Her lavish world of fake personas and bizarre stories left families around the world in ruin. But one of her victims had to know: who was the real Lezlie Manukian?
I don’t know you, other than that we share a terrible experience at the hands of Lezlie Manukian.
It takes a while to get through it but you will.
Perversely, it will help you knowing there are many more victims. It’s not such a lonely place as when you think it’s just you.
The crazy thing is that I didn’t see it all until it was way too late…”
A whirlwind romance
They met in a courtyard at a London house party, the kind where expats drink foreign beer and laugh about each other’s strange accents.
Greg Wards was in his mid-20s then, a generous and naive “Kiwi male” working abroad, totally unprepared for the encounter that would define the next ten years of his life.
He wore his favourite American football-style jacket, the one that made him look like a high school jock and marked him as an “Americophile” who loved everything about the superpower USA.
She was much older, in her late-30s, a vivacious “Kim Kardashian-lookalike” who oozed confidence and held the room with her Californian charms.
They got chatting, and Lezlie told him about her wild life: running hip bars in Lake Tahoe and Maui, Hawaii, and the million-dollar trust fund she inherited from her biological parents.
Her magnetism pulled Greg in; she embodied his idea of the American Dream.
Their relationship quickly became intense.
She was the life of the party who made him feel like a rock star. On nights out in sophisticated bars in the financial district she had an uncanny ability to lavish Greg and his friends with buckets of expensive booze and complimentary food. At other times she showered them with gifts.
He never asked who paid.
Soon enough, Greg proposed, on a snowy Christmas at Disneyland, Paris.
When they left Europe and moved back to New Zealand the promise of their budding romance seemed to fall into place.
She revealed more about her troubled past: how she was a refugee from Armenia and estranged from her biological parents; how machete-wielding thugs threatened to kill her then set fire to her bar in Maui.
Greg noted the details always seemed to change.
That was all behind her, she told him, and now she was determined to find a new restaurant in New Zealand to make her own.
After a long search they found the perfect place: the Dragonfly Cafe in the small town of Matakana.
Greg’s parents fully guaranteed the $1.5 million loan, confident in Lezlie’s experience and expecting that the millions in her trust fund were also on the line.
They opened the cafe to glowing reviews in 2007, and were married soon after—on a summer day in a small colonial-style church with white arches and stiff wooden pews.
Amongst the Wards family the strangeness of the wedding day meant it became known as “The Event”.
Almost all the 150 guests were from Greg’s side. Lezlie was alone except for her parents—her bridal party were all Greg’s friends. Several guests remarked that her family seemed like hired actors.
After the wedding the relationship began to strain, especially at the cafe, where Lezlie was in total control.
Payments started to fall behind. Staff noticed that Lezlie, who was the driving force when the cafe opened, was now mostly invisible.
Greg was shocked when he was confronted by one of the cafe’s primary suppliers: a milkman who said he had never been paid.
The more Greg tried, unsuccessfully, to find answers, the angrier Lezlie became. Suppliers and the bank demanded their money, and she spent most of her days locked in the house.
The money from her trust fund never materialised and she skipped out on a crisis meeting with an accountant.
At this point Greg suggested she step back from the business and take a holiday to see her family. The Dragonfly Cafe had only been open five months.
Things were tense between them right up until she boarded the plane to the USA.
“Greg, the Snowball is about to hit you,” she said before walking down the boarding ramp.
Greg never saw Lezlie again. Within months she would file to annul their marriage, and Greg’s parents would lose their retirement savings and their home.
Only later would they learn just how devastatingly they had been conned.
“Cameron*, it’s been 10 years now since I last saw Lezlie Manukian—it took me most of these 10 years to get past the destruction and lies that woman left in her wake throughout New Zealand and beyond.
It is the sociopathic web of behaviour Lezlie brought in to our world. Sounds like quite a damning indictment and one which some might think is an exaggeration.
However this is exactly what happened…”
How the Wards family were fooled
The documents piled high on his parents’ kitchen table in Auckland intimidated Ollie Wards.
They probably contained clues regarding the true identity of Lezlie Manukian: the sophisticated con artist who fooled Ollie’s brother, his parents, their lawyer, the bank—everyone—into giving her access to a $1.5 million loan.
But deciphering the complex legal and financial documents also meant raking over the shattered marriage of his older brother, Greg.
Twelve years earlier, Ollie MC’d Greg’s wedding and then watched as the new bride nearly cost his family everything. After Lezlie’s departure the Wards discovered the Dragonfly Cafe was a failing business deep in debt.
