Paradise is a word that gets thrown around loosely in the rum-soaked necklace of islands called the Caribbean. But if your test for paradise is satisfied by white sand beaches, a clear bathtub-water sea, bustling cafes, bars, casinos, duty-free… then the island of St. Maarten may be just your glass of sunset punch. Paradise enough.
Thousands of vacationers every year happily invest seven-nights, eight-days in the half-French, half-Dutch isle. Some of those visitors like the laid-back life on St. Maarten so much, they buy a little place.
Frank and Leta Cordes of Mission Viejo, Calif. did just that. And friends like Gar Buchanan were all for it.
Gar Buchanan: They had talked about making a home there for some time, then eventually took the plunge. So I think they were very excited about finally having a home there.
But their time in Paradise was very short indeed. Frank and Leta's story is the giant mystery of St. Maarten.
Diane Smith: It's so hard. You can make up a hundred stories about what happened and nobody knows.
Just what happened to Leta that night that she seemed to walk off the face of the earth?
Prosecutor: We came to the conclusion, in the end, that this woman must have come to harm.
And today, more than a year after his wife's disappearance, what can Frank Cordes tell us about that evening in question?
Frank Cordes: Oh, she had quite a bit to drink. I did too.
The mystery begins at this red-roofed that Frank and Leta had just finished on a hillside overlooking the sea. It was the December 2007 holidays. And a whole houseful of guests had flown in from the States for their housewarming party. The little house on sunny St. Maarten had been intended to patch up so many things that had gone wrong in their relationship over the years. It would be a place to heal the damage from their mutual affairs. You're going to hear more about all of that. But first, get to know Frank and Leta, a little bit.
Leta Cordes: "We're having a party! Frank gets me up at seven in the morning, you guys..."
That's Leta - blonde, Californian, and as wired as her electric hairdo. She was 49 years old, mother of a grown son and wife of Frank. Her German-born husband of 20 years.
Frank Cordes: We've got out beers, we're ready to hit the beach.
That's Frank there. Younger, quieter, a techie. A little bit the wallflower to her let-the-party-begin spirit. Leta's friend, Lilee Bridges.
Lilee Bridges: He knew how to handle her. They made a good pair.
In their snapshots and videos, you can see that Frank and Leta were drawn to St. Maarten for the same reason so many others were: the great weather, the beaches. And especially, for Leta, there were the casinos at the resorts. She loved to gamble. And a new favorite place was the Westin at the foot of the hill, down the road from their house.
Let's go back up the hill to the house on the night of Jan. 11, 2008. The house party is over. The last of Frank and Leta's friends have left the island. A new guest has arrived: Frank's mother, jet-lagged, in from Germany that afternoon.
Frank Cordes: We parked the car just like we did just now, walked over here.
As Frank tells the story, he, Leta and his mother had a casual meal on the French side of the island.
Frank Cordes: Then the real party, strangely enough, started at the parking lot. That's where the real party started.
He showed us the parking lot here where later he said the three pulled up plastic chairs, turned up the boom box, and joined some friends for an impromptu cocktail party with beer and liquor from a nearby bar. After an hour or so of drinks in plastic cups under the stars, they decided to call it a night and head back to their place on the Dutch side.
Leta, Frank says, was wobbly with drink. Some of her friends would say later how distressed they were with her drinking, and her prescription pills.
Frank Cordes: Leta couldn't, I guess, hold her balance, whatever. So, I helped her a little bit walk to the car. And my mother then, you know, went to the front seat, Leta in the back seat. And she passed out a little bit, I guess.
Back up at the house, Frank and his mother went inside he said while Leta lay groggy in the back seat.
Frank Cordes: At that point, Leta wasn't ready to get out of the car yet.
A next-door neighbor of Frank's would tell authorities later that he remembers looking in and seeing Leta in the backseat of the car about 9:30 p.m. It is the last independent sighting of her.
Frank Cordes: So I come in, what she did exactly- I don’t remember.
Frank's recollection is that Leta rallied a few minutes later. Inside the house now, revived and ready for part two of the night, she wanted to take the car. She was going gambling down the hill at the casino. Frank says he refused to give her the keys.
