Less than a year after New Zealand native Greg Wards met his Californian girlfriend, the two were ready to walk down the aisle. His brother Ollie, the best man, was supposed to prepare some words for his toast, but he was having trouble with it. To be honest, he just didn’t like the woman his brother was about to marry. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about her just irked him – made him uneasy.
No one in the family raised any doubts, so it’s not like Ollie was about to… But then, four months after the wedding, Ollie’s instincts proved to be right on. In the end, Greg, Ollie, and even their parents had been conned by a woman named Lezlie Manukian (if that’s even her real name).
She Had a Power Over Him
She swooped in, took Greg under her wing and made him fall head over heels. But Lezlie wasn’t a dove. She was a hawk. “Greg and Lezlie were very intense,” Ollie said more than a decade later. “Lezlie seemed to have power over Greg. Like he wasn’t really himself.” When it came time for the wedding in New Zealand in 2007, Ollie’s fears only grew.
But seeing his brother so happy made it impossible for Ollie to speak up. “It’s not a feeling that had any sort of rationality,” Ollie explained. “You couldn’t articulate it. So, nobody was saying anything.” When everything blew up in their faces months after the wedding, Ollie swallowed his urge to say, “I knew it,” and helped his family reassemble themselves.
Bam – Just Like That
You see, it wasn’t just the marriage and Greg’s heart that were left in shreds. After Lezlie disappeared, leaving Greg at the airport, she left not just her husband, but her business behind – a business that had been financially backed by Greg and Ollie’s parents.
By the time it was too late, the Wards had realized that they had been conned by a pro – a mysterious maven who came into their lives as swiftly and slyly as she left them. Julie and David Wards lost their life savings, their home, and had no choice but to move into a relative’s basement. The parents were bankrupt, Greg was heartbroken, and Ollie needed answers.
Conned by a Pro
As the Wards rummaged through the ruins, they learned of the uneasiness that other family members had felt about her and kept to themselves throughout Greg and Lezlie’s relationship. The charismatic woman left a bad taste in other peoples’ mouths – not just Ollie’s. But just like him, they didn’t speak up.
And who’s to say Greg would have even listened. He was smitten after all. Years later, Ollie still couldn’t rap his head around it, so he went on a mission to find out. In a year-long investigation that eventually became a podcast called Snowball, Ollie dug deep into Lezlie’s background.
Dirty Jane and Her Hopeless Johns
He discovered that his brother was only one in a string of “Johns” whom Lezlie used in her twisted game of fake love and real money. The name “Snowball” has a much deeper significance than the metaphor it represents. It was something Lezlie actually said to Greg – her last words to him before fleeing New Zealand and never seeing him again.
While they were at the airport, as Greg was saying his reluctant goodbyes before what was expected to be a short holiday, she said something that in hindsight was actually a warning: “Greg, the snowball is about to hit you.” Boy, did the snowball hit. How could a woman be so ruthless? Well, let’s take a look…
The One Who Stood Out From the Rest
It all began in the backyard of a house party in London. As Ollie explained, his brother had always been “obsessed” with American culture. So, when Greg heard an American accent among the hum of ex-pat conversations, he couldn’t ignore it.
In fact, he followed her voice until he found himself in the corner of the backyard. And there she was: an American woman in her 30s with long, dark hair amusing a group of spellbound guests, who were listening to the tales she was telling about her adventurous life. Greg joined the group.
The Naïve Kiwi
Greg was in his mid-20s at the time, a generous – too generous – guy. He was what New Zealand natives call a “kiwi male” (a typical man from the country – he was “of the people”). But Greg was naïve and extremely unprepared for the first encounter that would come to define the next decade of his life.
He was wearing his favorite American football-style jacket, making him look like the typical jock. To others, he was an “Americophile” who looked at America with rose-colored glasses.
The Sexy American
Lezlie Manukian was sexy, smart, sophisticated, and about a decade older than him. She oozed confidence and could command a room with ease. She and Greg started chatting at the party, and she told him all about her wild ride of a life.