The cafe had declined in value, and the global financial crisis was in full fury, so that even selling the family home of 20 years left the Wards short about $150,000 on the loan.
Ollie’s parents, David and Julie Wards, were left with less than nothing.
Homeless and without their retirement savings, his parents considered joining welfare queues in New Zealand, and were forced to sleep in the renovated basement of Ollie’s aunt and uncle.
“That was a terrible time,” Julie said.
“[The day we found out] we both sunk to our knees and… we cried. We weren’t angry, we were just destroyed.”
Greg, meanwhile, had to bear the emotional toll of bringing this pain upon his family, alongside the heartache of a broken marriage. These were years of anger, years of uncharacteristic frustration.
Ollie was in London when the worst happened, and afterwards moved to Sydney to focus on his media career. His older brother’s brush with a scammer was a crazy tale he told at parties.
Ollie was back because he thought he could help his family find answers, and discover the why as much as the how of Lezlie’s deeds.
But he was also back in New Zealand to satisfy his ambition: he believed his family’s story would make an excellent podcast.
Initially, most of his family, Greg especially, were hesitant—why make entertainment out of something so painful, they asked.
But when Ollie returned home he found his dad, David Wards, had already done much of the initial legwork and investigated in his spare time for years.
At one stage David even wrote to Dr Phil trying to coax the US daytime TV host into taking up the family story.
The breakthrough came when David found a password on a slip of paper that opened Lezlie’s email account. The boxes stacked on the table in front of Ollie contained her printed emails.
From one box, he pulled out a Bank of America statement provided by Lezlie showing more than $US5 million in the trust fund supposedly left to her by her biological parents.
The statement was given to New Zealand’s state-owned bank, Kiwibank, before it approved the $1.5 million Dragonfly Cafe loan.
It meant she was supposed to be an equal partner and guarantor alongside Greg and his parents.
“This was crucial to [Kiwibank] recognising that Lezlie had funds to be able to sustain the business,” David explained.
From the moment he saw it, David knew this Bank of America statement was dodgy.
The numbers on the closing balance were askew, there were empty lines all over the page, and the final balance was wrong by about $US600. It looked like a photocopy and wasn’t signed or stamped by anyone.
His suspicions were confirmed when David stumbled on something else Lezlie left behind: two bank statements, one from Barclays Bank and a copy of the trust fund statement from Bank of America.
“They looked similar,” he told Ollie. “I put one on top of the other and held it up to the light and everything merged.
“The wording [and barcode] was the same: same font, same size.
“That locked it in. She had produced the Bank of America statement by modifying the Barclay statement.”
A deeper search found more surprises in the Dragonfly accounts.
Lezlie took tens of thousands of dollars from the cafe’s start-up fund and transferred the money to her adopted parents in America. It emerged that she pled guilty to cheque fraud in the USA.
Looking back, Ollie strained to understand why his family were so naive in giving Lezlie their trust.
Her stories and excuses seemed so flimsy in hindsight, yet David had gone so far as to give her $70,000 cash to set up the business.
Ollie experienced a reaction commonly directed at scamming victims—why didn’t you see this sooner?
Even though this was no ordinary business failure, he believed his parents and Greg were naive to put so much into the deal based only on trust.
David had an answer: sometimes you have to stick your neck out and trust people.
Besides, it was clear that Lezlie was a woman with considerable charisma—she even charmed the Wards’ long-time family lawyer into vouching for her as a “human dynamo”.
And perhaps everyone underestimated the extent of her deception.
An attorney named Eric T. Weiss, Esquire wrote a letter to Kiwibank confirming that Lezlie received a $US5000-per-month allowance from a trust fund set up by her estranged grandfather.
According to his letterhead, Weiss worked at the Colonial Trust in Newport Beach, California. He claimed to be Lezlie’s personal lawyer. But David suspected something was fishy.
Lezlie was often forwarding emails from Weiss to her adopted parents. She seemed to owe them money, and sometimes if she was late with payment Weiss would step in with a timely excuse.
At other times, Lezlie forwarded his advice to her parents in the US, and they would incorporate his words into their correspondence with David Wards.
“I started thinking that Lezlie seemed to be using Eric [T. Weiss] as her kind of alter ego,” David said. “I was thinking, well if she is Eric then maybe I can look at Eric’s emails with her password. And it worked!”
The password confirmed that Lezlie was probably playing the role of Eric T Weiss. She may even have been using this alter ego to fool her own parents.
But the emails also revealed something much stranger.
