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Relationships

Who was Lezlie Manukian? The Californian girl who swindled a Kiwi family out of their life savings

This brash American beauty has left a trail of deception around the world.

It was barely a year after Ollie Wards first met his brother Greg's new Californian girlfriend in a bar that he found himself uneasily preparing some remarks for the couple's wedding.
Lezlie Manukian was about to marry her Kiwi fiancé and Ollie wasn't happy about it, but he couldn't say exactly why.
The loud-mouthed American was gregarious and glamorous, but also generous and hospitable. When Ollie first met her in 2006, she'd had an answer for everything. "Lezlie knows" had become a jokey refrain.
But there was something about this woman that had him on high alert.
"Greg and Lezlie were very intense," he recalls now.
"Lezlie seemed to have a power over Greg. Like he wasn't really himself."
When Greg confided that he was thinking of proposing, Ollie was alarmed. "I remember counselling: 'It's early days. Just take it easy'."
As the family gathered back in New Zealand for the couple's wedding in 2007, Ollie's fears intensified. But Greg was so happy it was impossible for Ollie, an Australian radio producer, to raise his doubts.
"It's not a feeling that had any sort of rationality," Ollie says. "You couldn't articulate it. So nobody was saying anything."
Just four months later, everything blew up.
Lezlie disappeared, leaving her Matakana business, which his parents had backed, in ruins. Julie and David Wards lost their life savings and their Auckland home, and were forced to move into a relative's basement.
Greg's marriage and heart were in tatters. As the family sifted through the havoc Lezlie had left behind, others around them revealed they had felt the same unease about the charismatic American.
But by then it was much too late to sound the alarm.
Greg found Lezlie attractive and charismatic.
Greg Wards had always been obsessed with American culture, so when he heard an American accent above the din at a London house party, he followed the sound to a corner of the backyard.
There was a woman in her late 30s with long, dark hair regaling a group of entranced guests with tales of adventure from her life.
Lezlie Manukian was sexy and sophisticated and Greg fell for her hard.
He was a mid-20s Kiwi lad in the UK on a gap year, so visiting his new girlfriend at the bars she managed and having her send over trays of drinks was a dream.
"It was like, 'I'm a backpacker and I'm in one of the world's financial capitals getting beer rained on me'," Greg says now.
It was during this heady, early stage of their romance that Ollie was introduced to Lezlie.
She told Ollie a bizarre story about having to leave Hawaii because the locals had threatened to kill her after she'd tried to stop her bouncer dealing drugs out of the back of her bar.
"She was lovely in lots of ways, giving me advice and being very forward, saying: 'I'm here to help'," Ollie tells The Australian Women's Weekly.
But he also got a glimpse of her dark side.
"The night we met, we went out for drinks in London. Her drink was a JD with lots of ice and a splash of Coke – very specific. This bartender gave her a drink; she sipped it, and started yelling at this guy: 'I said a SPLASH of Coke.' It was zero to a hundred."
Greg Wards was completely captivated by his older American lover.
Greg, however, was enamoured.
"He always had his arm around her," says Ollie.
Soon after, Greg proposed to Lezlie in Paris.
They had a quickie ceremony in a registry office, and then moved to New Zealand where Lezlie began planning a lavish wedding.
Photos of the day show a typically beautiful summer ceremony: a white chapel, proud parents, four bridesmaids in identical dresses, a young groom, happy and handsome, and a bride, dressed in white, also smiling, but not quite as sincerely as her husband.
"I do remember just feeling like: is this real?" says Ollie, who, since Lezlie's departure, has spent a lot of time investigating his former sister-in-law and has compiled his findings into a podcast.
It wasn't only the wedding that unnerved him.
Lezlie had won over the Wards family so completely David and Julie had agreed to act as guarantors on a $1.5 million bank loan to buy a café business.
As part of the loan application, Lezlie had produced documents from her lawyer, Eric T. Weiss Esquire, that attested to the fact she had a $5 million trust fund.
Lezlie used the loan to purchase The Dragonfly café, in the picturesque Matakana township, about an hour north of Auckland.
She claimed to have run restaurants in California and Hawaii, and even the Wards family's long-time lawyer seemed to have been taken in by her stories.
"I remember going to the café and thinking: Greg's done okay for himself. He seems happy," Ollie says.
