Hedge fund manager Seth Tobias was found dead, floating in the pool of his massive Jupiter mansion, after Labor Day weekend 2007. The $5 million, nearly 7,000-square-foot estate is in gated Bear's Club, literally situated on a golf course. Tobias, who was 44 and involved in a tumultuous (to put it nicely) marriage, had a lot of drugs in his system. His wife, Filomena "Phyllis" Tobias, a three-time divorcee with expensive tastes, was accused of murder... by the 300-pound gay "psychic" con man who said he had counseled the couple and, among other things, helped secure young male strippers (including one named Tiger) for Seth.
The horrible/glorious details of the case are chronicled beautifully in this New York Magazine story by Stephen Rodrick that was selected for this year's edition of Best American Crime Reporting. I spoke to Rodrick this week as he relaxed after finishing this story on the professionalization of little league. Surprisingly, the writer didn't receive too much negative feedback from the glitterati in Palm Beach.
The most fascinating part of the reporting, Rodrick says, was hanging out with Billy Ash, the con man and pathological liar at the center (perhaps turning the crank) of the rumor mill in this case. Rodrick visited Ash in San Diego, where he moved after leaving South Florida in a hurry. While the New York dailies covering Tobias' death and the accusations from Ash mentioned that Ash had a felony record (before quoting him extensively), it seems none of them searched his background long enough to find this 2001 New Times story about Ash's stunning, ceaseless lying.
The day after meeting Ash, Rodrick found the story. "I don't consider myself the greatest investigative reporter," Rodrick told me. "This is probably my first true crime story in eight or nine years. I'm not a gumshoe guy who's done this 500 times. When I found the New Times story, it was a 'holy shit' moment. I just couldn't believe nobody else had found it. Most of this stuff [Ash's history of scams] was hiding in plain sight. This wasn't Woodward and Bernstein."
Rodrick says he didn't immediately tell Ash that he was aware of the con man's sordid past. "I would let him go with it," he told me, "like a fish running with a line."
He says he had to keep reminding himself that, despite the "insane and ludicrous" lies from Ash and the cast of characters involved, a man in this case died. "I had to keep that balance," he says.
In the end, we will likely never know what, exactly, happened to Seth Tobias the night he died. Maybe he was drugged. Maybe he was drowning and his wife -- who had reason to suspect a divorce was near -- ignored him. Maybe he drugged himself, and his wife and her crazy friend had nothing to do with it at all.