He was the baby-faced drug kingpin who conducted more than 10,500 transactions on the dark web, trading in cryptocurrency to import and sell cocaine, amphetamines, MDMA, LSD and even Xanax disguised as packets of lollies.
They were the seemingly Insta-glam sisters paid in cash and drugs to count, weigh and parcel up the pills, powders and tabs and mail them around the country through Australia Post.
Together, Cody Ward and sisters Shanese and Patricia Koullias operated what police would describe as a "technologically-sophisticated online drug distribution network", buying and selling illicit drugs worth an estimated $17 million.
So, how did this trio who grew up in the same tiny beach town find themselves running an international drug ring and the target of Australia's biggest ever dark web drug bust - all before they had turned 25?
This is the story of young people taking extraordinary risks to live a life less ordinary. Like many drug stories, it doesn't end well.
'In real life I was a loser'
Callala Bay and neighbouring Callala Beach on the NSW South Coast are a picture of postcard-perfect paradise, an idyllic place to take a holiday or raise a family.
As you drive into the twin hamlets nestled on the shores of Jervis Bay, about three hours' drive from Sydney and 20 minutes east of the bustling regional centre of Nowra, hand-made signs proclaim "Callala Bay Community Association welcomes you" and "Slow down, ducks crossing".
Famed for its powder-fine sands - said to be the whitest in the world - Jervis Bay's clear turquoise waters and unspoiled stretches of beach make it a top tourist spot.
Here on Quay Road, Callala Beach, the houses - mansions and shacks alike - back onto the sand. Except for the sound of the surf, life is green and serene. On a blue-sky day you can see all the way across the bay from the unassuming cottage where Cody Ward steered his dark web enterprise under the pseudonym "NSWGreat".
On the dark web, not visible to search engines and accessible via a special browser, transactions are conducted anonymously. Just as you or I might set up an eBay account, Ward created vendor accounts on hidden sites to buy and sell drugs.
He'd been doing it for years before police swooped on his rented cottage in February 2019 and arrested the then 25-year-old.
"This is probably the first and biggest penetration of the dark web in Australia," NSW Police acting assistant commissioner Stuart Smith said after the raids. "This fellow was a highly capable hacker. We had to move up a whole new gear to take this guy on. He learned his skill as a youth and is now a highly capable individual using highly-complex systems often used by government agencies."
Shanese and Patricia Koullias were 24 and 20, respectively, when they were arrested that same Valentines Day in 2019.
The trio would eventually plead guilty to multiple charges: Ward to importing and supplying commercial quantities of border-controlled drugs and knowingly directing a criminal group; Shanese to commmercial supply and dealing with the proceeds of crime; and Patricia to supplying a prohibited drug.
Their arrests coincide with my start at the local paper, the South Coast Register. The community is shocked. The story seems unbelievable. But as I cover their cases, the more I learn about Ward and the sisters and the more I see of them on the audio-visual link in court, the more believable the whole scenario begins to feel. Indeed, I am reminded of the small tourist town where I grew up. I don't know the defendents - but I knew people like them.
Their sentence hearings are conducted separately before Judge Robyn Tupman of the NSW District Court. She has a dry sense of humour and an at-times acerbic tongue.
Occasionally frustrated with court technology used amid COVID restrictions, she also seems disinclined to sympathy for sob stories. When Ward tells her that he was an obese child, bullied at school and "starved of human connection", she's not so sure he can blame his offending on his social anxiety.
"Everyone has some form of psychiatric disorder or limitation if you look hard enough," the judge says.
Ward traces his cybercriminal activity back to the online fantasy world where he sought refuge from bullying. As a gamer, his role-playing as a drug trafficker in games like Grand Theft Auto "desensitised" him to the real-world consequences of his actions as a drug dealer. "In real life I was a loser," he says. "Nobody, no one cared to talk to me, everyone just looked down on me. Online, everyone looked up to me, everyone wanted to talk to me."
'Inspired by Breaking Bad'
While living much of his life online, he began using drugs from the age of 16 "to feel happy and make friends".
On the dark web he used cryptocurrency like bitcoin to buy drugs, and used the drugs to build a fake life in the real world. As his business grew - with imported drugs re-sold online and delivered via the post - so did his drug use. By the time he was caught he was addicted to heroin - or "completely drug f---ed" as he terms it.
