Handsome and immaculately dressed, John Cardwell is a magnet for women and good at convincing people to give him money. But as Lane Nichols reports, it's difficult to distinguish between what's true and what's fantasy.
People say he treated her like his "sugar mama" - a cash machine to fund his drinking, lifestyle and personal expenses.
Looking back, she describes him as a serial conman, liar and a cheat, who needs to be exposed.
John Joseph Cardwell, 44, has borrowed a lot of money and he's admitted lying to people.
"I was leading a double life and used people to get what I wanted," he wrote to former girlfriend Kirstin Miller earlier this year.
"Probably best I come clean ... and face the music."
What's true and what's fantasy is difficult to distinguish.
He told Miller he'd played rugby for Canterbury, and league for Queensland and Hull, name-dropping famous All Blacks among his personal friends.
He told a former boss he was a triplet, claimed to have owned property here and overseas, and said his wealthy father, who was a former judge, owned an apartment complex in central Auckland.
He hinted at underworld connections, telling Miller he'd arranged for patched gang members to sort out a mate who Cardwell claimed had stolen his credit card then drained his account at the casino.
He even told his West Auckland landlady that his mother - who is alive and well - had died in hospital following a stroke and he was awaiting the proceeds of her sizeable estate to pay his overdue rent.
Cardwell claimed he was often skint, "starving" and facing eviction - and just needed a couple of grand to tide him over till payday.
And of course, there were his two daughters.
"He was always in tears saying, 'S***, I've got no money to buy food for my girls,'" Miller told the Herald.
"My intuition was screaming at me, 'It's all bulls***.'"
Miller met Cardwell in December, and the relationship quickly developed into romance.
She claims he told her he was employed by an insurance firm, sending her photos of himself wearing a suit in the company's office building.
But no one at the company wore suits. They worked from home, not in a downtown office. And Miller later learned Cardwell had been fired from his job months earlier due to his drinking.
She says that within days of getting together, he asked her for money – a couple of grand for "rent and bills".
"I thought, 'I've met his friends, I know where he works. If this turns out to be bulls*** I can recover this.'"
A few weeks later he broke down in tears at Ōrewa Beach, saying he would be forced to prostitute himself without some urgent coin, Miller claims.
She says Cardwell also claimed that his boss - who he said was offloading the company's vehicle fleet and laying off staff due to the pandemic - had been ordered to pay Cardwell $12,000 following an employment dispute, which he promised to use to repay Miller's loan.
None of it was true.
The requests grew in frequency, with Miller regularly paying his fortnightly rent, groceries and even haircuts until she had lent more than $10,000 in just three months.
The last straw came in March when he again asked for money to feed his daughters.
Miller gave Cardwell $60 but says she later learned he actually went to a polo event with another woman - Cardwell's on-again, off-again girlfriend.
Miller realised Cardwell - who she says often told her he was unavailable at night due to treatment for mental health problems or changing his meds - had been lying to her for months.
She ended the relationship.
"I'm actually quite a smart person but jeez, I got done over.
"I can't help feeling stupid."
But rather than writing off the money, she chose to fight back.
Miller demanded repayment, eventually engaging a lawyer, and Cardwell agreed to make a KiwiSaver hardship drawdown for part of the money he owed.
She then brought in debt collectors to chase Cardwell for the remaining money, which he has started repaying at $100 a week.
In an email to the debt collector, Cardwell said he wanted to be "upfront".
"In the past, I haven't honoured debts. This is the first time in my life I am doing so. So it's all new to me ... I would normally run from problems."
Miller claims Cardwell had used manipulation and lies to get money, often playing on his mental health and children.
She believed it was important to speak publicly to warn other women.
"This guy needs to be exposed."
The Herald put the allegations to Cardwell, who said he would respond with a written statement. No statement has been received and Cardwell has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
'It was just lie after lie after lie'
Miller is not the only person to have financed Cardwell's life.
The Herald on Sunday has spoken to six others who have had dealings with the charming and charismatic former De La Salle College student - and all believe they were lied to and say he asked them for money.
Karen Harper claims Cardwell siphoned more than $20,000 from her after the pair struck up a platonic friendship several years ago in Christchurch.
The cash was inheritance from Harper's dead mother. She says it was drained over just five months.
She claims Cardwell told her he needed $500 to fly to Auckland because his daughter had been assaulted by a man, pushed down stairs and was in hospital.