He kept his fears to himself. His instincts, however, turned out to be right.
Lezlie wore a lace dress with a generous train, and her curls swept back, to the couple's wedding.
But, of the 150-odd people who attended, only two were Lezlie's guests: her mother and her father.
She claimed that none of her friends "could hack the 13-hour flight to Auckland".
The bridesmaids were surprised to find themselves in the bridal party. One of them, Carla, told Ollie she was in London when Lezlie, who she barely knew, called and asked her to be in the wedding party.
"I remember thinking: this is so weird," she says. "It was like I was acting in a sitcom."
Not long after the wedding, things started going awry at The Dragonfly.
The café ran out of water. A supplier said he had never been paid for milk and staff started to complain they weren't being paid either.
"There were lots of weird incidents," Ollie says.
"She'd tell stories and it would be inconsistent from the previous time. A neighbour said: 'Where did you grow up?' And she overheard her telling another version."
Individually, the inconsistencies were unremarkable. "When you put them all together it draws a broader picture," Ollie says.
Like the way she laughed when a friend of the Wards caught her in the public library erasing some of the details of her US driving record, including a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).
Or her callous response when the family dog was fatally struck by a car near the café.
"He was dying and Dad had him in his arms and Mum was crying and there was a bit of kerfuffle around it and they were trying to get him to the vet," Ollie says.
But when Greg tried to figure out what had happened, Lezlie told him to butt out.
Tensions mounted between the newly-weds and they decided she should return home for a break.
With nobody left to run the café, David and Julie began working behind the counter.
This is where they were when a creditor walked in one Sunday afternoon, ordered some lunch and announced the café would be liquidated.
"I almost fainted. I went blank and could feel the blood draining from my face," David told Ollie, and described how he and Julie went for a walk and tried to absorb what had happened.
"We sat down on the wharf and had a little cry about it," he admitted.
"We cried. We weren't angry. We were just destroyed," Julie added.
The Wards have, for the most part, moved on.
It soon became clear this average, happy Auckland family had been conned by a pro in an operation they came to know as "Snowball", taken from the last, chilling thing Lezlie said to Greg before fleeing New Zealand forever.
They were at the airport, exchanging a strained goodbye as she left for what was supposed to be a short holiday, when she warned him: "Greg, the snowball is about to hit you."
It did.
He never saw her again. Their relationship dissolved.
In a letter Lezlie sent Greg to ask for a divorce, she said: "You'll never really know what was real or not."
After Lezlie vanished, David began picking through the papers she'd left behind and discovered how deep her lies ran.
She'd sent $20,000 of the start-up money he'd given her for The Dragonfly to her parents in the US.
An administrator discovered Lezlie had previously been charged with cheque fraud.
One of the most interesting documents she left behind was a Bank of America statement for her trust fund. There was something off about it.
When David compared it to a Barclays bank statement he discovered the details all lined up. They even had the same barcode.
"She had actually produced the Bank of America statement by modifying the Barclays bank statement. That was the fundamental wow moment for me," David says.
"Everything seemed to fall into place. We'd been done."
David wanted to know how the local bank had failed to notice the Bank of America statement was a copy. There were meetings and an offer of compensation that
was later withdrawn.
"[They] were not prepared to really talk about it," Ollie says.
The letter that her lawyer, Eric T. Weiss, had provided to the bank was "just so ridiculous".
It wasn't signed and the address that Eric gave as his office was in fact a completely unrelated couple's home. The home owners were able to show they'd owned the house for 30 years.
The phone number Eric had given to the bank was actually the phone number for Lezlie's parents' house.
Ollie now believes Eric Weiss and his various staff members were simply fictitious characters created by Lezlie to perpetuate her fantasy.
In what appears to be a cruel joke, Eric Weiss is the birth name of the great escape artist Harry Houdini.
The Wards contacted the police but because Lezlie had already left the country there was nothing they could do.
If she ever tries to re-enter New Zealand, the police will be notified via a border alert put in place after the Wards reported her, but Lezlie has never had to answer for the mess she left behind.
Neither the bank nor the police went after her, but Ollie and the Wards family did.
Ollie and David investigating the trail of deceit and fraud Lezlie left in her wake.
Lezlie was a party girl with a shifting backstory.
If you accepted what she told you, her history went something like this: smuggled out of Armenia as a baby, Lezlie was adopted by American parents who set up a trust fund for her, using money earned from selling tanks to the US military.
