iago is without doubt one of the most unreliable memoirs ever to appear in print. In the postscript, Flanagan states: “I can vouch for the veracity of none of it”.
Luckily, we don’t have to take Friedrich’s word for the amazing things he did. As head of the Victorian Division of the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCAVD), the organisation he worked for between 1977 and 1989, Friedrich engineered the expansion of the outfit from a non-profit organisation quietly promoting safety awareness into an all-purpose hi-tech search and rescue operation that worked with the military in sensitive locations such as the global surveillance facility at Pine Gap.
Without any military experience of his own, John Friedrich transformed the NSCAVD into a paramilitary style organisation with 450 well-paid staff.
If the NSCAVD under Friedrich was a real life equivalent to the International Rescue organisation portrayed in the classic TV series The Thunderbirds, then Friedrich himself was its Jeff Tracey, the charismatic leader not afraid to participate personally in some of the more daring rescues.
Without any military experience of his own, the thick-set Friedrich transformed the NSCAVD into a paramilitary style organisation with 450 well-paid staff which actively hired former SAS personnel. Unusually for a civilian organisation, the NSCVD featured an elite group of expert parachutists who specialised in jumping dangerously close to the ground.
The organisation operated an air fleet comprising numerous helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, as well as a 42-metre ocean going vessel and a mini submarine for deep sea rescues. An extensive inventory of land-based vehicles featured several fire trucks, a massive snow plough and an articulated eight-wheeled vehicle capable of moving through swamps.
At the NSCAVD base in remote West Sale in Victoria, which when Friedrich took over was a neglected aerodrome with a single hanger and a solitary runway, an advanced dog training facility was established along with stables to house 30 horses. A pigeon coop was added in the belief that the birds could be used to spot people floating in life jackets. There were decompression chambers installed and an infrared scanner support system was set up.
In 1989, Friedrich was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia “in recognition of service to the community, particularly in the area of industrial safety and search and rescue services”. It was quite an honour for a foreign fugitive from justice who had been living in the country illegally for a more than a decade under a false name.
Feted by politicians and indulged by banks, Friedrich hid a shady past from everyone, including his family.
Although the NSCAVD, whose client list included the Department of Defence, gained an international reputation for its work, its leader never travelled overseas, preferring to send subordinates in possession of a valid passport.
Feted by politicians and indulged by the state banks as he was during the peak of his success, Friedrich hid a shady past from everyone, including his wife and their children. He had arrived in 1975 at Melbourne Airport on a flight from Auckland ahead of a fraud investigation concerning a certain Johann Friedrich Hohenberger, a German national sought for questioning by Munich police over the embezzlement of some DM300,000 from a road construction firm for which he allegedly concocted false invoices. Aware the police back home were after him, Friedrich had apparently faked his own death during a skiing trip in the Italian Alps.
Although he was in transit to Singapore and booked through to London, Friedrich somehow managed to stay on in Australia without the customs authorities noticing that he had failed to take his seat on the connecting flight. Friedrich not only had no trouble finding work in Australia but got married to a local woman with whom he started a family, and even enrolled in a university degree course. Post 9/11, surely none of this subterfuge would be possible.
The lack of conspicuous consumption on the part of Friedrich and his family helps to explain why such a massive fraud went undetected for more than a decade.
In terms of the sheer amount of money he managed to obtain under false pretences – the NSCAVD collapsed with debts approaching $300 million – Friedrich was a major fraudster in the league of Alan Bond and Christopher Skase. Bankers and bureaucrats had no problem throwing money at the NSCAVD, which may explain why to this day there has not been a thorough official inquiry held into the loss of so much money to an organisation that was never solvent.
While Friedrich also benefitted from reckless lending and ineffective oversight, he differed from the other major corporate crooks of the “greed is good” period of the 1980s and early ‘90s in that he didn’t use the ill-gotten gains to enrich himself, but rather ploughed the funds into an organisation uniquely equipped to save lives.
According to Trevor Sykes, whose chapter on the NSCAVD in his 1994 book The Bold Riders: Behind Australia’s Corporate Collapses remains one of the most detailed accounts of Friedrich’s life and crimes, the positive results of Friedrich’s visionary leadership were real. “The rescue workers were highly trained and effective. Undoubtedly, hundreds, possibly thousands of people owe their lives to Friedrich’s Victorian Division.”
In the 1991 book The Fraud, which is the only full length treatment of Friedrich’s life and crimes, Martin Thomas writes that Friedrich succeeded in getting away with it not through any great talent for rubbery figures but rather through sheer bluff. “Make no mistake, John Friedrich’s frauds were not masterpieces of guile – that they went on for as long as they did was proof of Friedrich’s persuasive personality and his locking out of his staff from key areas of the accounts system”.
Able to project a Jeff Tracey-like aura, Friedrich seduced as well as misdirected impressionable lenders and auditors.
The lack of conspicuous consumption on the part of Friedrich and his family, as well as the altruistic cause in which the funds were applied, also helps to explain why such a massive fraud went undetected for more than a decade, while also giving a clue as to his unusual psychology. Like any successful con artist, Friedrich had the ability to convince people he was the person he claimed to be, no doubt after first convincing himself.
In touch with his own inner action man and able to project a Jeff Tracey-like aura, Friedrich seduced as well as misdirected impressionable lenders and auditors. One trick he used involved taking visitors for rides in various Thunderbirds, giving them a sense that their money was being put to use in the most effective and professional, as well as thrilling, way possible.
Back on the ground, Friedrich’s standard technique for “securing” loans included simply pointing out to visitors touring the base rows of shipping containers that were said to contain valuable equipment but were in fact empty. From time to time, the containers would be moved around to suggest much more assets than there really were.
In a quite literal way, John Friedrich is one of those larger than life characters you wouldn’t normally read about. From what has been revealed so far about First Person, in unambiguously fictionalising aspects of the true story Richard Flanagan seems to have followed the path of fellow novelist Peter Carey, who invented characters and situations derived from the Ern Malley Affair in My Life as a Fake. Carey turned in a decidedly understated novel that doesn’t compete with the legend, and it may be that Flanagan has taken similarly low-key approach in reworking the Friedrich story in First Person.
The amazing true story of John Friedrich doesn’t need any embellishing, though it does cry out for a full length documentary feature film. It is curious that such a compelling story hasn’t yet been given its due on the big screen.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN ASSIST ARTS JOURNALISM THRIVE HERE