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Dead Man’s Float

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Billy Ash’s ground-level apartment in the predominantly gay Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego would just about fit in the foyer of Seth and Phyllis’s Jupiter mansion. It’s the morning after Christmas, and Ash, wearing a blue baseball cap and a red-striped Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt, is supervising two movers as they pack up an artificial tree and a fake wreath.

“I can’t talk to you,” Ash tells me. “You need to call my lawyer, Debra.”

I was starting to leave when Ash said, “Well, I can give you just some basic information.”

Ash told me that he met Seth Tobias in San Diego, about five and a half years earlier. “I was shopping in La Jolla, and he came up to me. I’m obviously gay, and he asked me, ‘Do you know where the good gay clubs are?’ We became fast friends, and I went to work for him after that, doing travel, making sure his television appearances happened on time, introducing him to guys.”

When I asked Ash if he had slept with Seth, he took on a scolding tone. “That’s way, way too personal,” he said.

I said I was sorry and asked him when he first met Phyllis Tobias.

“Oh, I never met her,” Ash said. “Our whole relationship was over the phone. But you really need to call Debra. I’m super-busy.”

We said good-bye, but as I started to walk to my car, Ash’s words hit me. He had never met Phyllis Tobias? The man driving a murder investigation that was the subject of a major New York Times story, the man who claims to have firsthand knowledge of the alleged killer’s thoughts, had never met the woman?

I rang the doorbell again.

I asked Ash if I’d understood him correctly. “Yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “We talked and texted ten times a day. We were really close. I knew everything about her.”

Then Ash talked for another hour. He said that Seth and Phyllis had met at a suburban San Diego sex party in 2003, and that their 2005 marriage was one of mutual convenience. “He needed a trophy wife for his investors, and she needed someone with lots of cash. I think they had sex maybe twice.”

According to Ash, he was bombarded with calls from Phyllis over Labor Day weekend. “That Sunday, they were having a housewarming barbecue for a few friends and she got pissed because Seth was checking out a cute guy who was there. She’d just had enough.”

Then he told me how Phyllis killed Seth. His version, that is. “That Monday, they went to the bar at the Breakers and Seth was doing coke and drinking, but Phyllis wasn’t. Seth called me [later], and I told him he needed to go home to his wife and make nice. He was pissed because she had spent $16,000 on drapes, and I told him, ‘You can’t take them back, they’re custom made. But take them down and put them in the office so she knows no means no. But she thought he’d taken them back, so she was extra-pissed. In their new bedroom they both have these big walk-in closets, and she had put a Baggie filled with crushed Ambien in the safe in her closet. Seth needed the Ambien to balance off the coke. So she tells him that she wants to start new, and she’s going to cook him dinner and make him pasta à la vodka. She mashed the pills into the sauce, but the problem was it turned the sauce purple and Seth said, ‘This tastes like shit, I’m not gonna eat it.’ ”

Ash paused, and glared at one of the movers. “Hey, the lights are part of the tree, it’s the tree that comes apart.

“Now, where was I? Then Phyllis said, ‘Eat it, you’ll feel better, and then I’ll call Tiger over, and I’ll watch you two have sex in the pool.’ But first she took these pictures of him looking all fucked up. Then Seth walked into the pool, and the Ambien started having its effect. She went back inside, did the dishes, took the dog for a walk, came back, and went out to the pool. The only problem was, he was still alive; he was passed out but floating on his back. She rolled him over, and that’s how he died.”

Um, how did he know all of this? “Phyllis told me,” he said. “I was coming back from Penn State with a friend that day, and I had turned off my phone because I just could not deal with them anymore. When I turned my phone back on, I had a message from Phyllis saying, ‘Seth’s dead.’ ”


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