Dead Man’s Float

Illustration by Dienststelle 75Photo: Angie Smith (Ash); Michael Price (Seth and Filomena Tobias); Henry Arden/Zefa/Corbis(Body)

It ended in the pool. The whole tragic cartoon.

That morning, it was last Labor Day, Seth and Phyllis Tobias woke up together in the master bedroom of their not-quite-finished dream home. The $5 million, 6,700-square-foot mansion is located in the Bear’s Club, a gated community built on a golf course in Jupiter, Florida, twenty minutes north of Palm Beach. Designed in the style of Addison Mizner, the house is very big and very fauxfaux Spanish architectural themes, faux this and faux that. There’s a Ritz-Carlton condo complex in the development, too. Phyllis liked to work out there, get massages, and have her hair blown out.

Seth had bought the house for Phyllis in late 2006 from an upscale Palm Beach broker named Linda Olsson. It was a gesture of reconciliation after the couple had almost divorced. There was a lot of that—reconciliation—but that’s because there was also a lot of fighting. You get the picture. The home included a state-of-the-art office for Tobias, the founder and chief executive of Circle T, a quarter-billion-dollar Manhattan-based hedge fund. The pool was in the backyard.

The day before, the couple had invited friends over for a barbecue. The party broke up with Seth and Phyllis at each other’s throat. But by the next day, the couple had made up, and now they’d decided to have lunch at the Breakers, the tony Palm Beach resort. At about 5:30 p.m., Seth and Phyllis left the hotel. Over the course of the afternoon, they’d rung up a $323 bill. Phyllis went home to Jupiter. Seth met up with this guy he’d known since he was a kid, Brett Borgerson. The two of them drove to a bar called E.R. Bradley’s.

Over the next two hours, Seth and Borgerson had a few more rounds. Seth called his wife nineteen times, but she didn’t call him back. It was getting dark, and Seth drove home. He passed through the gates of the Bear’s Club and pulled into their brick driveway.

At 8:08 p.m., Tobias texted Borgerson to let him know he’d gotten home safely. Seth and Phyllis had dinner together and then, according to Phyllis, tried to have sex in the pool. They eventually gave up, Phyllis says. Seth was too drunk.

Phyllis went inside and began her nighttime beauty regimen. After a shower, she walked downstairs and squinted through the gloaming. She thought she caught a glimpse of Seth swimming naked in the pool. Then she went back upstairs and got ready for bed. But shortly after midnight, Phyllis called Brett Borgerson’s wife and left a voice-mail that said, “Please call me back, Seth is acting weird. I don’t know if he’s passed out.”

About half an hour later, she called 911. “I don’t know if my husband has passed out or what.” Her accent was thick, New Jersey. The dispatcher asked if her husband was breathing. “I don’t know, he’s turned over!” Phyllis screamed. “Please just send me somebody. He’s outside [in] the pool.” She could then be heard shouting at her floating husband, “Seth, don’t play with me.”

About fifteen minutes later, a Jupiter Police Department squad car arrived, and two officers shone their flashlights into the pool. The lights eventually settled on Phyllis. She was holding Seth in the shallow end. Paramedics arrived and began CPR. Geysers of water shot out of Seth’s lungs; rigor mortis had already set in. At 1:08 a.m., Seth Tobias was pronounced dead. He was 44.

Before Seth Tobias wound up dead in his pool; before the accusations surfaced that his wife was a thrice-divorced pill-popper and cocaine user who drugged Seth and killed him for his money; before the claims that Seth had led a secret life in which he drank too much, snorted a boatload of coke, and liked to pick up male hustlers and strippers, including one named Tiger; before Seth’s brothers filed suit in Palm Beach to block Phyllis from getting her hands on Seth’s estimated $25 million estate; and certainly before I found myself face-to-face with the main source of all the dirt—a 300-pound gay con man and Internet psychic with a long criminal history named Billy Ash who claims to have been the couple’s personal assistant and may well have fabricated all or part of his claims regarding Seth and Phyllis because he’s a proven liar and self-serving attention seeker … Before all of that, Seth Tobias was known to the world, to the extent he was known at all, as an upright cable-TV talking head and multimillionaire hedge-fund manager. But that’s getting ahead of the story. Let’s just start at the beginning.

