Sex, drugs & big bucks: the murder that shocked Manhattan

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Seth Tobias had surely made his parents in Philadelphia proud. After landing a job on Wall Street fresh out of university, he rose quickly to found his own hedge-fund company called Circle T. He had fancy homes in New York, New Jersey and Florida, a beautiful wife and more money than they could have spent in a lifetime. He had even become a star commentator on a financial television channel.

So how devastated they must have been on 4 September, no one outside the family could presume to imagine. Just after midnight that day, Mr Tobias's wife, Filomena, had telephoned the police in the Florida town of Jupiter, just north of West Palm Beach, crying for assistance. She had found her husband, who was just 44 years old, floating face down in the pool of their mansion. He did not seem to be breathing.

The first assumption for the cause of death cited by both the family and police was a heart attack. There had been a history of cardiac disease in the family, and running a hedge fund (with its headquarters in one of New York's most prestigious business addresses, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue) investing the fortunes of extremely wealthy clients, is not without its stresses.

Nor was it a secret that Mr Tobias had been living life to the full, riding private jets between his homes and navigating a diary crammed with high-society parties, including regular stops at Donald Trump's exclusive Mar-a-Lago Club in West Palm Beach. He also had to fit in his television appearances, notably on the business cable network CNBC, and handle a marriage that had recently had its ups and downs. Business was fraught too. The company that he had founded with $4m (1.95m) was now worth $300m. He was trying to buy a computer technology company in New Jersey and had only just settled a tricky dispute with Bank of America, the broker for most of Circle T's transactions.

"It was apparently a heart attack," his brother Spence, also a money manager at the firm, told reporters within hours of the tragedy coming to light. Another brother, Sam, also worked at Circle T. The Tobias clan prepared to mourn a lost son and brother and join arms with his distraught widow, Filomena. There is nothing like grief to unite a family. But exactly three months after Mr Tobias's death, generous tributes have given way to suspicion and ugly allegations. Even if the worst of them that he did not die of natural causes but was murdered by Filomena is never held up in court, there are other details of his life starting to surface that shockingly belie the image of sober reliability and wisdom that Mr Tobias used to project on the small screen. Parental pride, we imagine, is now tussling with shame.

Count among the titbits now appearing in print, including in vivid detail across the pages of The New York Times, the cocaine habit that seemingly had consumed Mr Tobias as well as the former pimp supplying male prostitutes who had worked for two years as private assistant to both himself and his wife. And not to mention the alleged relationship with a gay go-go dancer named Tiger (on account of his many tattoos).

It is also a saga that has all of Wall Street in thrall. Mr Tobias may have been only a minor master of the universe in these days of billion-dollar deals and funds, but he was nonetheless widely known, if only for his cocky gait and brashness. Blogs and financial websites normally fixated on bonus and promotion rumours are now filled with the exotic stuff of a Palm Beach murder mystery. It is a story that holds attention not just for its salacious details, but also because of the caution that it offers everyone on a Wall Street swimming deep in profits: too much money can spin the best of men clean out of control.

One of those drawn to comment on the increasingly lurid affair has been James Cramer, a high-profile money manager and celebrity anchor on CNBC, a man for whom Mr Tobias also briefly worked before creating Circle T. The case had become so bizarre, Mr Cramer suggested, as to resemble a popular prime-time crime soap. "I don't understand why this hasn't ended up on CSI: Miami yet," he said.

That cocaine had become a best friend of Mr Tobias may be no huge surprise. The drug has a way of insinuating its way into very fast lives, particularly where parties rule and money is no obstacle. It was Filomena who blew that whistle first. In her first statements to police, she recalled having lunch with her husband on 3 September in the middle of the Labor Day weekend and leaving him later as he continued on to a West Palm Beach bar in the evening with friends. She said he may have been using cocaine at the time. Indeed, other former associates have anonymously corroborated that he was a regular user and had sometimes vanished from work for days at a time, presumably bingeing.

None of this seemed unbelievable to local detectives, not least when they returned to Mr Tobias's mansion, set on the edge of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf club in Jupiter, with a search warrant. Among their finds: a Ziploc plastic bag with a white powder inside, a straw and some prescription drug bottles. Cocaine use doesn't necessarily imply murder. But it could have been a factor in a cardiac arrest.