Weiss wrote to Lezlie like he was updating a friend. Within his inbox were glowing emails to Lezlie’s parents:
“Have a nice night and I look forward to settling this matter for you and Andrew. And let’s leave Lezlie in New Zealand where no one can hurt her or her character. She is a great girl, who was just too nice and too trusting. But these are the qualities that people love most about her.”
Weiss concocted a lucrative book deal and Hollywood biopic based on Lezlie’s life, starring actress Alyssa Milano (of Charmed fame).
At other times she imagined her lawyer flying on private jets with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, and even wrote diary entries to this effect as far back as 2005—well before she even met Greg.
The Wards figured this fantasy was all part of enriching the con and making the dream seem real. Lezlie didn’t just falsify documents or forge cheques, she created and used fake personas to fool the people closest to her.
Then came the final straw: David learned that Eric Weiss was the real name of the magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini.
The revelation shook the family—as if committing fraud was a game to Lezlie, one in which Greg was just an unwitting pawn.
Ever since they were kids, Greg always had a deep empathetic streak. Ollie knew him as the brother who once worked at airport arrivals welcoming people to New Zealand and secretly sheltered a family who told him they were seeking asylum.
For weeks, Greg paid for their motel and helped with their application, and only confessed to Ollie and his parents once the stress became too great.
As a kind and generous person—someone who wanted to see the best in people—Greg was a prime target for manipulation.
Ollie found a letter Greg wrote to the Hawaiian police to find clues about the bar in Maui and, more importantly, to who he’d really married.
“From the ‘normal’ successful life my family once led, I find myself in a murky world of con-artists and swindlers.
“We are battling them and I will find out the truth.”
Surprisingly, the police responded, and this file referenced one of Lezlie’s first known victims.
It revealed a hidden world of others who had been conned, people reeling from allegations that seemed painfully familiar to the Wards.
If he wanted to find answers, Ollie knew he would have to interview these victims and prepare to confront Lezlie Manukian in the USA.
“For a long time I wanted to believe that it was just me, that Lezlie desperately wanted to start a new life in New Zealand and she felt compelled to do anything to stay here.
Even after I saw evidence of her frauds, she still played on my emotions with cute names and crap.
Don’t play into her hands by thinking the person scammed should be ashamed of their naivety and be quiet. Now more than ever it’s time to stand up.”
An American con
Ollie visited several towns and cities across California and in each one he found wreckage.
He drove his rented black Dodge through the snowy mountain passes of Lake Tahoe, where Lezlie bombed out of her first cafe 20 years earlier.
He had already followed the trail of documents and emails to Hawaii, where he found a community still reeling from Lezlie’s machinations.
There were no thugs with machetes, no sign of the local mafia. Just a bunch of people with pain in their heart and a wounded trust in humanity.
One of them told Ollie they threw a punch at Lezlie before she skipped town. Another showed Ollie court documents ordering Lezlie to repay him $US65,000 for credit card debts she accumulated on limousines, nail salons, champagne and $US200 dinners.
These stories all had the same contours as what happened in New Zealand: bills not being paid, staff and creditors shortchanged, fake documents, forged cheques and cash going missing.
And each time Lezlie was found out, she bounced to a new jurisdiction.
Ollie’s investigation eventually led him to Cameron*, a burly businessman with a grey goatee whose big house and terraced garden lazed among the wineries, olive groves and almonds of Paso Robles, California.
Inside his home, Cameron laid out the documents he kept locked inside a filing cabinet for years. One was a bright red folder with “Black Widow” written on the front.
“Most of my friends, we don’t even call her by her name anymore,” Cameron explained.
Inside were scans of cheques with forged signatures, bank documents, emails.
There was also a newspaper review, titled “The Fenomenal Story of a great new Paso Robles Restaurant” with enthusiastic praise for Fenomenal Restaurant’s owner, Lezlie Manukian, who previously ran “an artsy breakfast cafe” in New Zealand.
Cameron explained that he started dating Lezlie because she seemed worldly, adventurous and had a zest for life.
She told her usual stories of being a successful restaurateur and within a few months convinced Cameron to invest in a new business.
The restaurant opened with Lezlie in charge and, at first, it went pretty well. And then the same familiar pattern resurfaced.
Without a paper trail, Cameron was blindsided. He showed Ollie records of withdrawals totalling thousands of dollars, some of them paid to Lezlie’s father, Andrew Manukian.
Another entry recorded $30,000 made out to cash from the blank cheque Cameron left around for emergencies.
“I’m an idiot for allowing that to happen,” he said.
Ollie was learning that people like Cameron and Greg gave their trust willingly, yielding to the confidence trickster’s powers of soft persuasion.