Seth Tobias was raised in Plymouth Meeting, a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia. His father was a doctor, his parents got divorced. It was a common story. After high school, Tobias went to Boston University, where he was an indifferent student majoring in finance.

Seth and Phyllis Tobias's $5 million home, in Jupiter, Florida.

In his early twenties, Tobias commuted from Philadelphia to New York on the 5:55 “Triple Nickel” train to a series of jobs on Wall Street. Some of the jobs worked out, some didn’t. At 24, he got his first break. That’s when Tobias began processing trades for a then-unknown portfolio manager named Jim Cramer. Tobias impressed Cramer, but the job didn’t last long. Tobias traded up to a position with the much larger JRO Associates hedge fund. Five years later, Tobias headed out on his own.

Tobias founded Circle T in 1996, at age 32. He named the company after the first letter of his last name, which he had tattooed on his left shoulder just after college. He started the firm with just one other employee, Steve Schwartz, a 25-year-old protégé of Tobias’s from JRO. He’d sit there in the middle of the room, taking in all the data and chatter, and then bark a buy or sell order. He seemed to have a gift for making the right call. “Seth could just tell when to get in and get out of a stock,” says Schwartz. “Seconds matter. He could see a movement in the cost of steel and figure out how that was going to impact companies that did business with GM and make a snap decision two, three moves ahead of other people.”

Tobias lived for what he called “the game,” and to him it was a game—who could analyze a company’s quarterly report or process a bit of information fastest and make the first move. He had a pet ritual after the market’s closing bell rang. He’d exhale, check his numbers, then call his friends at other hedge funds and ask them a simple question: “Are you up or are you down?” Simple.

In the early days of Circle T, Tobias was mostly up. By 2002, the firm was valued at almost $500 million, and Tobias was personally worth tens of millions of dollars. He bought homes—in suburban Philadelphia, on the Jersey shore, and in midtown Manhattan. He bought a luxury box at Veterans Stadium, where the Philadelphia Eagles played. A JRO colleague introduced Tobias to some pals at CNBC, and Tobias became a regular on the network’s Squawk Box program.

Tobias also liked to party. His longtime friend Patrick Bransome said in a recent deposition that there were many nights when Tobias would get so loaded he had to drive him home. Bransome would drop his friend on his couch and leave once Tobias passed out.

“Look, Seth was a little crazy,” a former colleague told me. “But we all are. You have to have a screw loose to be in this business and take the risks. You have to blow off steam, or you’ll combust. He liked to blow off steam, too; we’d go to strip clubs and go out drinking. He just blew off steam a little harder than most.”

It’s shortly after New Year’s, and I’m in the West Palm Beach office of Jay Jacknin. Jacknin, Phyllis Tobias’s third husband, is serving as counsel to his ex-wife in the death of Seth Tobias. He’s a short, jolly man with hearing aids in both ears. At one point, he reaches into a file and brings out a picture of Seth and Phyllis on a beach. He starts to make a point about the case but then offers an aside. “She had a great body,” he says. “Women love her. Men find her fascinating. I just couldn’t afford her.”

Phyllis Tobias was born Filomena Manente in 1966 and was raised in Union City, New Jersey. She was brought up by a strict Italian family, and went to Catholic schools. Now and then, she worked as a waitress. Her nickname, a nod to her personality, was Sunny. Just after she graduated from high school, in 1984, she married Vince Racanati. She was 18, he was 24. They had a daughter but got divorced after a year. Phyllis took a job as a secretary on Wall Street, where she met and married a twice-divorced stockbroker named Arthur Tolendini. That was 1987. They lasted just three years.

Phyllis moved to Palm Beach and was selling insurance when she met Jacknin, a divorce attorney. They got married in 1993 and had two children. But in October 2002 Jacknin filed for divorce, claiming Phyllis had gotten numerous credit cards without his consent and run the balance to the maximum. Jacknin didn’t move out of the couple’s home after they separated. He was worried about his two children. Phyllis was furious about that. The police were summoned three times in 2003, and each time, Jay Jacknin said his wife was the aggressor. He said she struck him, threw a phone, and pulled his hair.

Tobias on CNBC's Squawk Box (foreground); coverage of his death (background).

