Today In Fact, 27 July

Australia Fraudster Day

Johann Friedrich Hohenberger was just 22 when he started working as contractor for the German roads company Strassen und Teerbau. Roads were ordered and paid for but never built. By 1974, Johann, or John as he became known, had fraudulently taken over 200,000 Deutsch Marks. John was on skiing holiday in Italy when the German police started searching for him. He did a bunk, faking his death. Something happened in the Italian alps at this time that stayed with him and sowed the seed to his eventual undoing.

Some months later he arrived in Melbourne, Australia under the name John Friedrich and began doing construction work again. He soon found work for the Church’s Presbyterian missions among aboriginal communities based in the far-flung South Australian settlement of Arnobella.

It was here that John met Shirley, a nurse and they married in 1976. John resigned from mission work and in 1977 took-up employment with Australia’s National Safety Council. Within 5 years John was appointed executive Director of the National Safety Council where he began taking loans from some 27 banks to build up the Council’s work.

John promoted the idea of a dedicated search and rescue organization, a sort of fourth force that would stand beside the Army, Navy and Air force. Perhaps his experience of doing a bunk on the Italian alps spurred him on. He bought loads of empty containers and helicopters and planes and trucks. He repeatedly convinced auditors that things were going well while he spun an increasingly imaginative organization.

In 1988, John was given 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”.

Not bad for a fraudster? Within months of receiving the Medal, John and Shirley went into hiding as the National safety Council, unable to pay its debts, collapsed.

In the investigations that followed, it was discovered that John was not actually 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 23 July 1991 he appeared in court for fraud involving almost 300 million Australian dollars. Four days later he shot himself in the head on his farm.

The biggest fraudster in Australian history killed himself on this day in 1991. His autobiography was later published which has been described as the least reliable and most fascinating autobiography in Australian history.

– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (

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