Frank Cordes: She wanted the car keys. And she was a little too drunk for me to feel comfortable driving that road with the car.
With some cash in her purse, Frank says Leta was out the door. And after that? No one knows what happened to Leta Cordes as she headed out into a Caribbean night. Had she run into some sort of trouble down at the casino? Had she been abducted by a person or persons unknown? Who knew? Frank says he hasn't seen his wife since.
Frank Cordes: That was the last time that I saw Leta. And that was over a year ago, now.
The mystery of Leta had begun. An international investigation was about to start.
Leta was gone, missing on the island of St. Maarten. And her friends from her glory days back on the Sunset Strip in L.A. were united in their grief.
Dennis Murphy: Tell me about Leta. If she walked in the door, who would we meet?
Lilee: You would meet-- oh, wow. (crying) I wish she could walk through the door. You would meet one of the realest, full of life, hard working, happy people that I've ever known in my life time. And I've met a few people.
Before St. Maarten, before Frank Cordes, way back in the early eighties, there was just Leta. Leta McLendon. Her friend Lilee knew Leta as a single mom and waitress in Los Angeles by day, and rocker chick prowling the Sunset Strip by night.
Lilee: Back then we were hanging out with bands like Motley Crue, Poison. It was a very exciting time to be in L.A. and be that age. It was--
Dennis Murphy: And did Leta like it as much as you did?
Lilee: Oh, I think so. We loved to dance. We would dance. And if no one asked us to dance, that never stopped us (laugh). We'd get up and do our thing.
And the rocker bit wasn't just a "look" for Leta -- she was the lead singer for a band that was trying to make it big, playing gigs all around town. Leta wanted the music thing to happen for her - badly. Her bandmate Gar remembers Leta's intensity.
Gar: she had her head in the right place. She was very focused, very driven kind of person that wanted to get somewhere in life, and was willing to do what she needed to do to make that happen.
With a personality even bigger than her voice, she knew what it took to breeze through the velvet ropes and catch everyone's attention.
Gar: She walks in, and boom. Pretty soon, everybody's looking like, "Who is that making all the noise over there?" (laughter) She says hi to everybody, 'cause she usually knows everybody.
Gar remembers some of the guys in Leta's wide circle, big-hair types who made for better photo ops than they did boyfriend material. Lilee can still recall a song Leta wrote about the L.A. guys who were all take and no give...
Lilee: (sung) Sometimes it's hard havin' someone that leans on you all the time....
Gar unearthed a demo tape to play for us that he hadn't heard in years.
Dennis Murphy: Now, this is something Leta wrote, huh?
Dennis Murphy: And the track was called what?
Gar: “Don't Lean on Me.”
Lilee: I think she wrote that song 'cause she was like, "Oh, gosh. I have just taken care of everyone always. Somebody's gotta try with me a little bit." And I think that's what Frank did when he came in her life.
Frank Cordes. The one who was different from all the rest. He certainly stood out from Leta's usual crowd: He was a computer programmer, and at 20, he was seven years younger than Leta and was still learning English after arriving on the west coast from his native Germany.
Dennis Murphy: Frank was smitten? He was pursuing her?
Gar: Very much so. Phone calls, little gifts and whatnots. Showing her a good time all the time, and always following up with a call the next day to make sure she had an enjoyable evening. Very much a gentleman.
Before long, Frank and Leta were married, and if friends think back and recall the union had something to do with Frank getting a green card, there was no dispute that their relationship was the real deal.
Dennis Murphy: You saw an authentic couple together?
Lilee: Oh yeah. Oh, most definitely. Most definitely.
Dennis Murphy: He loved her, she loved him?
Frank was quiet, reserved, even-keeled. Leta was a fire-cracker with a famously short fuse. The yin-yang of their relationship worked for them. Frank and Leta settled down, and Leta's sputtering music career made way for their successful animation business, something they ran out of their home base - a townhouse in Orange County, Calif. Frank did the techie computer work, Leta managed the clients. One of Frank's computer-world contacts became his good friend: Jamie Niehaus.
Jamie Niehaus: For years they were the last couple i could say i knew was happily married.