In July 2003, Phyllis got a restraining order against Jacknin, accusing him of assault. Jacknin denied it and retaliated with his own statement. He said Phyllis’s violent moods had reduced him to barricading himself in the nanny’s room. He said that “she will kill” if he tries to gain custody of the kids.

Jacknin also said that Phyllis was on a cocktail of Xanax, Vicodin, and Ritalin and kept coke in the house. He finished by saying that Phyllis had abandoned the children one weekend in July so she could spend time with her boyfriend at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

The boyfriend was Seth Tobias.

Seth and Phyllis met while they were both in San Diego for the 2003 Super Bowl. The twist is, Jay Jacknin introduced them. Jacknin actually knew Seth first. The two men had met through a mutual friend, Daniel Borislow, an entrepreneur and racehorse owner from Philadelphia who spends part of the year in Palm Beach. At the time, Tobias was separated from his first wife, Tricia White, a South Jersey native. Phyllis was married to Jacknin, but they were fighting all the time and got divorced later that year.

Seth fell for Phyllis right away. Why not? She was blonde, fit, and sexy.

Sure enough, Tobias told his brothers and Circle T partners that he was moving down to West Palm in pursuit of Phyllis. “I can run Circle T from down there,” he said. He and Phyllis could often be seen around town at the Breakers or black-tie charity events.

Seth and Phyllis’s relationship was insane, even in the early days. Phyllis blasted Seth about his coke habit, but they both were heavy drinkers, especially of Champagne. A former Circle T employee says he personally saw Phyllis give Seth coke and use the drug herself on many occasions. (Jacknin denies those claims.) Seth questioned Phyllis’s emotional stability. They each accused one another of infidelity. It went back and forth like that.

Seth and Phyllis split up for a while, with Seth returning to New York. The former Circle T employee says that Seth told him that Sam Tobias was concerned, warning his brother, “That woman is going to kill you or bankrupt you.”

Tobias didn’t listen. “He was addicted,” says the former Circle T employee, “to Phyllis’s ups and downs.”

After another breakup, Seth was moping around New York and called Phyllis. By the time he hung up, the two were engaged. Knowing that Seth’s friends and family disapproved, the couple eloped on March 4, 2005. “Seth just didn’t show up for work, and we didn’t know where the hell he was,” says the former Circle T staffer. “That afternoon, he called in all sheepish and said, ‘I’m in Belize. I just got married.’”

That summer, Circle T took a big financial hit. Seth’s Palm Beach pal Doug Kass had a son, Ethan, who was looking to break into the business, and Seth took him on. In July 2005, Google went public. The question at the time was whether the $85 initial offering price was a good deal. Ethan bet it wasn’t. Circle T lost $12 million when he shorted the stock.

The trades weren’t just wrong. Seth hadn’t signed off on them. The firms’ investments, almost half a billion dollars in 2003, sank to $220 million after the Google screwup. Many hedge funds booked monster years in 2005, but Circle T was down 5.3 percent. There were whispers that Seth was distracted by Phyllis.

Tobias’s marriage was also tanking. Phyllis would often appear at the office and demand cash. “Give me 15,000 fucking dollars. Give me 15,000 fucking dollars,” she hissed on one visit, according to the former Circle T staffer. Tobias had promised Phyllis that he would stop using cocaine, but she didn’t believe him. In the fall of 2005, the couple was having dinner at Bice, a Palm Beach restaurant, with six other people. Just after sitting down, Phyllis jumped from her seat and placed her lips over Tobias’s nose and began sucking. She was searching for cocaine residue.

A few weeks later, the couple returned to their West Palm Beach home after a night of drinking, and Tobias ripped down a set of drapes that Phyllis had purchased without his knowledge. The police were called, and Phyllis claimed Tobias threw a jar at her. He was arrested for assault, a charge eventually expunged from his record when Phyllis declined to press charges.

There were more fights, more police visits. The following February, one night when she hadn’t returned home from dinner by 2 a.m., Tobias drove to Cucina, a West Palm Beach restaurant, and confronted Phyllis, who was having drinks with a male friend.

Billy Ash at his Beverly Hills deposition last month.Photo: Angie Smith for New York Magazine

“You’re a whore!” Tobias screamed, according to police reports.