Then he needed $1000 to cover doctors' bills.
Next Cardwell said he needed $3000 because his parents were in financial strife and in danger of losing their house.
Eventually, she says, she'd lent Cardwell $22,000.
Suspicious, she approached Cardwell's parents who, she says, confirmed the stories weren't true and that they believed their son was a "compulsive liar".
"I just feel so stupid. I feel like I've been used. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was just lie after lie after lie.
"I care about people and like to help people who are in strife. But now I don't help anyone.
"I feel like a fool."
After she hounded Cardwell for the money, she says he has now promised to repay $100 a week. If he reneges she's bringing in Baycorp.
"I think he's done this for so long that he actually started to believe his own lies.
"He uses his parents and he uses his children, and that's just not right."
'It's not normal behaviour'
Cardwell was adopted out as a child and raised in a loving Christchurch family.
His father, John Cardwell snr - who worked in the textile industry and is not a judge - told the Herald his son had been borrowing money from people for years.
He believed the behaviour was fuelled by alcohol addiction and an undiagnosed psychological or mental condition.
Cardwell jnr had received psychiatric therapy and spent time in rehab but the lies and debts continued to pile up, his father said.
In his opinion: "He's just been a conman and he's managed to get away with it for a long time.
"I think it's just an easy way out.
"The family know somewhere along the line John will be exposed.
"We never hid from him the fact he was an adopted child. I'm sure that's part of John's problem. It's been a hard road.
"As much as we love him we just can't hack his mannerisms with other people.
"It's not normal behaviour."
Cardwell snr, 74, said sharing the same name as his son had had "repercussions", with debt collectors or women owed money sometimes calling the family home demanding repayment.
Though Cardwell's mother still cared for her son, she no longer wanted him living in the house. Their other children "have told us many times, 'get rid of him'".
Cardwell snr said his son was an adult and needed to take responsibility for his life.
"He's got a personable nature and he knows how to use it. That's just part of his character.
"While I feel sorry for those women, they knew what they were doing and they did it willingly."
'Karma is a bitch'
A man who employed Cardwell in a sales and consultancy role in 2019 in Christchurch says it came to an abrupt end when Cardwell borrowed the boss' car and crashed it after a night drinking at Christchurch Casino, causing thousands in damage.
He resigned the next day by text message and never returned.
The employer said Cardwell had beautiful clothes - "expensive watches, expensive jackets".
"He's Mr Charisma. But it's so hard to tell what's true.
"If he's going to tell a porkie, he's going to tell a big porkie."
The employer was aware of Cardwell playing league overseas at representative level and there was no doubt the man had talent.
"He could have been a rock star. But in my opinion, he's a waster. He's wasted some major opportunities in his life."
Another former employer hired Cardwell as a salesman in April last year in Auckland but terminated his contract five months later due to concerns about his background and heavy drinking.
Initially, Cardwell had come across as charming and likeable, but the employer claims it soon emerged that much of his self-representations were fantasy.
"I confronted him about all the lies," the employer said. "He fessed up."
The employer offered Cardwell a second chance and a "clean slate". But there were rules.
He had to give up alcohol and set up an automatic repayment to chip away at Cardwell's debt to Harper.
The arrangement ended after the employer claims he found Cardwell drinking whisky in his Newmarket flat one morning while conducting business on his work laptop.
Cardwell still owes him about $4000, which has also been passed to a debt collector.
The employer said he'd treated Cardwell "like family".
"If he just used all his skills for legitimate sales he'd be a millionaire. He's a waste of talent."
He knew of others who he claimed had handed over cash after being fed Cardwell's sob stories.
"He claims to be this hotshot rugby guy, lies about his family and fortune. He tries to portray himself as intelligent and smart. He knows a lot of people and that's how he pulls people in.
"People are giving him money and just getting used."
In June, after Cardwell's $10,000 debt to Miller emerged, the former employer messaged Cardwell telling him he was a disgrace and that "karma is a bitch".
"You really conned the wrong girl, John. You brought this on yourself."
In response, Cardwell admitted: "I took advantage of people.
"I'm not happy with what I've done. I've . . . created carnage and all for selfish reasons.
"My facing things has been a flaw of mine . . . so I am just in fear of what's next and the consequences will be grim for me. I am sorry."