Within days, the Jupiter investigators got a call they could not ignore. It came from Mr Tobias's former assistant, Bill Ash, who had resigned the day his boss was found dead, moving away from Florida to San Diego. The claim he was making was surely startling, but the more police knew about Mr Ash, the more they were inclined to treat him with caution. A former pimp, he sometimes went by the name of "Mr Madam", allegedly because of former ties to the notorious "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss, purveyor of choice female flesh to misbehaving celebrities. More than that, he had no fewer than 11 arrests to his name, on charges ranging from running prostitutes to skipping out of hotels without paying. Nevertheless, when he called, the police had no choice but to fly to San Diego to interview him.

As of now, the police department in Jupiter has filed no criminal charges in the case, nor has it given any indication that it is preparing to do so. Its position remains that it is awaiting new toxicology results from the Tobias cadaver. In the meantime, however, Mr Ash is continuing to spin his tale, assuring anyone who will listen that in several telephone conversations with him some of which he taped Mrs Tobias all but confessed to the murder. Stress, of course, on the "all but".

His version seems straightforward, if a little exotic. He asserts that Filomena drugged her husband almost to the point of incapacitation and then lured him out to the pool at midnight. (Friends have said that he never set foot in it of his own volition.) To help persuade her husband to get into the water, she apparently dangled the prospect of sex with the go-go dancer named Tiger.

There is little doubt that there had been tumult in the marriage. In early 2006, Mr Tobias filed for divorce from Filomena, close to their first wedding anniversary and just days after police had been called to their home following reports of a domestic dispute. They eventually reconciled and agreed to stay together. The main cause of their problems at the time had ostensibly been an illicit affair on the part of Mr Tobias, and frustration on his part with his wife's exorbitant spending habits. (In the divorce filings, she insisted that she would require $46,000 a month from him in living expenses.) But what of his other alleged sexual appetites and their impact on the marriage?

Gay had never been a word publicly associated with Mr Tobias until Mr Ash opened his mouth. Ash alleges that both Tobias and his wife were regulars at the sole gay bar in West Palm Beach, Cupids, and that it was there that they became acquainted with Tiger, one of the joint's more colourful patrons. Managers at Cupids have declined to give Tiger's real name or whereabouts, even though police are looking to interview him. "The marriage was a faade. [Tobias] was gay," Mr Ash told a TV station. "As far as I am aware he always had boyfriends." As for Filomena, the best option might have been simply to lie low and allow Mr Ash to discredit himself with his blathering and uncertain past.

Unfortunately for her, though, it is not just reporters who have been listening to what he has to say. So, too, have Spence, Sam and the other two brothers of her late husband. Worse, they have now filed a civil lawsuit against their sister-in-law in which they accuse her of murder. They, at least, appear to have bought the Ash story lock stock and barrel. The murder claim is almost a sub-clause of the suit, however, which is primarily about money. With the estate left behind by Mr Tobias reckoned to be worth about $25m, who can be surprised about that? Filomena is laying claim to the whole estate by virtue simply of having been his spouse. The fact she is not mentioned in his will and the siblings are is only because it was written before the two of them were married, she says. But the brothers offer a different argument: there is a law in Florida (who knew?) that specifically bars anyone from inheriting money from a person they have killed.

In their filing, the brothers say that Filomena "intentionally killed" her husband "by asphyxiation and drowning" after forcing him to "to ingest one or more controlled substances that induced loss of consciousness and capacity to breathe". Doubtless their suspicions were reinforced when first reports surfaced that, just days after the drowning of her husband, Filomena paid almost $10,000 to have the swimming pooled drained and completely resurfaced.

There may be no criminal charges now or even in the future but the civil suit by the brothers has put Filomena and her lawyers on battle stations. The revamping of the pool, they argue, was the natural reaction of a woman in deep psychological trauma trying to blot out reminders of that terrible night. "In my 25 years practising law, this is the most reckless allegation I have ever seen," one of her lawyers, Gary Dunkin, declared in a first court hearing in the case.

Mr Ash has admitted that he has nothing on tape that has Mrs Tobias explicitly confessing to the murder. But the truth, he insists, is easy to deduct for anyone who listens to all them. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle. You just have to put all the tapes together." Whether it is a puzzle police and prosecutors will ever be able to put together remains to be seen. What is for sure, however, is that the once sterling image of the boyish financier who had become familiar to millions has been posthumously peeled away, and the life exposed seems to have been a little less than pretty.