A passing officer witnessed the rest: “F. Tobias immediately responded by striking S. Tobias across the left side of his face with an open hand. The force of the slap turned S. Tobias’ head and made a loud popping sound … it became clear she was intoxicated. I had to grab F. Tobias so she could not get close enough to strike S. Tobias again. I placed F. Tobias in handcuffs.”

Phyllis spent a night a jail, but the charges were dropped.

On it went. The West Palm Beach police answered a number of calls to the couple’s home in their first year of marriage. Just before the couple’s first anniversary, Phyllis confronted her husband with evidence of an affair. Tobias responded by filing for divorce on March 10.

Three days later, the two engaged in an instant-message exchange:


Seth: I am sad about this.


Seth: I am sorry … take a breather.

Phyllis: NOW IT’S WAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Phyllis cited her husband’s infidelities, gambling losses, and unspecified “illicit activity” in her request for spousal support. She asked for nearly $47,000 a month, including $9,429 for vacations, $1,000 for makeup, $4,400 for clothing, and $3,000 for unreimbursed counseling fees. Her lawyer at the time argued that Tobias had promised a lifestyle grander than the one she could afford on Jay Jacknin’s alimony. Tobias responded by accusing his wife of forging his signature on expensive purchases, including a $74,000 Porsche.

The couple was on the verge of finalizing their divorce. But within minutes of meeting with their lawyers Seth and Phyllis were apologizing, professing their love, and kissing at the conference table.

That’s when Tobias promised to move Phyllis from their $1.75 million West Palm Beach home to the Bear’s Club. Phyllis was unsure. The reason, she told Tobias, was that she was now running all her decisions past her online psychic.

This is where Billy comes in. Billy Ash had a Website called, where he advertised himself as the winner of “many titles” including Best Psychic at the Las Vegas Psychic Convention. Others had a less charitable view. One rival displayed a picture of the 300-pound Ash with the words “Worst. Psychic. Ever.”

Phyllis started e-mailing Billy through, an online psychic service, paying the standard $3.99-a-minute rate. Then the two started e-mailing directly. According to Jay Jacknin, Ash told Phyllis that his clients included Sarah Jessica Parker and Nancy Reagan. Jacknin also says that Ash once mailed Phyllis a necklace that Ash claimed the former First Lady had given him. (Ash denies those claims.)

Phyllis began talking to Ash regularly, paying him as much as $2,500 a month, Jacknin says.

Not only did Phyllis consult Ash on all decisions. Now she urged Seth to make use of his powers, too. Tobias would roll his eyes, but on a few occasions he called Ash. (Ash says he spoke to Seth “all the time.”) Maybe he could help him understand his wife.

One day in the summer of 2006, Seth Tobias was back in Circle T’s New York office. According to a deposition Tobias’s longtime secretary has given, she got a call from someone whose name she had never heard before. Billy Ash. Tobias said he would take the call. A few minutes later, he walked out of his office. He looked out of sorts.

“This man is totally crazy,” Tobias said. “He says I owe him $156,000.”

According to one of Tobias’s lawyers deposed in the estate case, Ash told Tobias he was billing him for services rendered during their chats. Tobias called his lawyer, who sent Ash an e-mail urging him to cease contacting his client. Ash responded by suggesting that, if he wasn’t paid, he would have no choice but to publicly announce what he’d learned about Seth from their conversations. Ash, Tobias’s lawyer alleged, suggested that the disclosures would not sit well with Circle T’s investors. (Ash denies pressuring Tobias.)

Phyllis continued to consult with Ash, and Tobias was furious about it. On November 18, 2006, Tobias wrote Phyllis an e-mail. He said he thought their marriage was permanently broken. He saved his harshest words for Ash and for Phyllis’s relationship with him. “In the end, if I threatened your livelihood with lies and extortion; if I manufactured the craziness that he did to me you would have gone nuts. I still have some pride. You promised me you were finished with him. I believed you. I lost.”

On April 2, 2007, the West Palm Beach police logged a report from the Tobias home at 4:19 p.m.: “Male is calling. States his wife is throwing bottle of wine and food at him. Female is in the background yelling.”