Years of happy times with a core group of friends that included Jamie, Leta's childhood friend Elaine Karas, and another dear friend Cary Honstein. Vacations, birthdays, costume parties, trips to Vegas ... Frank and Leta played as hard as they worked.
But that same group of pals was also around to witness the gradual disintegration of Leta's entire world. They saw her suffer a series of emotional blows that put her in a tailspin in the year before she went missing.
Her family back in Fresno, Calif., was flying apart at the seams. She'd already lost two brothers ... and now her mother was declining as she battled dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer’s. Friends say the immense pain of those losses ended up being more than Leta's heart could take. She needed helpers.
It supposedly started with a prescription for Vicodin. Leta always enjoyed a few drinks, but now as one medication turned to a few, her light drinking became heavy drinking. The numbing cocktail alleviated her anguish ... but made her sloppy.
Jamie: I would often come over for a barbecue. And Frank and I would watch movies, et cetera. Leta was usually, actually -- indisposed -- hungover, for the most part. She was just being knocked out constantly, spent most of her time in a near comatose situation.
And it was somewhere along this slippery slope of self-medication that those close to Leta say she felt Frank had abandoned her. They say he began belittling and ridiculing her ... making her feel worse about herself rather than better. One of the people who sensed her sense of abandonment was the son of Leta's friend Elaine, Trent Lapinski.
Trent Lapinski: Leta needed a shoulder to cry on. She needed him more than ever. And he simply was not there for her.
Heartsick and battling addiction, Leta found solace in the arms of someone new -- a young man named Bobby who she'd met back in Fresno.
Depending on who you talk to, the situation that developed out of this mess - and how Frank and Leta chose to deal with it - has everything or nothing to do with what came next.
Heartsick and battling addiction for booze and prescription pills, Leta had found comfort in the arms of someone new -- a young man named Bobby, who had been renting a room in her family's home back in Fresno.
Trent: Bobby's a very, very, very caring individual himself. And you know, you can definitely see how he was able to comfort her. And you know, that was something frank simply wasn't able to do.
There'd been years of calm waters for Leta Cordes--but family tragedies, the struggle with substance abuse--had thrown her for a loop. And come the fall of 2006, her life was in crisis: her techie husband Frank had found out about the affair in a techie bit of snooping.
Jamie: I believe he put a bug in her purse. And he might even put one in her car. And he tried to follow her around just so he could find out. And it worked out for him 'cause he actually did find out.
But Frank says Leta came up with a unique solution to settle the marital score on her infidelity. Frank could have a fling of his own. Jamie says Leta told him about the plan.
Jamie: She'd called me and said, "I had an affair. I messed up. But, I told Frank that he can have one. And after that, we'll be square. So I set him up with our friend, Elaine", a long time girlfriend of Leta's.
It wasn't a solution you'll find in self-help books: take my best friend as your temporary lover but as it turns out, Frank did just that with Leta's girlfriend Elaine. A few weeks together was apparently as far as it went, but it took longer to recalibrate the messiness between wife and husband, friend and friend. And by now, for the first time in their relationship, Frank and Leta were seriously discussing separating.
Jamie: They weighed options, things like that, you know, how to split up the property, who'd get what, how they'd deal with basically everything. That was, I'd say, the biggest rift in their relationship.
But by early 2007, they seemed to be past the hurdle, or at least enough for Frank and Leta to focus their attention on their new project together -- a getaway house in St. Maarten.
Maybe the fix for Frank and Leta's marriage was here, on these Caribbean beaches that they loved so much. They decided that St. Maarten was going to be more than a vacation place -- they were going to build a house here. So they picked out just an idyllic site, secluded, with its view overlooking the sparkling waters of dawn beach. It was going to be their place to relax, spend time with friends, and eventually retire.
Leta and Frank had struck up a new friendship with a couple they'd met at a restaurant…
Diane Smith: She was loud, she was flamboyant...
... Charter sailors Diane Smith and her husband.
Diane remembers how much the new house meant to both of them: When Frank supervised the construction and picked out the tiles and paint colors, Leta joined in the decision-making.
Diane Smith: She was very into the house. It's very fun especially for women to be able to do the colors, and the curtains, and all the design. And it's just a really fun, big project. And she was very proud of it, and very into it.