The fund paid her $5000 per month.
Prior to meeting Greg, she had fled to Europe via a private jet her father had chartered to help her escape Hawaii, where the locals wanted her dead.
Ollie says he heard several different versions of the Hawaii story. It was such a wild account that Greg decided to write to the police there.
He was shocked when they sent him a fat envelope containing details of police reports, including allegations of cheque fraud, stolen credit cards, detective notes and witness statements.
Ollie travelled to Maui to see what the locals had to say about Lezlie Manukian.
What he found was a teeming community of people who had worked at Lezlie's Hawaiian dream bar, The Breakwater, in exchange for free accommodation and a promise of wages once the business was up and running.
Lezlie did a good job of hyping up The Breakwater. On its opening night, there was a queue around the block. But health code violations meant the kitchen couldn't open, and pretty soon the electricity was cut off.
Speaking to the people Lezlie had recruited to work at the bar, Ollie started to see a familiar pattern emerging.
A woman named Trinity, who did a lot of the grunt work on The Breakwater, said Lezlie disappeared the day after she confronted her.
"I did it all, but I was never paid one penny," she told Ollie.
There was a boyfriend named Georges who said Lezlie used his cheque book to cover some of the Breakwater's start-up expenses.
"I realised she'd already picked up my cheque book and gone to town on it. She had fake cheques sent out to the whole f*ing city under my name.
I couldn't believe I was pretty much sucked into that whole thing. It's like a movie."
He filed a police report alleging she had written nine cheques to the value of $13,000. Another man Lezlie was allegedly linked to romantically, Scott, also filed a police report over stolen credit card charges.
"I knew it was her because it was all restaurant-related… she was stealing. But when I contacted police, she was so slick," Scott said.
The police initially took Lezlie's side, believing her claims that Scott had given her permission to use his card. But after they did a background check, they discovered she had a litany of offences in the US.
"I think she's got massive insight into how people operate and what's important to them," Ollie says, reflecting on what he learned in Hawaii.
"She's a dream reflector. That's the way she operates. She can work out what's important to you and is really good at suggesting she's the person who can help your dreams come true… That was really evident in Hawaii… And it's pretty clear she lacked certain levels of empathy."
From Hawaii, Ollie followed Lezlie's trail back to mainland America where she'd burned more people.
While he was investigating other allegations against Lezlie and interviewing her angry former friends, he also became wrapped up in a parallel narrative that Lezlie was spinning in emails to her parents.
Her lawyer, the mysterious Eric T. Weiss, sent numerous emails about a book deal she'd signed and a film adaptation about her remarkable life. Eric insisted that actress Alyssa Milano had signed on to play Lezlie in the movie.
Alyssa's agent told Ollie they had never heard of Lezlie.
Ollie eventually tracked Lezlie to a supermarket carpark but even after confronting her, he is unable to say exactly what drove her to spin such fantastical lies.
"She didn't strike me as someone who was reaping the benefits of her lifestyle," he says.
"Having literally seen her at her best when I went to visit The Dragonfly and she was running around being a boss and there were lots of customers, then seeing her when I met her in that carpark, there's no way I could describe her as somebody who's a mastermind and somebody who's in control of her life."
Ollie Wards confronted Lezlie in a carpark, where he had tracked her down in the US. The scam artist didn't seem in control of her life.
But for the Wards family, the investigation did offer some comfort.
Greg said he spent years weighed down by the guilt and struggling to overcome the emotional and financial burden Lezlie inflicted on his family.
"It makes me feel vindicated that we're not dumb, that we were so powerfully used. The power that she has is amazing," says Julie.
One of the things Ollie wanted to explore was the motivation of someone whose crime didn't pay.
From her scams in New Zealand, Hawaii and California, Lezlie never got away with much money. She left devastation in her wake and squandered some amazing opportunities while, for the most part, her victims moved on with their lives.
"When you look at it, you think, God, you would have earned more money if you'd just stuck with it. Why do it?"
And why does someone fall for such a strange and elaborate ruse?
Greg can't explain it. He simply says: "We were in love."
Snowball, the story of the Wards family's deception by Lezlie Manukian, and Ollie's quest to uncover the truth, is an ABC Unravel True Crime podcast, available on the ABC Listen app.

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