A lonely Bellambi woman who became a pawn in an elaborate, international crime cartel after falling for an online love scam has avoided time behind bars for helping the syndicate launder hundreds of thousands of dollars in ill-gotten funds.
Debbie Ryan, a 53-year-old single mother, allowed the syndicate to deposit money into her bank account it had illegally obtained from prominent Australian organisations and companies including The Greens political party and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
Then, at the direction of her online lover, a man she knew by the name of Michael Smith but whom she'd never met, Ryan would withdraw cash and purchase luxury goods in Sydney such as Rolex watches, which she then sent to addresses in Africa and Malaysia.
Ryan also bought the online currency Bitcoin in sometimes daily purchases for the syndicate.
She was charged in May 2019 with two counts of dealing with the proceeds of crime and sentenced to a community corrections order in December after accepting guilt on both charges.
Ryan claimed at the time she was no longer in contact with Mr Smith and wanted nothing to do with him.
However, documents tendered to Wollongong Local Court on Friday reveal far from ceasing contact, Ryan had continued to act on the directions of her would-be lover while awaiting sentence on the initial charges, opening new bank accounts to further facilitate the syndicate's criminal activities.
Ryan was charged with a third count of dealing with proceeds of crime in April this year and again pleaded guilty.
During her sentencing hearing on Friday, defence lawyer Justine Hall said Ryan had been an "upstanding citizen" prior to her involvement with Mr Smith and described her as "highly emotionally vulnerable".
"She genuinely believes she's in a relationship, that this person is real, [he's dangling the carrot of marriage," Ms Hall said.
The court heard Ryan had a son with autism who was very high needs and would struggle significantly if she was jailed.
Magistrate Sally McLaughlin agreed to spare Ryan jail on account of her early guilty plea, the hardship to her son if she was incarcerate and her prior good character.
"I accept she's not the principal mastermind of the fraud, but the amount of money that was proceeds of crime is of a high order," she said in sentencing Ryan to an 18-month intensive corrections order, with 200 hours of unpaid community work.
How the scam unfolded
A set of agreed facts tendered to the court reveal Ryan came under police notice in August 2018 after detectives learned she had received $166,000 at the direction of Mr Smith. She laundered about $46,000 via cash transfers and the purchasing of iTunes cards and Gucci products, which she sent overseas.
Ryan was not charged for that matter after police determined she'd made no profit from the fraud.
However, she came under police notice again in April 2019 for the same type of matters.
A police investigation revealed the criminal syndicate she was working for had gained access to the email address of an employee at Gamechanger Media Buying and Planning, a company that purchases advertising space on behalf of its clients.
The syndicate used the employee's email address to advise four clients - The Greens, the CFMEU, fund management company Australian Ethical Investment and advertising company The Shannon Group - of new banking details.
Two bank accounts belonged to Ryan, while a third belonged to a man in Queensland and the fourth to a man in South Australia.
The Greens were duped into paying about $5,000 into the account belonging to the South Australian man, but the syndicate's biggest mark by far was The Shannon Company.
The advertising organisation, whose clients include the NSW and Victorian state governments, Industry SuperFunds, the ACCC and Fulton Hogan, transferred a total of $342,961 into Ryan's Bendigo Bank account on May 1, 2019.
The court heard over the next three days, Ryan used funds from the Bendigo account to purchase four Rolex watches totalling $174,000, which she then sent to Africa and Malaysia at Mr Smith's request.
She also withdrew $50,000 in cash during the same time period in seven separate transactions.
The account had $117,000 remaining in it at the time of Ryan's arrest.
Meanwhile, the CFMEU deposited $51,092 into Ryan's ANZ account on April 17, some of which Ryan used the purchase iPhones and a camera, which she subsequently sent overseas. The account had a balance of about $25,000 at the time of Ryan's arrest.
When interviewed by police, Ryan further admitted she'd used funds from both accounts to purchase large amounts of Bitcoin on Mr Smith's behalf.
Ryan appeared to cease her illegal activities for a short time after her initial arrest, but court documents reveal she soon returned to old habits after again falling under Mr Smith's spell.
This time, she opened a bank account with HSBC, into which the syndicate deposited almost $120,000 in criminal cash illegally obtained from up to nine different victims (at least five of which are individuals) between October 2019 and April this year.
Again at the direction of the elusive Mr Smith, Ryan would travel to Sydney, withdraw money from the account and use it to purchase Bitcoin, which would then be forwarded overseas to the syndicate.
The total sum of the most recent fraud was $116,542, of which none has been recovered by police.