Aged 25, I was a Kiwi living in London and I’d met Lezlie Manukian, from California, recently at a party.
A brunette eight years my senior, she’d moved to the UK from Hawaii and oozed charisma and sophistication.
‘I want to show you something,’ Lezlie said one night in bed.
Sliding open her nightstand drawer, she pulled out a diamond-encrusted bracelet.
‘Daddy gave it to me,’ she grinned.
It was brash, but she’d already confided that she was a ‘trust fund baby’.
Within a few months, we’d moved in together.
And while I covered our rent and bills, Lezlie treated us to exotic overseas trips.
‘I’ve got it,’ she’d purr.
I’d only known Lezlie nine months when I proposed.
My parents, David and Julie, were surprised at the news, but as long as I was happy, so were they.
And when Mum and Dad came to visit soon after, they were just as enamoured.
‘She’s a dynamo!’ Mum said.
Six months into our engagement, Lezlie and I moved to Auckland.
I got a job, while Lezlie searched for a cafe to buy.
Finding a sprawling property with a house and a cafe on site, the price tag was an eye-watering $1.5 million.
‘Can we afford this?’ I asked.
‘Hell yes!’ she exclaimed.
With Lezlie’s trust fund, getting the loan was no issue.
Still, Mum and Dad agreed to go guarantor, just in case.
Soon we’d moved in and Lezlie’s cafe was up and running.
We married on December 28, 2007, in front of my family and friends.
Strangely, Lezlie’s only guests were her parents who’d flown out from the US. Still, it was a perfect day.
Soon after though, the caterer and band were hassling me for payment.
Bringing it up with Lezlie, she became defensive.
‘I’ve got it, Greg – trust me,’ she said.
Then, the cafe’s suppliers began accosting me.
‘When am I getting paid?’ the milkman fumed.
Confronting Lezlie, she shot me daggers.
‘This has nothing to do with you,’ she seethed.
‘Honey, people don’t get that worked up for no reason,’ I said, worried.
Panicked, I called Dad.
Recently retired, he drove up to offer Lezlie a hand, but she told him where to go.
It had gotten so toxic that just a few weeks after the wedding, I suggested Lezlie go back to the US for a holiday. Saying goodbye at the airport, we hugged.
But letting go, she looked me in the eye.
‘The snowball’s about to hit you,’ she said.
Holy s--t, I thought.
My family tried to help me keep the cafe afloat – my brother Simon became our chef, Dad worked the till and Mum was a waitress, while my other brother Ollie offered moral support from London.
But, with the debts so high, and the Global Financial Crisis having hit, it was a lost cause.
Within months, my parents lost their house.
And with the real estate market at an all-time low, we sold mine and Lezlie’s property for a third less than we’d bought it.
All up, our family lost over $1 million.
Homeless, and without their retirement savings, Mum and Dad were forced to sleep in my aunt and uncle’s basement.
Then Lezlie filed to annul our marriage.
Rifling through Lezlie’s paperwork one day, Dad found a bank statement, which tallied her trust fund at more than $US5 million.
It looked similar to one of mine and Lezlie’s joint statements, so he held them up to the light. The layout, font and even the barcode were the same!
She’d modified ours to make a fake document that helped secure our huge home loan from the bank.
It was all a lie... I realised.
We went to the police, but as Lezlie was no longer in New Zealand, there was nothing they could do.
Furious, I wrote to US police departments in states where she’d lived. One day,
a massive envelope from the Hawaiian police arrived.
It was Lezlie’s rap sheet – a litany of dishonesty offences against other victims.
Recently, more than a decade on, my brother Ollie, a journalist, investigated Lezlie for the ABC’s podcast, Unravel True Crime, for a season aptly called Snowball.
He interviewed other victims and found Lezlie, confronting her with the fraudulent bank statement.
‘I don’t have an explanation for that,’ she told him.
NZ police have said they would investigate our case against Lezlie if she was in the country and a border alert remains in place today.
She broke my heart – and my family’s too. At 75, Dad’s still working – he and Mum have clawed back and bought another home.
And I have a beautiful wife and a three-year-old daughter.
I felt naive and embarrassed, but Lezlie taught me to trust my instincts. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. ●
Listen to ‘Unravel True Crime: Snowball’ at abc.net.au/truecrime or wherever you get your podcasts.