Often they were convinced that the greatest folly was their own idea and in their best interest. This misplaced belief cost Cameron his car and, very nearly, his house.
“And I definitely don’t have as much trust for the people in my life,” he said.
Lezlie was so captivating that Greg still felt there was some hope for their marriage long after she left behind carnage in New Zealand.
Ollie discovered that Cameron’s experience was different.
“I don’t think she was ever in love with me,” Cameron said.
“I think she was in love with the opportunities and the lifestyle. For the most part, it is more like two people just going out and having fun. It wasn’t about any kind of a romantic situation.”
Cameron’s daughter, Amelia*, 18, was living with him when Lezlie moved in. Amelia was around 10 at the time. Lezlie was a sort of role model—more playmate than parent figure—but she also had a nasty temper that menaced the young girl.
Amelia still bears the emotional brunt.
“This is hard to say… I’ve had so many dreams of talking to her,” Amelia said.
“Because I’ve felt there’s never [been] any closure.”
Ollie asked what she would say to Lezlie if they met today.
“Just like: why did you do this?” Amelia answered.
Ollie learned that people like his brother gave their trust willingly. (Supplied: Ollie Wards)
Even with the damage to himself and his family, Cameron never went after Lezlie. He wanted to avoid scandal and knew he had to move on with his life.
Years later, he received a heartfelt appeal from Greg asking for his help against Lezlie—a letter from one victim to another.
Even if Cameron wanted to change his mind now and get the police involved, he couldn’t—the statute of limitations on fraud in California is three years.
So Lezlie escaped from another restaurant. Another mess.
But Cameron did give Ollie the decisive clue to her whereabouts. His email account was still linked with Lezlie’s loyalty card at an American pharmacy chain.
Every time she made a purchase, Cameron got the receipt—and the latest was from a few weeks prior.
After tracking her movements around the world, and following clues dropped over two decades, Ollie finally knew where to find Lezlie: in a small Californian town just a half-hour drive away.
What he found when he arrived was not what he expected.
Instead of a lavish lifestyle, this gifted social butterfly—who helmed bars and restaurants around the world, churned through millions in loans, ruined multiple families and marriages, and partied like a celebrity—was making her living stacking shelves in a local supermarket and, occasionally, sleeping in the back of her car.
“We need to stop this happening to more people, Cameron*. You may well be the right person to end her literally decades-long crime wave.
This idea I’m talking about is the power of getting help.
Get law enforcement involved. There is no other way.
She clearly is a sociopath.”
The worn face peering out the driver’s window was not the one Ollie once knew, and it certainly did not match the villain who loomed in his imagination for years.
Faced with two cameras, a microphone, and her estranged former brother-in-law, Lezlie looked up sheepishly from her driver’s seat. Her tired eyes searched beyond Ollie for an exit.
Ollie hadn’t seen her for 10 years or more, and now he confronted her in a supermarket car park. Lezlie reacted as if she knew the past had caught up to her.
But she had talked her way out of more than one tense situation. And so to Ollie she was flattering. Even in a grocery store uniform she wore for a full day shift, she still was charming.
At least once she hinted of her contrition.
“You know my intent was never to hurt anybody,” Lezlie said.
Carrying his family’s expectations, Ollie was initially nervous, fumbling over his questions and evidence.
She had an answer or denial for everything: the photocopied bank statements, the emails from Eric T. Weiss, the string of jilted lovers across borders and state lines.
And then she went on the 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,” she said.
The deep brown eyes that had seduced everyone and held her lovers to emotional ransom now looked weary, even pitiable. And then they filled with tears.
“I never got closure,” she said.
“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.
“I would have loved for him to have fought just a little harder. It’s too late now.”
Before Lezlie left she promised to meet up with Ollie again. She wanted to make things right and explain her side of the story.
“You know there’s a lot of things in my life that I’ve done that I’m super proud of and there’s some stuff that I’ve done that I’m not either,” Lezlie said.
“One of my biggest regrets is not being able to go back to New Zealand and settle stuff the way an adult should be able to have the opportunity to do.”
Eventually, she shut her car door, and Ollie knew as he watched her drive away that he would never see her again.
Back in his hotel room, Ollie mulled over the encounter.
He had questions that could not be answered with a 30-minute interview in a carpark. And, against his better judgement, he began to believe some of her excuses. He felt sympathy and confusion.
Mostly, he still felt the nagging need to know what made Lezlie tick.
He turned to US psychologist Maria Konnikova, an author who specialises in the mindset of confidence tricksters, who told him that, in certain ways, Lezlie’s wiles were typical.
She said most con artists share some combination of the “dark triad” of traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. These tend to differ between men and women.