Tobias was done. Then he wasn’t. Phyllis continued consulting with Ash, who advised her not to give up on their marriage. She thanked Ash by FedExing him a $10,000 watch.

Over the last weeks of Tobias’s life, the couple fought over home renovations, over Tobias’s cocaine use, and, of course, over Ash. Seth again threatened to leave her. “This divorce is going to cost me a lot less than the last one,” Tobias told his driver in August. “I’ve lost a lot of money since then.”

The next month, Tobias was dead.

Jupiter police officers examined Tobias’s body shortly after he died. They noted scrapes on his nose and forehead. His glasses had floated to the bottom of the pool. Phyllis Tobias told Officer Elizabeth Juric that she believed her husband had been snorting cocaine at Bradley’s that evening with Brett Borgerson. Juric then called Borgerson, who admitted it was possible Seth had been doing coke earlier in the day. Phyllis gathered up McGee, the couple’s dog, and left the house a few minutes later. The police got a search warrant and found in the house two small plastic bags, one containing a white powder, the other a bluish substance.

Tobias was laid to rest in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on September 7. All his Wall Street friends were there. Phyllis sat silent mostly, occasionally letting out a sob.

Phone records show that Phyllis spoke to Billy Ash eighteen times in the week following her husband’s death, including for 81 minutes on the day after his drowning. After one of the talks, Ash made a call of his own. It was to Sam Tobias, the brother closest to Seth and Seth’s heir apparent at Circle T. Ash told Sam that he had served as the couple’s assistant, which Sam thought was odd since he never remembered meeting him. Ash then told him that Phyllis had crushed Ambien tablets into a pasta sauce that she’d served his brother the night he died.

The following day, Sam Tobias called Ash with his lawyer present. Ash repeated his story, and told Sam that he had been paid for his work for the Tobiases through both a PayPal account and with cash FedExed to his San Diego apartment. Sam passed the information to the Jupiter Police Department. About two weeks after Seth’s death, the department sent two officers to San Diego, where they took Ash’s statement and then flew back to Florida. The police won’t say what Ash told them, but they were apparently not too impressed with his story. An investigation is still going on, but the cops have yet to classify Tobias’s death as suspicious.

One night at dinner, says a former colleague of Seth’s, Phyllis jumped from her seat and placed her lips over Seth’s nose and began sucking. She was searching for cocaine residue.

In late September, Tobias’s will was read. The will, signed on May 12, 2004, divided Tobias’s estimated $25 million fortune between his brothers, parents, and friends. Strangely, he had made no adjustment to the document after his 2005 marriage. Under Florida law, this nullified the will and left his wife as sole inheritor of her fourth husband’s assets.

In a panic, and armed with Ash’s claims, the Tobias brothers filed a motion in Palm Beach County probate court seeking to block Phyllis from inheriting the money, citing Florida’s “slayer statute,” a law that prevents a spouse from profiting from the murder of his or her partner. Phyllis hired four lawyers of her own, including Jay Jacknin.

Billy Ash, meanwhile, began carpet-bombing reporters with his claim that Phyllis had confessed to him that she had killed Seth. He also added this little tidbit. Seems Seth had led a secret gay life. A brief gossip item appeared in the Palm Beach Post on October 17 publicizing Ash’s claims, but almost no one read it outside the area.

On December 4, however, the New York Times published a story on the front-page of the “Business” section about Tobias’s death. The paper retailed Ash’s more lurid allegations, including his claim that Phyllis had lured Seth into the pool with promises she would arrange a sexual liaison with a gay porn star–exotic dancer who went by the name Tiger because of the tiger stripes he had tattooed on his body. Ash alleged that Tobias met Tiger at Cupids, a West Palm Beach gay bar. The Times story included a confirmation of sorts from Adiel Hemmingway, the manager of Cupids, who said, “Seth used to come in here back when it was crazy.” Everyone read that.

Seth’s family was silent. Ash, meanwhile, hired Debra Opri, an attorney best known for repping Larry Birkhead in his successful quest to prove his paternity of Anna Nicole Smith’s child. Opri had parlayed Birkhead’s celebrity, through book deals and other projects, into more than $1 million.

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.’ ”

Ash says at that point he called the lawyer Gloria Allred, of Laci Peterson fame. “I knew her because of the Peterson case, and I lived around where Laci did. She told me I had to go to the police.”