Despite this, police say his trading was sophisticated enough to maintain a 4.9 out of five star rating with "Dream Market" dark net users. Investigators spent months tracking his trades on such shadowy marketplaces, calculating he used cryptocurrency to process $17 million worth of transactions.
It was his bragging on Reddit and other forums that led them to establish the cyber crime strike force that eventually brought him undone. Under his 'NSWGreat' alias, Ward taunted authorities with cocky, Catch Me If You Can-style claims that he couldn't be traced. Through a secure texting service, he told a journalist in 2018: "The lifestyle and thrill of being a drug smuggler is addictive. I was quite inspired by Breaking Bad, that an intellect is able to be successful in the drug game". He even sought to differentiate his drug dealing from bikies selling meth on the street: "They are second-class citizens and deserve the wrath of justice".
In court, Ward admits that his online notoriety and anonymity made him cocky: "I had hubris, I was immature".
He estimates his transactions grossed thousands of dollars a day. Some of the proceeds were reinvested in the business, some supported the trio's drug habits, and some was profit. He made enough to buy what his lawyers call "a modest Callala Bay home" and to indulge his love of cars by buying a $70,000 Mercedes, an unregistered Maserati and a Mitsubishi Evo. He shouted a friend on two cruises, telling his family he was cashed up due to cryptocurrency trades. There was a grain of truth in that - he purchased $10,000 in cryptocurrency with some of his profits. When it rocketed to $100,000, he cashed in and bought the Merc.
In pleading Ward's case, barrister Kieran Ginges argues his client is no "drug lord".
"He found a virtual world away from the real world," Mr Ginges says. "It was, in a sense, an extension of a computer game. This did not involve bikie gangs, illegal weapons, corruption, criminal syndicates. This was one man who played Grand Theft Auto, having sought refuge from abuse in the schoolyard. He was desensitised."
Over audio-visual link from jail, after almost two years behind bars awaiting sentencing, Ward presents Judge Tupman with a picture of a chastened and changed man.
After using drugs daily for years, he says he's clean and now realises the harm they cause: "I didn't grow up around drug users. I now understand they have a ripple effect. I diminished and corrupted society".
He describes his time in prison like it's a spiritual retreat: "I meditate, I stretch, I go to church". He's lost 25 kilograms but he's still the smirking, baby-faced boy pictured posing next to expensive sports cars in the selfies published widely after his arrest.
Proud of his friendship with the prison chaplain, he's developed confidence to speak in public and spent months perfecting a letter to the court detailing his remorse.
His account sounds like something out of a rock star's autobiography. As an onlooker in the court, it's hard to tell whether it's a genuine tale of personal transformation, or a highly scripted piece of theatre.
The major charges he faces carry a maximum penalty of life in jail, but Ward hopes he still has time to make his father proud. "I want to get a respectable job and have a family one day," he tells the judge.
'She decided to be a party girl'
In the drab second courtroom of Nowra's 124-year-old local court house, Judge Tupman isn't buying what defence lawyer Peter Kondich is selling.
It's Shanese Koullias' sentence hearing. Mr Kondich is explaining what motivated his client to get involved in the drug ring run by Ward and says she was in it for the endless supply of drugs as much as for the money.
"Shanese Koullias is not one of those people driving around in a pink Lamborghini," Mr Kondich says.
But Judge Tupman isn't impressed. Koullias has made no admissions about the extent of her illegal earnings from her role packing and posting large quantities of drugs. Her Honour isn't having a bar of Mr Kondich's suggestion that the poor decision-making that led her into the drug business was affected by her youth, her drug habit and a relationship breakup.
As Koullias watches silently from jail via a screen mounted on the wall of the courtroom, Judge Tupman looks coolly through her red-rimmed spectacles at the defence counsel standing before her.
"Please don't underestimate the ability of women to make their own decisions in life," the judge scolds. "She decided to be a party girl. She wasn't a baby. She decided to take drugs, and when her relationship broke down she overdid the drug use. Don't paint her like a person who can't make her own decisions, because you've picked the wrong person to make that suggestion to."