She told him about the hip bars she was running in Lake Tahoe and Maui, and the million-dollar trust fund she was lucky enough to inherit from her biological parents. She was magnetic, and Greg was pulled in like a moth to a flame. She was everything he imagined in his American dream.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Greg fell hard and their relationship quickly grew intense. He would visit her at the bars she managed, where she would send over trays of drinks to him and his friends. “It was like, I’m a backpacker and I’m in one of the world’s financial capitals getting beer rained on me,” Greg said on his brother’s podcast.
She was the life of the party; he was the rockstar. She showered him and his friends with free booze and food and gifts. Who paid? Who cares? He didn’t ask – she didn’t tell. It was during their intoxicating, early romance that Greg introduced his brother to Lezlie.
There’s Always a Dark Side
She kept it consistent, telling Ollie some more crazy stories, like how she had to leave Hawaii because the locals threatened to kill her. Why? Apparently, she tried to stop the bouncer at her Maui bar from dealing drugs.
“She was lovely in lots of ways, giving me advice and being very forward, saying: I’m here to help,” Ollie admitted. But there was a dark side to Lezlie. Ollie recalled the night he met Lezlie. “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 and she sipped it, and she just started yelling at this guy…”
A Snowy Proposal, a Summer Wedding
Ollie watched as Lezlie yelled, “I said a SPLASH of Coke!” to the waiter. “It was zero to a hundred,” Ollie noted. But Greg was the younger brother – the naïve one, remember? He was smitten. “He always had his arm around her,” said Ollie. Soon enough, Greg shared some exciting news.
Greg proposed to her on Christmas at Disneyland in Paris. Ollie, for one, was shocked. But Greg had met the girl of his dreams. The wedding, on the other hand, wasn’t much of a fairy tale. The service was a quick one that took place in a registry office. At least, that was the American ceremony.
Her Troubles Were in the Past
After the couple moved to New Zealand, Lezlie began planning a lavish, white wedding. But first, business. Now, in New Zealand, Lezlie’s plan was to find a restaurant to make her own. All the while, she started revealing more about her past, which turned out to be quite troubled.
She said she was a refugee from Armenia and hadn’t seen her biological parents in a long time. In retrospect, Greg noted that the details in her stories always seemed to change. But what she told him and what he essentially told himself, was that that was all behind her. She was resilient, savvy, and not to be marked by her past.
The Perfect Place
She was so convincing that Greg’s parents, David and Julie, even agreed to support her financially. It took a while to find the right place, but they landed on the perfect spot: the Dragonfly Café in a small town called Matakana. David and Julie agreed to act as guarantors on a $1.5 million loan for her hospitality business.
They were confident in their daughter-in-law’s experience. To get the loan application, Lezlie had to produce documents from her lawyer, a man named Eric T. Weiss (if he even exists), attesting to the fact that she had a $5 million trust fund.
This Is Actually Happening
It worked, and in 2007, the Dragonfly Café opened to glowing reviews. Shortly after, the wedding took place. It was a summer ceremony in a white chapel, where the proud parents stood. The young, handsome groom couldn’t wipe the ear-to-ear grin from his face. Lezlie’s smile, however, wasn’t as sincere.
“I do remember just feeling like: is this real?” Ollie shared on his podcast. The wedding was so strange that the Wards family started referring to the day as “The Event.” All of the 150 guests were from Greg’s side. Well, 148, if you don’t count Lezlie’s parents. Her four bridesmaids were all Greg’s friends. Some guests even remarked that her parents seemed like hired actors.
It Was Only the Beginning
It was all very odd. While it was only the beginning, it was all about to end very soon. Not long after “The Event,” things started going badly at The Dragonfly. “I remember going up to the café and thinking: Greg’s done okay for himself. He seems happy,” Ollie said of the time.
He had to keep his doubts to himself, even thought his instincts would prove to be dead on. Greg and Lezlie’s relationship began to strain quickly, especially at the café. There, Lezlie was in control, but only for a while. Payments were falling behind, and the staff noticed that Lezlie, once the driving force of the café, was now something of a ghost.
