A 26-year-old man raking in thousands of dollars a day selling drugs on the dark web has told a court he “didn’t take it very seriously” and “used to role play as a drug trafficker” on video games as a teenager.
Cody Ronald Ward has pleaded guilty in the NSW District Court to multiple drug offences including six for importing or supplying large commercial quantities of border-controlled and prohibited drugs – each charge carrying a maximum penalty of life behind bars.
At his sentence hearing before Judge Robyn Tupman on Thursday, Ward said he expects to stay in jail for “a large chunk” of his life.
“The entire thing was naive, immature stupidity,” he said.
He was arrested in February 2019 as the mastermind of a drug syndicate police allege had traded in $17 million of drugs including MDMA, ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines.
“When I was 17, I used to role play as a drug trafficker and drug supplier,” Ward, from the “very small” town of Callala Bay on the south coast, said.
“I used to get very involved in role play games where you would get deeply involved into a character like you would as an actor.
“It (the offending) felt very similar but instead of being rich in a game, you earn money in real life.”
Appearing via video link, Ward said he started selling drugs on the dark web around 2015 and had a gross income of “thousands a day”.
“I was fascinated about the cryptocurrency, and obviously what went hand-in-hand (at the time) … was the drug marketplaces,” he said.
The dark web, not visible to search engines and accessed via a special browser, is used for keeping internet activity anonymous and private.
Ward said he would create vendor accounts on these marketplaces, “similar to how you would set up an eBay account”, under the name “NSWGreat”.
“You would have access to then list drugs, receive orders and mark them as sent and so forth,” he said.
“Marketplaces come and go. They would last one year or two years.
“You would move as the websites get taken down, either as the owners would perform exit schemes or the police take the websites down.”
But the result was like a “hydra effect”, he said, referencing the Greek legend of the Lernaean Hydra monster.
“You cut the head off, nine more (marketplaces) pop up,” Ward said.
His co-offenders, 24-year-old Shanese Koullias and her sister Patricia Koullias, 22, are also awaiting sentencing for their roles in the syndicate including supplying prohibited drugs.
Judge Tupman said photographs of the trio published in the media after their arrests made them look like they had been “living the high life” and the women appeared to be “some high-profile socialite sort of person”.
Ward told the court he was “quite severely” bullied at school, agreeing with his barrister Kieran Ginges’ suggestion he had been “obese” and a “social outcast”.
“In real life I was a loser, nobody, no one cared to talk to me, everyone just looked down on me,” he said.
“Online, everyone looked up to me, everyone wanted to talk to me.“
He said he had one or two friends, before he started using and dealing drugs, and has “always had a crush” on Shanese Koullias.
“We were best friends growing up,” he said on Thursday.
“She supported me through things and I supported her through things.”
Ward said he would send her the “distribution ledger” after taking care of all the administration – orders, customer support and accounting.
The 26-year-old was “significantly addicted to heroin” when he was caught, according to a report from forensic psychiatrist Dr Stephen Allnutt.
“I was completely drug f***ed,” Ward said, adding that it led to a lot of “mistakes”.
Asked under cross-examination how he had maintained his 4.94-star rating on the Dream Market darknet market if he was so “drug addled”, Ward said he often refunded customers, resolved their issues or compensated them with more drugs before they left any negative feedback.
Ward was also questioned about his wealth after alleging bikies made an “extortion attempt” while he was held in Goulburn Supermax prison.
“They had pulled blades on me, had threatened my life,” he told the court.
“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.”
Police seized a Maserati and a Mercedes Benz at the time of Ward’s arrest.
Judge Tupman asked on Thursday: “Did some news articles connected with your arrest show pictures of you with high-powered sports cars?”
“Yes, correct,” Ward replied.
He said he had traded in bitcoin but “cashed out and bought a shiny car”, being the $70,000 Mercedes Benz, and also had a 2002 model Mitsubishi EVO which cost $15,000.
However, the Maserati had set him back a fraction of its usual price because it was not registered and a statutory write-off.
Mr Ginges asked: “You had a Maserati that sounds very fancy but it was only $7000?”
“Correct,” Ward replied.
He admitted one photograph with a McLaren was him standing next to “a car I just saw in a car park”.
The judge asked Ward whether everyone in Callala Bay and Callala Beach knew him, to which he replied: “Of course, I grew up there.”
She added: “Everybody would’ve known or at least assumed whether or not you or members of your family had any money?”
“Yes,” he said.
Ward, who said he was a “soft target” for the alleged extortion, was held in segregation “for a long time” afterwards but is in a different correctional facility.
Mr Ginges asked his client: “What sort of person do you want to be when you come out of jail?”
“I want to be a respectable man. I want to work, I want to have a family, I want to be fit, healthy, I want to be somebody I could make my father proud of, not like what I’ve done now,” he said.
Ward said he has lost 25 kilograms after 22 months in custody, visits church weekly and has been diagnosed as having a social anxiety disorder.
His father was in court but he could not see him due to the audio visual link set-up.
Ward said he has a “surprisingly close and honest” relationship with his parents now but realises he may never see his sick and elderly father outside of jail again.
“Unfortunately I’m going to be in here a long time,” he said.
NSW Police Acting Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith said the disruption of the sophisticated and vast network took significant technical skill and cyber surveillance techniques and was “probably the first and largest penetration of the dark web in Australia”.
“This fellow (Ward) was a highly capable hacker,” he told reporters in February 2019.
“He used techniques to prohibit surveillance being conducted on him.
“We needed to move up a whole new gear to take this guy on.
“He learned his skill as a youth and now is a highly capable individual using very complex systems often used by government agencies.”
Mr Smith said Ward and the two Koullias sisters “ventured back into the real world” when they were arrested.
“We are dealing with a generation of people who deal with information differently,” he said.
Patricia and Shanese Koullias are both due to be sentenced on Friday. Ward’s sentence hearing will resume in February next year.