BACK in January 1980 the Lithgow Mercury routinely reported the overnight discovery of a man’s body in a black Mercedes parked beside the old Forty Bends Road at South Bowenfels.
The recently deceased resident of the silvertail Sydney suburb of Vaucluse had a bullet wound to the head and a heavy calibre rifle lying across his lap.
It initially appeared to be no more than another sad suicide.
At an inquest at Lithgow Court House Magistrate Derek Hand subsequently returned a finding of suicide.
But reports soon began to circulate that this was not so straight forward and the rumour mill went into overdrive when the State Coroner ordered Lithgow detectives to exhume the body for further examination.
The exhumation and dental records revealed the body in the box was indeed that of Frank Nugan.
He hadn’t faked his death after all.
And then came the whispers of international intrigue and dirty money linked to South East Asian drug running, arms deals and a sinister involvement by America’s spy agency, the CIA.
Then there was the little matter of a notebook found in the Mercedes containing the names of known drug dealers — not the sort of thing expected in possession of a respectable banker.
Investigators also discovered a business card for former CIA director William Colby in Nugan’s pocket.
Colby himself was found dead after a solo canoe trip in the United States in 1996.
It was all becoming a little messy.
Now a step backwards.
The victim was one Frank Nugan who had emerged from family business in the Riverina to establish a merchant bank in partnership with a former American special services soldier Michael Hand.
The bank’s investors were getting jittery in 1979 at the Nugan Hand Bank’s level of debt and the loss of expected returns.
The bank was reportedly $50 million in debt — not much more than a big Lotto win today but a fortune in the 70s.
This was initially seen as the trigger for Frank Nugan’s suicide.
But why did his partner Michael Hand order staff to shred all documents in the now belly-up bank before corporate investigators arrived?
Then Hand disappeared as former employees came forward with statements confirming money laundering activities involving South East Asian drug barons, the sharing of an office building near the Thai-Burma border with CIA operatives, and various other operations that never appeared on the Nugan Hand Bank prospectus.
It was subsequently revealed that the Nugan Hand Bank was under investigation by various Australian and United States government agencies.
Michael Hand disappeared and was presumed dead until being tracked to Idaho Falls in the United States by a determined investigator.
Independent documentary maker Peter Butt says in his book ‘Merchants of Menace’ released this week that it was really a simple process in the end; Hand had changed his name to Michael Jon Fuller but not his social security number.
He could have been fairly easily found if anyone wanted him to be found.
The obvious suspicion was that he was being protected by someone.
Was it the CIA or some other government agency in the United States or Australia?
Since the publication of the sensational revelations in the book and the coverage it has received on the national print and television media the Nugan Hand Bank collapse and the death of Frank Nugan that night at Forty Bends there are more questions being asked.
But so far no answers, even after Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes sent a reporter to confront the man now accepted to be Hand in Idaho Falls.
Perhaps someday ..!
The issue has again been a hot topic in Lithgow this week among those older residents who well recall the emerging mystery and those Chinese Whispers from 35 years ago.