A Message From the Milkman
When one of the café’s primary suppliers, a milkman, confronted Greg to tell him he’d never been paid, Greg was baffled. The more Greg tried to get answers from Lezlie, the angrier she became. The bank and the suppliers were demanding their money. Lezlie, meanwhile, was spending her days locked in the house.
All those millions from her trust fund? That money never materialized. She also failed to show up to a crisis meeting with an accountant. “There were lots of weird incidents,” Ollie recalled. It wasn’t just the café and the lack of payments. “She would tell stories and it would be inconsistent from the previous time,” Ollie commented.
The Snowball Is About to Hit
We had a neighbour who said: Where did you grow up? And she overheard her telling another version. Something was fishy; her stories were off. The bigger picture was starting to become clear. The Dragonfly Café was only open for five months when Greg suggested to Lezlie that she step back from the business – take a holiday to see her family.
Things between the couple were tense, right up until they said their goodbyes at the airport (“Greg, the snowball is about to hit you”). Greg never saw her again. With no one remaining to run the café, David and Julie rolled up their sleeves and began working the counter.
As They Sunk to Their Knees
Then, one Sunday afternoon, a creditor walked in, ordered lunch and announced the café would be liquidated. “I almost fainted. I went blank, and I could feel the draining of blood from my face,” David told Ollie on the podcast. He told his son how he and his wife went for a walk to try and take in what just happened. “We sat down on the wharf and had a little cry about it,” he said.
“[The day we found out] we both sunk to our knees, and we cried. We weren’t angry, we were just destroyed,” Julie shared. They ended up losing their retirement savings and the home they had lived in for 20 years.
A Real Con Job
Homeless and broke, David and Julie considered joining welfare queues in New Zealand while they slept in the basement of Ollie’s aunt and uncle. “That was a terrible time,” Julie solemnly recalled. Only later did it sink in just how terribly they all had been conned. Documents, bills, and notices were piling high on the Wards’ kitchen table.
A couple of months later, Lezlie filed to annul their marriage. In the letter she sent to Greg, she wrote perversely, “You’ll never really know what was real or not.” Lezlie left some documents behind, so Ollie and his dad looked through them. They discovered that some of the bank statements looked doctored.
Turning Pain Into a Podcast
Even her lawyer didn’t seem to be real. They contacted the police but since Lezlie was already out of the country, there was nothing they could do. Neither the police nor the bank went after her. All the while, poor Greg had to bear the emotional toll of having brought a sociopath into his family, as well as his own heartbreak of a failed marriage.
He spent years in uncharacteristic anger and frustration. Ollie, who was in London when the shit hit the fan, decided to come back to New Zealand to help his grieving family and create a thrilling podcast. At first, most of the Wards – Greg especially – were hesitant.
Open Sesame: The Breakthrough Password
The whole thing was embarrassing and painful enough. Why make it into a form of entertainment? Funnily enough, by the time Ollie arrived, he understood that his dad had already done much of the initial legwork. He had been spending his spare time investigating the woman who ruined their lives.
At one point, David wrote to Dr. Phil to get the TV host to take up the family story. Eventually, Ollie and David made a breakthrough, which came in the form of a password they found on a slip of paper. Open sesame: it was the password to Lezlie’s email account. They printed all her emails, which amounted to boxes full.
A Pro at Check Fraud
Included in the stack was a Bank of America statement which looked dodgy, to say the least. The closing balance numbers were askew and there were empty lines all over the page. Then David stumbled upon two more bank statements, which he realized were exact copies (after putting them one on top of the other and holding it up to the light).
In other words, she produced one bank’s statement by modifying the other bank’s statement. There were even more unsurprising surprises in the Dragonfly accounts. Lezlie had taken tens of thousands from the café’s start-up fund which she then transferred to her adopted parents in America. They also learned that she had once pleaded guilty to check fraud.
They Were Good People
Why – oh why – did they trust this woman so much to give her their money? Why didn’t they see this sooner? Ollie couldn’t help but feel frustrated. But David told him, “Sometimes you have to stick your neck out and trust people.” The Wards were just good people. They believed Lezlie.