Wearing prison green and bare faces, the sisters look so young - nothing like the pouting Instagram glamazons splashed across the news after they were arrested.
Patricia's voice is soft and she cries as she speaks of her big sister. Patricia was the first arrested, and immediately confessed. Police were already surveilling the trio, but she tells Judge Tupman that she blames herself for Shanese's arrest, though it was Shanese who got her involved in handling the drugs.
Shanese doesn't speak during her hearing. She lets her lawyer do the talking. He blames her involvement in the drug ring on poor judgment caused by her drug habit. To cope after her break-up, for example, Shanese had taken to smoking up to 20 cones of marijuana a day, using Xanax, carrying a drink bottle of diluted diazepam powder during the day and popping three to four Valium tablets a night.
The sisters tell the judge their childhood home was physically and verbally abusive. Shanese had seen her father attempt suicide when she was 15. After high school they pursued careers in healthcare. Shanese worked as a nurse and Patricia worked in aged care, before becoming a dental nurse. But both were spiralling into drug addiction.
Their stories were similar - using cannabis from a young age, casually and then consistently, before boyfriends introduced them to harder drugs. When Patricia moved to Sydney, she used party drugs like MDMA and LSD and then Xanax and Valium to help her "cope" with reality when she wasn't partying.
Shanese describes herself as addicted to prescription drugs since 2016, although her employers call her a hard worker. The court hears she reconnected with high school friend Ward in his role as her then-fiance's drug dealer. When the engagement fell apart, so did Shanese. Joining Ward's enterprise gave her unlimited access to drugs. Growing up, he always had a crush on her, though it never went anywhere. Now he pays her cash to store, package and post drugs to his customers.
It's not known how much Shanese earned, but it was enough for her to offer Patricia - dumped and desperate with an expensive drug habit and rent to pay in Sydney - between $300 and $400 a trip if she drove to Callala to help post the drugs.
On social media, the trio gave the impression they were living the high life. The sisters pose like Kardashians and Ward takes selfies next to sports cars he didn't own.
He later blamed the media for an extortion attempt by other inmates while in Goulburn Supermax prison. His lawyer said reports of his crimes, accompanied by Ward's selfies "made him look rich".
"They had pulled blades on me, had threatened my life," he tells Judge Tupman. "They had pulled me to the corner of the yards where there was no cameras. They told me to go on the phone and get my father to send them the money. My father knew better and contacted the prison."
Ward's elderly father, polite and quiet, attends his son's sentence hearings. There's nothing he can say or do. Through the video link it's possible Ward can't even see his father's silent show of love.
The 'sad reality' of jail
In December 2020, Patricia Koullias is jailed for three years. Judge Tupman says she's "by far and away the least involved". With time served - including spending her 21st birthday in custody - she is out on parole in time for Christmas.
In February 2021, Shanese Koullias is sentenced to eight years. Judge Tupman says she hasn't shown "overwhelming insight" into her offending, which was motivated mostly by money. Police found $15,000 in cash when she was arrested, but the total amount she made remains unknown. While accepting she was also driven by her drug habit, the judge says Shanese held a "trusted position in the enterprise" that was "well above the level of a street dealer". She's eligible for parole in 2024.
On May 14 Judge Tupman jails Cody Ward for 14 years, with a non-parole period of 10 years. She says his retreat into online gaming and acceptance by a "substance-abusing peer group" led him to adopt the alter ego of a cybercriminal and set up his "sophisticated backyard supply business".
"He started to obtain his drugs via the internet, became obsessed with it and ultimately set up the network," she says. "In doing so, he gained significant respect in this group ... which he referred to as a community. He did not think about the moral implications of what he was doing."
Judge Tupman accepts his remorse, but says Ward's sentence must reflect "adequate punishment and denunciation for his behaviour" and deter others, as "drugs wreak havoc on the Australian community."
Ward won't be eligible for parole until February 14, 2029. "It's a sad reality of the sentence he faces that by the time he is released his father may have succumbed to an ongoing illness," the judge adds.
Meanwhile at Callala, life remains idyllic. Families wander along the road to the beach with their children. Kids ride push-bikes to the local shops. This could be anywhere. Even in paradise, you never know what lurks beneath the surface.
- Lifeline 13 11 14