The final homey touches were just about in place when Christmastime 2007 rolled around. Frank and Leta wanted to show off their new island home to their usual gang of close friends who all flew in for a few weeks of sun and fun.
Jamie: The mood for the group was great. This was actually something we'd all been looking forward to. The house was beautiful. And so the atmosphere was cheery and great for the most part.
Island friend Diane thought that Frank and Leta were wonderfully relaxed and gracious hosts when they asked everyone over for an evening of holiday get-together.
Diane Smith: It was just fun. Everybody brought some food. It was all laid out. And we just chit chatted.
Jamie the houseguest agrees that all seemed well among the group -- and between Frank and Leta. He says at quieter moments during his visit, both Frank and Leta confided that they needed each other too much to separate.
Jamie: And so said, "Well, that sounds great," you know? And that was a few days before I left.
But now the friends were gone. And so was Leta. It was the day after the night Frank said she'd set out in the dark for the casino, and she still wasn't home. As word got out, friends both on the island and Stateside started to worry - and to wonder.
First, did the story even sound likely? The answer was yes: they knew Leta was an inveterate gambler with a round-the-clock itch for some action. As for taking off alone, Leta's friends say that was typical.
Dennis Murphy: So the whole story about her being passed out in the car, and then getting a second wind, and wanting to finish the night gambling, that's plausible? That's--
Gar: Oh, that's not only plausible. That's so Leta.
Dennis Murphy: Totally Leta?
Gar: Totally her. You know, and almost out of spite. Like, you know, "I don't care if you want to go. I'm gonna go. Give me some money." You know, and she could do stuff like that on a whim.
But Leta would also always come home by morning. So something was surely wrong. All her friends also knew Leta was open and friendly. Had she hooked up with some people that night -- maybe the wrong people -- and had the resulting party taken a sinister turn?
Jamie: She could have gotten on a boat and maybe something happened out there and somebody decided they didn't want to deal with the aftermath and just chucked her over the side.
And in the early hours a few weren't thinking tragedy at all. Maybe she was finally fed up enough with Frank to want to sneak away and get some breathing room with someone new.
Diane Smith: Maybe she met someone and sailed away, or motored away on some mega yacht. You know, she's very friendly, lots of fun. Maybe some sugar daddy picked her up and off they went." I mean, that was probably my hope because then she's okay, and maybe she would come back.
Lilee: Anything's possible. But, then I sit and I think about it, and reality slaps you in the face and says, "No. " She would have got the divorce or whatever it took and been with whoever she wanted to be with. She would not have just disappeared off the planet and let everybody go through what they're going through.
And there was the possibility--just whispered about--that a woman with addiction problems and a sometimes roller-coaster relationship might have just wanted to end it all.
Jamie: I never thought that Leta's disappearance could have anything to do with suicide. Leta liked life too much. I think she has-- i mean, she's been depressed, but i don't think it's anything clinical.
Dozens of possible scenarios -- none of them satisfying. But Frank Cordes himself refused to speculate, instead concentrating on practical tasks like going on searches, making calls. Later on, he even organized scuba dives off Dawn Beach, which he carefully mapped out and documented.
Frank was also cooperating with authorities, but there was something that investigators were also getting wind of that raised their eyebrows. Something Leta's pals say they noticed from the start.
Some of those friends who'd come to the house in those first days to help look for Leta didn't like what they were seeing. Frank seemed cold, detached, unemotional. Even for Frank.
Dennis Murphy: When you first got to the house, what were you seeing in Frank?
Diane: Down. But not panicked.
Dennis Murphy: What were you not seeing in him--
Dennis Murphy: --that you expected to see?
Diane: Yeah, panic, frantic, "Where's my wife?"
Dennis Murphy: "Oh my god," you know. No, it was just, "Can't find Leta."
But it would be months before investigators started taking a closer look at the husband.
St. Maarten authorities had a missing persons case on their hands, the likes of which they hadn't seen in a decade. They fanned out across the island, taking statements from friends, neighbors, and combing various areas with search dogs. All to try to find out what happened to Leta Cordes. But their efforts netted few answers. St. Maarten chief prosecutor, Taco Stein.
Taco Stein: it's like making a puzzle of those little jigsaw blocks, without an image on them, so you're puzzling, and you're trying to put the things together, but you don't know what you're putting together.