Hell, she even charmed the family’s long-time lawyer into vouching for her as a “human dynamo.” Remember her lawyer – Eric T. Weiss? Well, it started to seem like she was using the name as “her kind of alter ego,” David remarked. He proved to be right when he tried looking at Weiss’ emails with the same password.
Her Alter Ego
It worked – Lezlie was Eric T. Weiss. She even used Weiss’ email to contact her adopted parents, to whom Lezlie apparently owed money. Weirdly enough, she even wrote to herself from Weiss’ email account – both friendly and imaginative emails about her “lawyer” flying on private jets with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
Once David and Ollie learned where the lawyer’s phony name came from, they could do nothing but sigh in disappointment… Eric Weiss was the real name of famed escape artist, Harry Houdini. This last revelation was dumbfounding.
That’s Why the Name Sounds So Familiar
This made it crystal clear that committing fraud and ruining others’ lives was a game to Lezlie. And Greg and his family were merely pawns. To make it even more evident that the Wards were good people, consider this: Greg used to work at airport arrivals and would welcome people to New Zealand.
He once secretly sheltered a family who said they were seeking asylum. For weeks, he paid for their motel fees and helped with their immigration applications. He was kind and generous. And a perfect target, too. Greg wrote to the Hawaiian police about the bar in Maui that Lezlie claimed to own.
The Perfect Target
Surprisingly, the police wrote him back and referenced one of Lezlie’s first victims. Now they could see that they were just one family of many who were fooled by Lezlie. If Ollie wanted answers – and he so desperately did – he was going to have to interview Lezlie’s previous victims.
If he was going to confront Lezlie, he needed to come prepared. He knew what Lezlie had told him – her fanciful life story. But he needed the actual truth – nothing but the truth – so he could ambush her and make her face her victims.
On the Hunt for Lezlie’s Victims
When Ollie went to Hawaii to investigate her claims of being nearly thrown out of the country, he found a community of angry people: more victims who were snowballed by Lezlie. From Hawaii, he followed the trail back to the mainland USA and saw that the plot only grew thicker.
He spoke to her former friends and found more mysterious emails from “Mr. Weiss” about a potential book deal and film adaptation about her remarkable life. The actress meant to play her in the movie: Alyssa Milano. And yes, Ollie contacted Milano’s agent. They never heard of Lezlie.
The Rubble She Left Behind
Ollie visited multiple towns and cities across California, finding the rubble left by Lezlie in each one. He went to Lake Tahoe, where Lezlie ran her first café 20 years earlier. What he found was a bunch of people with lost faith in humanity – not the thugs and mafiosos who had chased Lezlie out.
They would have liked to make her “disappear,” though. One of her victims told Ollie that they threw a punch at Lezlie before she fled the area. Another showed him court documents ordering Lezlie to pay up the $65,000 she owed him for credit card debts.
The Black Widow File
Limos, nail salons, champagne, and fancy dinners – none of it was her cash. Every time Lezlie was suspected of fraud, she skipped town. Ollie followed her path, which led him to a man he chose to name Cameron (the man wanted to remain anonymous). He was a businessman from Paso Robles, California.
He showed Ollie some documents he had been keeping in a red folder with “Black Widow” written on it. Among the forged checks, bank documents, and emails was a newspaper review about a restaurant called Fenomenal.
The Post New Zealand Con
The review praised the restaurant’s owner, Lezlie Manukian, who had previously owned “an artsy breakfast café” in New Zealand. It turns out Cameron was one of Lezlie’s old boyfriends. Like Greg, Cameron was under her spell and opened a restaurant with her only to see the same pattern come into play.
With no paper trail, Cameron was blindsided, losing thousands of dollars. There was a check for $30,000 made out to cash – one that Cameron left around for emergencies. “I’m an idiot for allowing that to happen,” he told Ollie. “I definitely don’t have as much trust for the people in my life.”
He Knew She Never Loved Him
Unlike Greg, who for years had hope for their marriage, Cameron knows Lezlie was never in love with him. When she moved into his home, his 10-year-old daughter was living there. Lezlie became something of a role model to her, but Lezlie had a temper and according to Cameron, his daughter still deals with the emotional aftermath.