“Psychopathy is almost non-existent in females,” she said.
“It’s actually something that is heavily linked to gender.
“So I would probably say that she’s likely not a psychopath, but we don’t know.”
Konnikova told him that the con takes advantage of the most fundamental elements of humanity: our hopefulness, our optimism, our belief in human kindness. They take advantage of our trust for others, our capacity for love and reciprocity.
In short, the things that make life worth living.
But for this deepest of betrayals they are not necessarily showered with riches.
“I think it’s a huge misperception among the public that con artists are motivated by money,” she told him.
“Con artists don’t make a lot of money, they are incredibly intelligent and could have made much more money in more legitimate professions.
“I think why they do it is power, they’re motivated in the sense of… control over other people’s lives.
“It is intoxicating if you think about it: you’re playing God and crafting their realities. You’re creating entire worlds and people believe you.”
It was difficult for Ollie not to perceive these traits in Lezlie.
She was many years removed from her relationship with his family, and the circles of her life and influence appeared to be getting smaller.
For a confidence trickster who seemed to rely a great deal on her looks, it now felt like she was encountering the diminishing returns brought by age.
No longer the object of international intrigue in London, or New Zealand or Maui, now she was hopping to the next town 30 minutes down the highway to start all over, the grift becoming petty and desperate.
Ollie discovered from someone who knew Lezlie that she had been homeless and sleeping in the back of her car just a few years earlier.
He recalled something Cameron said as they poured over documents in Paso Robles:
“I always wonder, I mean all of the time and effort she put into creating scams and creating all these things, if she just took the brains of that and did something right with her life she could probably be successful.”
To Ollie, Lezlie became somebody who, in a way, was damaged by their own villainy. The last thing Ollie expected to feel when he set out to make a crime podcast about his heartbroken brother was to sympathise with the “Black Widow.”
This made telling his folks about what he found all the more conflicted. Recording the podcast dragged up a lot of bad memories. Had it been worth it?
Ollie remembered receiving a call from Greg one night, when his brother sounded upset and possibly drunk.
Soon Greg’s emotions spilled over. “This was so long ago, but the hurt takes so long, it never goes away,” he told Ollie, crying.
As a journalist, Ollie’s first thought was to ask Greg to call back so he could get his recording gear to capture this rare show of emotion.
Catching himself, Ollie thought: ‘what kind of an asshole hangs up on their brother in a moment like that, even to just call them back?’
So he stayed on the line. This moment worried him though—it epitomized how the podcast blurred the line between care for his family and his media ambitions.
But when Ollie called his parents from the USA, they reflected on some good that came out of the con, and how they have moved on.
“I think in many ways it brought us all together,” his father, David, said. “Not that we were apart, but it spudded us in pretty well, actually.”
In a case that happened after Lezlie left New Zealand, David and Julie Wards sued the lawyer who worked on the Dragonfly deal.
The matter was settled before it went to court, but it provided them enough money to buy a home of their own again. After a difficult few years, Ollie’s parents got back on track.
“For me it’s gratitude, it’s nothing to do with her,” Julie said.
“It’s how loved and cared for we are. So many people cared for us. The immediate family were so amazingly brilliant.
“At least we have a story for dinner parties.”
David added, mischievously, “Not that we talk about it at dinner parties.”
“We’re too old for dinner parties,” Julie replied, laughing.
“… Fortunately my life has got back on track, I am happily married, we have a beautiful little girl, have a reasonable work life balance and, if I may say, am very lucky to be able to call New Zealand home.
My loving family is the main reason I got through it—we all got through it together. Five, six, seven years ago, things were not this rosy. I was still struggling to overcome the emotional and financial burden Lezlie single-handedly created.
The crazy thing is I didn’t see it all until it was way too late, though in hindsight it was all right there. I suggest this may be a familiar theme to you.
… Without putting too fine a point on it, I really hope that you are OK, Cameron, and can get yourself sorted and back on your feet, because I more than anyone else know what she is capable of. It takes its toll.
I want to help in anyway I can.
Please feel free to message me back at any time.
Lezlie, and her parents Betty and Andrew, were sent a long list of questions raised in the podcast giving them the chance to respond more fully. No responses were received.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
- Writer and digital producer: Michael Dulaney for Unravel True Crime: Snowball
- Reporter: Ollie Wards
- Digital editor: Andrew Davies
- Design: Tim Madden/Michael Dulaney
- Photography: Supplied/Ollie Wards/Dustin Wise
- Unravel executive producer: Ian Walker
- With thanks to: Tim Roxburgh