Ash stopped to direct the movers again, then delivered this doozy. This past September, he said, he was sitting at home speaking to the Jupiter detectives when he got a FedEx box from Phyllis. “A while back, she had me track down two cases of Krug Champagne that went for $2,000 a bottle. So I get this box before Seth’s funeral, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. Is Seth’s head in that box?’ But it was a bottle of Krug with a note that said, ‘The scumbag is dead.’”

At one point, Ash had said that Phyllis had explicitly fessed up and that he had her confession on tape. But now he retreated a bit. Now he told me she had only implied on the tape that she’d poisoned her husband. Still, he insisted that she had, in fact, confessed to him—just not when the tape was running.

I asked Ash if he could provide a snapshot or any other evidence to back up his claim that he and Seth Tobias had ever met. I asked him if I could see the photos of Tobias taken the day he died. He tugged at his cap and shifted his weight. “You really need to call Debra and make a proposal.” He wanted money before speaking to me further. “I’m only telling you one percent of it. Make a good proposal, and I’ll tell you more.”

The next day, I started checking out Ash’s story. Phone records confirm that he talked to Phyllis more than a dozen times in the days after Tobias’s death. At one point, Ash had told me that he had been “deputized” by the San Diego Police Department to tape Phyllis, but the department says it didn’t happen. The Jupiter detectives won’t say if Ash received a FedEx package from Phyllis while they were interviewing him at his home, but really, how likely is that? Under oath, Lucille Schiavone, Tobias’s secretary, maintained that she had heard of Ash only in relation to his attempted shakedown of Seth. And Schiavone said she was the one who handled Tobias’s travel arrangements.

Most reporters covering Ash’s stories have included a quick disclaimer saying Ash had been arrested multiple times for prostitution before quoting him extensively. None of them, however, have gone into any detail about Ash’s criminal history.

When I Googled “William Ash,” the search led me to a 2001 cover story in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, a free weekly. The story documented more than a dozen cons that an overweight man by that name perpetrated on the South Florida gay community. There was a picture: It was the same guy.

The swindles listed in the New Times included stealing the client list of a company that sold goods manufactured by the disabled and setting up a rival company; a stint working at Fort Lauderdale’s CenterOne, an AIDS-counseling center, that ended when Ash was fingered for lying to a tabloid and telling them Tina Turner was a patient; and chartering a boat for his 31st birthday and spending thousands of dollars on flowers and balloons by telling vendors he was throwing a party for Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga and that the Miami businessman would be footing the bill. In 1997, Ash spent six months in jail on a combination of those charges and for running a prostitution ring. At the time, Ash was billing himself as Mr. Madam and boasted he had an offer to write a book about his days as a Heidi Fleiss–like pimp. The book never happened. Ash headed out for San Diego shortly after the New Times story appeared.

David Forest, a prominent agent in the gay-stripper business, gave me Tiger’s phone number. I reached him at his parents’ home outside of Spokane. Now married, Tiger has a baby daughter who could be heard screaming in the background. After the New York Times story broke, Tiger, a.k.a. Christopher Dauenhauer, at first offered a denial of sorts. He didn’t recall meeting Tobias, he told reporters. “I meet a lot of people, I don’t always remember names,” he told me when I asked him to explain. But once Ash’s story gained momentum, Tiger changed his mind. “When I thought about it more, I did remember Seth,” he says.

Then he told me that he hooked up with Tobias six or seven times, including on more than one occasion in Las Vegas. “Seth was a nice guy,” he said. “He was very good to me.” As with Ash, I asked him if there was any tangible evidence that he knew Tobias. Tiger said there was none.

Next came a story that might have made Billy Ash blush. In fact, it’s a story that seems flat-out loony. As Tiger tells it, he was living in Los Angeles a few years ago when he went to get his hair cut in West Hollywood. Out front were two attractive women. Tiger, who says he is bisexual, chatted them up. He said the girls were interested in rough sex, and the trio headed back to his RV in Orange County. “We were tying each other up,” says Tiger. “When it was my turn, they handcuffed me and threw a blanket over my head. Then they let in a guy who starting beating the shit out of me and forced drugs in my mouth. I woke up in prison. Then when I heard about Seth, I listened to the 911 tapes and heard Phyllis’s voice. She was one of the women. She must have heard about my affair with Seth.” What Tiger was saying, in other words, is that a jealous Phyllis Tobias traveled all the way across the country, deliberately hunted him down, lured him into a lurid sexual tryst, and assaulted him. Jacknin emphatically denies it. “That story is such bullshit, I can’t even believe I’m answering it.”