Cameron said he never went after Lezlie, despite everything and it’s because he wanted to avoid scandal. He preferred to move on with his life. Years later, Greg sent him a letter – one victim to another – asking for his help against Lezlie.
Another Day, Another Con
But since the statute of limitations on fraud in California is three years, even if Cameron wanted to take legal action, it’s too late. So, Lezlie got away with another con. What Cameron did do was give Ollie a clue as to her whereabouts.
Since his email account was still linked with her credit card at an American pharmacy chain, it meant that for every purchase she made, Cameron got the receipt. He had received one just a few weeks earlier. Finally, after all this time hunting her down, he found her.
Not Such a Lavish Lifestyle
She was in a small Californian town only 30 minutes away. But what he found was not at all what he expected. He figured the professional con artist would be living it up lavishly, but what he discovered was Lezlie stacking shelves in a local supermarket and sleeping in her car.
Regardless, he was there to complete his mission. After ten years, he confronted the woman who ruined his family’s lives. Ollie came up to her car in a supermarket parking lot to find a tired face – not the one he used to know; one that didn’t match the villain she was.
With no choice but to respond to her former brother-in-law, Lezlie couldn’t run away from this. She looked up guiltily from her driver’s seat, looking past Ollie for an escape route.
She knew why Ollie was there, but she did what she always did – she tried to talk her way out of the situation. She did a pretty good job, too. In her grocery store uniform, she still managed to be charming when she spoke to Ollie. “You know my intent was never to hurt anybody,” Lezlie told him.
Playing the Victim
Although Ollie was nervous and fumbled a bit, he still asked her the questions he had prepared. She had an answer or denial for each one. Then she went from denial to attack. “To be really honest, Ollie, I blame your brother a little bit for not stepping up and pulling your parents and I together…”
“… and letting us sit down and actually have a conversation about why I did some of the things I did.” The nerve. She started to cry, saying, “I never got closure.” She started playing the victim. Classic.
“I never got to say goodbye to your brother. I truly loved him. I just would have loved to have said goodbye and sorry for any mistakes I made or bad decisions I made.” She told Ollie that she would have loved for Greg “to have fought just a little harder,” but too little too late.
She told Ollie that she wanted to see him again to “make things right” and explain her side of the story. After telling him that she’s done stuff she’s not proud of and that she regrets not settling things the proper way, she shut her car door.
Never to Be Seen Again
Ollie knew he would never see her again. In his hotel room, he had time to reflect on the encounter. He still had questions that a 30-minute interview in a parking lot just didn’t provide the opportunity for. He couldn’t believe that he was even starting to feel empathy for the woman.
He contacted a psychologist, Maria Konnikova, who told him that Lezlie’s tricks were typical of con artists. She told Ollie that most con artists share three traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.
Not as Intoxicating Anymore
“Psychopathy is almost non-existent in females,” Maria said. “I would probably say that she’s likely not a psychopath, but we don’t know.” She also explained that it’s a misperception that con artists are only in it for the money.
“I think why they do it is power; they’re motivated in the sense of control over other people’s lives.” It’s intoxicating for them. At this stage in Lezlie’s life, she’s around 50 years old, she’s probably less drunk on power and just trying to stay afloat.
The Silver Lining
When Ollie called home to tell his family about the encounter, they also spoke of the silver lining of it all. “I think in many ways it brought us all together,” David said. “Not that we were apart, but it spudded us in pretty well, actually.”
David and Julie Wards ended up suing the lawyer who worked on the Dragonfly deal. It was settled before it ever went to court and provided them with enough money to buy another home.
A Story to Tell at Dinner Parties
They were finally able to get their lives back on track. “At least we have a story for dinner parties,” Julie quipped. David added, “Not that we talk about it at dinner parties.” As for Lezlie and her parents, Betty and Andrew, they were sent a long list of questions raised in Ollie’s podcast.
They were given the chance to respond more fully, but as you probably expected, no responses were ever received. Who knows? Maybe her adoptive parents don’t exist at all. But we’ll never know.