It was barely a year after Ollie Wards first met his brother Greg's new Californian girlfriend in a London bar that he found himself uneasily preparing some remarks for the couple's wedding.
Lezlie Manukian was about to marry into Ollie's family and he wasn't happy about it, but couldn't exactly say why. There was something about the gregarious American that had him on high alert.
"Greg and Lezlie were very intense," he recalls more than a decade later. "Lezlie seemed to have a power over Greg. Like he wasn't really himself."
As the family gathered in the Wards' native New Zealand for the couple's wedding in 2007, Ollie's fears intensified. But Greg was so happy that it was impossible for Ollie 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 business, which Greg and Ollie's parents had backed, in ruin. Julie and David Wards lost their life savings and their 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 that they had felt the same unease about the charismatic woman. But by then it was much too late to sound the alarm.
It soon became clear that this average, happy Auckland family had been conned by a pro. Years later, as he was still trying to understand what happened, Ollie began to dig a little deeper into Lezlie's background.
In a year-long investigation that he turned into a podcast for the ABC Unravel crime series, Snowball, he discovered Lezlie had left a trail of victims across the globe.
The podcast's name is taken from the last, chilling thing Lezlie said to Greg before fleeing New Zealand forever.
They were at the airport, exchanging a strained good-bye 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.
Ollie's brother Greg had always been obsessed with American culture, Ollie explains. 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. 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 on Snowball.
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 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 bar tender gave her a drink and she sipped it, and she just started yelling at this guy: 'I said a SPLASH of Coke.' It was zero to a hundred."
Greg, however, was enamoured. "He always had his arm around her," says Ollie. Soon after, Greg proposed in Paris.
They had a quickie ceremony in a registry office, then moved to New Zealand, where Lezlie began planning a lavish white 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.
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"I do remember just feeling like: is this real?" says Ollie.
It wasn't only the wedding that unnerved him. Lezlie had won over the Wards family so completely that David and Julie had agreed to act as guarantors on a $1.5 million loan from Kiwibank to buy a hospitality business.
As part of the loan application, Lezlie had produced documents from her lawyer Eric T Weiss Esquire that attested to the fact that she had a $5 million trust fund.
Lezlie used the loan to purchase a café called The Dragonfly in the picturesque town of Matakana, 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 up 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.
Not long after the wedding, things started going badly awry at The Dragonfly.
"There were lots of weird incidents," Ollie says. "She would tell stories and it would be inconsistent from the previous time. We had a neighbour who 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.
Tensions mounted between the newlyweds 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 I could feel the draining of blood 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 said.
Greg never saw Lezlie again. In a letter Lezlie sent Greg to ask for a divorce, she said: "You'll never really know what was real or not."
As Ollie and David sifted through some of the documents Lezlie had left behind, they discovered some of the bank statements she'd used to secure her loan appeared to have been doctored. Her lawyer didn't seem to exist.
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.
Lezlie was a party girl with a shifting backstory. According to the Snowball podcast, 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. When he went there to investigate her claims, he found a community of angry people who had also been snowballed by Lezlie.
From Hawaii, Ollie followed Lezlie's trail back to mainland America, where the plot thickened further.
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 had signed with Simon and Schuster and a film adaptation about her remarkable life.
Eric insisted that actress Alyssa Milano has signed on to play Lezlie in the movie. Alyssa's agent told Ollie they had never heard of Lezlie.
"When you look at it, you think, God, you would have earned more money if you'd just stuck with it. Why do it?" Ollie says.
Snowball, the story of the Wards family's deception by Lezlie Manukian, and Ollie's quest to uncover the truth, is an ABC Unravel crime podcast, available now on the ABC listen App.
Read more on this fascinating story in the November issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.
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