I asked Tiger for the name of the hospital he was treated at, specific dates of the assault, or any other corroborating details. “I don’t know,” he told me. “My memory isn’t so good.”

On January 9, Billy Ash added yet another wild twist to the story. He told the New York Daily News’sRush & Molloy” that Phyllis had paid $100,000 to Madam Simbi M’Arue, a voodoo artist who sometimes goes by the name Mama, to place a hex on her husband while he was still alive. Two days later, he told the same column that Tobias liked to have his genitals sheared by another gay porn star named Angel. Ash claimed Phyllis had even FedExed him a lock of Tobias’s pubic hair. No Mama or Angel ever came forward.

That same week, I received an e-mail from Ash asking me if I wanted to come to his deposition. January 31 and February 1, in Beverly Hills. For the estate case. Ash told me this was my formal invitation, and no RSVP was required. He signed the e-mail, “Hugs, Billy.” I flew back to California.

An hour before the deposition was set to start, Debra Opri’s conference room was being prepped for television. A crew of four vacuumed up debris and installed a stylish new tabletop. An ugly hole in the wall was covered with a blue-sky backdrop. A curtain was removed so that reporters could watch through a glass wall. Ash was dressed in a black suit and white shirt, with a yellow tie. His face was covered in pancake makeup.

Despite Ash’s best efforts, the media turnout was disappointing, just a CNBC crew and me. Every now and then, Opri would get out of her seat for a cup of coffee and wink at me and the CNBC cameraman on the other side of the glass.

Ash worked the phones on his lunch break. “Call ‘Page Six’ and tell them what’s going on,” he told someone on the other end of his cell phone. He clicked off and then told me, “I’m glad to get this over with. This is a fight about money. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I wish she had never told me she killed Seth. I’ve already cried twice today. I didn’t know I’d feel this emotional.”

Phyllis’s lawyers spent much of the first day poking holes in Ash’s story. By the end of the day, Ash looked exhausted as he headed toward a car and driver who would take him back to his Hollywood hotel. “Her lawyers are not nice people,” Ash said. “How many ways can they tell me I’m a fat pimp?”

Once again, Ash’s story continued to evolve. I asked him again when was the last time he had seen Seth. “In Las Vegas, over two years ago,” he answered. When we first talked, he had told me San Diego. I mentioned in passing his role as Phyllis’s online psychic, and he vigorously shook his head. “No, I was never her psychic, I was always their assistant.” I then asked him if he had brought the Krug Champagne bottle as evidence. He just laughed. “Oh no, I re-gifted that and gave it to someone who was very nice to me.”

If he had never met Phyllis in person, I asked him, if he had not seen Seth in the two years prior to his death, why would they confide the intimate details of their life to him? “They knew I had a dark past,” Ash said. “They knew I didn’t want that to come out, so I’d keep their secrets, too.”

The next morning, Ash and Opri got their makeup done together. “God, my hair is so flat,” said Opri. “How can I pouf it up?” Meanwhile, her client crowed over a new rumor. “Did you hear the toxicology report is back?” Ash said. “He had cocaine and Ambien in his system. It proves everything I’ve been saying has been the truth.”

The second-day interrogation was even nastier than the first. Around noon, Ash could be heard shouting “You will respect me” at Gary Dunkel, one of Phyllis’s attorneys. “I don’t respect you,” Dunkel responded. “You’re a liar.” Ash stormed out of the room and summoned me to Opri’s office again. “I am not going to put up with this much longer,” he said. “I’ve learned two important things: One, don’t murder your husband and tell a fat fag with a big mouth. Two, the fat fag shouldn’t talk to the press.”

