Australia’s Most Wanted Man Captured After Outback Chase
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Australia’s most wanted man, an apparent fugitive from West Germany sought here for the theft of $33 million in cash, was captured Wednesday after a two- week manhunt that stretched across the Outback.
John Friedrich was caught outside a gasoline station near Perth, the capital of Western Australia state, after driving 1,850 miles across the continent in a used station wagon purchased for $11,750 in cash.
Police said Friedrich, who had shaved off his distinctive beard, offered no resistance. There was no word about the missing millions.
Friedrich became the target of a nationwide hunt after he vanished from Melbourne on March 21, leaving the country’s largest civilian search and rescue company $180 million in debt and near collapse.
He became chief executive of the non-profit National Safety Council of Australia in 1986 and transformed it from a one-aircraft operation into a fleet reaching into the South Pacific.
Employees described Friedrich as ″charismatic and a real charmer,″ and newspapers said he duped financial institutions here and abroad into lending him millions of dollars based on false invoices for equipment that was supposed to serve as collateral.
The case caused a sensation in Australia, with news media alleging Friedrich had links the CIA or other foreign intelligence organizations; flew espionage flights across the Outback and dabbled in arms and drugs trafficking.
Authorities caught up with him after a tip-off that his vehicle was abandoned north of Perth on Monday.
Police said they were not sure that Friedrich was even his real name or whether he was an Australian citizen or an illegal immigrant.
A West German newspaper said Friedrich appeared to be a Friedrich Hohenberger, who apparently faked his own death in 1974 after defrauding a West German construction firm of $200,000.
Friedrich’s wife Shirley had pleaded tearfully on national television for her husband to ″come home to the children and clear up this mess.″
Prime Minister Bob Hawke called media claims of intelligence involvement ″fanciful.″ Defense Minister Kim Beazley rejected suggestions Friedrich used his operation to infiltrate sensitive, intelligence-gathering bases jointly operated with the United States, as well as Australian military installations.
The National Safety Council of Australia, based in Victoria state, had a fleet of about 32 aircraft and employed a staff of 450.
Last year Friedrich was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Order of Australia.