A whole lot about the Tobias case remains unknown. Billy Ash was right about the toxicology report. It showed Tobias had cocaine and a lethal amount of Ambien in his bloodstream. But it reached no conclusions about how the drugs got there. Maybe Seth took the pills himself, in a drunken accidental overdose. Maybe Phyllis secretly fed the pills to him. Maybe Seth took the pills himself, and Phyllis, finding him in the pool in his addled state, took the opportunity to let him drown. Without an eyewitness or some new smoking gun, and given Ash’s—well, given Ash—it’s hard to imagine the truth will ever really be known. Police won’t comment on where their investigation stands or what they know.

Did Seth Tobias have a secret gay sex life? All I know is there are serious holes in Billy Ash’s and Tiger’s stories, close friends and colleagues insist they never saw any evidence of gay relationships or trysts, nor did they ever suspect Seth was gay, and no one else has come forward with other claims. Remember Adiel Hemmingway, the Cupids manager who told the New York Times that Tobias was a frequent visitor to his club? It turns out he had given a deposition in the Tobias-estate lawsuit a month earlier that flatly contradicts what he told the newspaper. In the deposition, he said that he had never met Seth or Phyllis Tobias, and, as far as he knew, Tiger had never performed at Cupids.

What about the fight over Tobias’s estate? The Tobias brothers’ lawyers filed a motion for summary judgment against Phyllis Tobias earlier in the month that lays out key parts of their case. The motion quotes Seth’s personal secretary and driver saying that their boss was getting ready to divorce Phyllis in the weeks before his death. The Tobias brothers say that Phyllis knew the papers were imminent and that forced her hand. The motion also contains copies of a bill that shows that Phyllis had the couple’s pool resurfaced nine days after her husband’s death. Tobias’s secretary told attorneys in the case that Seth told her that Phyllis “had fed him ‘discolored eggs and he felt drugged’ ” shortly before his death. The Tobias brothers also say that the paramedics’ ruling that rigor mortis had set in by the time they arrived suggests that Seth was dead long before Phyllis’s 12:08 a.m. call to Brett Borgerson and the subsequent 12:45 a.m. 911 call.

Jay Jacknin, of course, sees things differently. “Their side tells a pretty story,” he says. “But where’s the proof? Where’s the witness? They don’t have any, because their case is all bullshit. This is a story based on the allegations of a convicted felon who’s just not credible.” And the Ambien in Tobias’s system? Tobias, Phyllis’s lawyers say, was a drug addict. He snorted everything, Ambien included.

The clincher, Phyllis’s legal team says, is that a day or two before Ash contacted the Tobias brothers, Ash sent an e-mail to JoAnn Kotzen, Seth and Phyllis’s family lawyer, saying, “The bottom line is Seth lived a lot longer by being with Phyllis.” In the e-mail, Phyllis’s lawyers say, Ash asked Kotzen for $35,000 in legal fees. She wrote back that as a witness, Ash shouldn’t have legal fees, and no payment would be coming. It was only after that, Phyllis’s lawyers say, that Ash called the Tobias brothers and claimed that Phyllis had told him that she killed Seth. (Ash denies asking for legal fees from Kotzen.)

Jacknin then floats a possible defense for Phyllis Tobias that won’t win her wife of the year but might get her off the legal hook. “Look, the law isn’t did she not call 911 quick enough or did she not pull him out of the water quick enough. The law asks whether she caused his death, and that is not provable.” The request for summary judgment was recently continued by the judge. Who knows, in the end, who’ll get what?

I never saw Phyllis Tobias. She wouldn’t talk to me. She still hasn’t been accused of any crimes. Seth Tobias’s brothers wouldn’t talk to me, either. Billy Ash? I e-mailed with him just the other day. He sent me a picture of himself. He said he was at Mardi Gras. He wore a mask, a string of baubles around his neck, and a fortune-teller’s turban. He looked like he was having an excellent time.

Editor’s note: On Monday, February 11, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s office decided that Phyllis Tobias will not face criminal charges in the death of her husband, Seth Tobias. “Based upon the evidence available at this time, including the autopsy and toxicology reports, there is no indication of criminality in the death of Mr. Tobias,” Assistant State Attorney Mary Ann Duggan wrote in a letter to the Jupiter Police Department. The Tobias brothers’ lawsuit seeking to prevent Phyllis Tobias from inheriting Seth’s $25 million estate is ongoing.

Dead Man’s Float