The mystery inside the mystery inside Leta's disappearance was just how few clues there were. No one up here in her neighborhood seems to have seen her, nor anybody, along the road here. And there was just no trace of her physically. Not a shoe or a scrap of clothing. And there was no electronic trace either. She wasn't using her credit cards or her phone.
So investigators moved their gumshoe work further down the hill to the hotel casino Leta was supposedly headed to that night. They checked at the front desk with security. Had anyone seen Leta?
Taco Stein: She wasn't seen in the casino that night. Of course, people were interviewed there. And we looked at the camera images, and she wasn't seen there.
The only thing left for investigators to examine between the house and casino was the path from point A to point B, Leta's supposed late-night solo stroll down the hill.
This is the road that Leta is said to have walked down that night sometime after 10:30. It is full of washouts, potholes, ankle twisters, high brush on both sides. Now Frank said that Leta was drinking heavily that evening. She was wearing women's sandals. To get from her house at the top of the hill to the casino down at the bottom where she's headed, it would have taken every bit of 15 minutes. And she wouldn’t be walking with a light as we have. It would have been pitch dark.
Could she have been injured? Hit by a car? Abducted? Had she hitched a ride with the wrong person? The searches along the road had yielded zilch in the way of physical clues, but there was one thing detectives kept circling back to. Something Frank had told them about that night.
It's the same story he told us... that after Leta left on foot for the casino the night she disappeared, Frank couldn't go back to sleep -- so he took off after her.
Frank: I laid there a little bit longer and I said, "You know what? Let's just abort this night. You know, I'm gonna go out there," and followed, you know, her, maybe about 10, 15 minutes later with the car to just mainly convince her to just, you know, "Go on, just cut it short here."
He says he drove down the road looking for Leta, but never saw her along his route. So he assumed she'd made it to the casino and turned around and came home.
Problem was, all evidence indicated Leta hadn't made it to the casino that night. That means--you have to believe--Leta walked out of her house and right into some sort of ready-and-waiting jaws of death moment somewhere along that road -- all in ten or fifteen minutes' time, a window that seemed implausibly short to detectives. A more likely scenario, they reasoned, was that Leta Cordes had never made it out of the house in the first place.
And when authorities took a closer look at Frank and Leta, they discovered the thick growth of thorns on their relationship.
Stein: Only later on we learned from interviews of the friends of Leta that there were some problems between the two of them.
Despite what Frank and Leta may have told friends like Jamie, the detectives were told that the two HAD been fighting in the months before she disappeared. And as recently as a DAY or two before, Leta telephoned friends like Diane Smith -- talking about an escalating battle with Frank -- and talking divorce.
Diane: She called me and just opened up, let loose. "I want a divorce. He's not gettin' the house," on and on. And I'm standin' there going, "Oh my gosh." I mean, I had no idea.
Dennis Murphy: Just unloading.
Diane: Yeah. And she was very adamant that he's not gettin' that house. You know, "that's my house."
Other friends say she called them too: saying Frank was accusing her of continuing her affair with her boyfriend Bobby, and that she suspected Frank was still settling the score by going to St. Maarten's legal brothels.
What's more, on the night Leta disappeared, Frank may have caught Leta talking on the phone with Bobby. She'd reportedly placed a call to Bobby that night after coming back to the house from the car, telling him she'd call him back in 20 minutes. But she never did.
Did Frank overhear Leta on her call that night? Did she pick a fight with Frank -- threatening to take the St. Maarten house -- and did that trigger Frank to snap? Investigators weren't sure -- but now they desperately wanted to find out.
By October 2008, ten months after Leta went missing, island authorities thought they had a crime - and a suspect. Frank Cordes was arrested and put in jail, while authorities tried to build a case against him.
Detectives decided Frank needed to be re-interviewed -- more vigorously, in perhaps a less friendly atmosphere: while incarcerated in the prison high above the harbor.
Prosecutor: And those interviews (laughter), I must say, brought more questions than answers. And from those interviews, our mistrusts against Mr. Cordes didn't get less, let's put it that way.
Some of the friends in that once-close group of Frank and Leta's pals have struggled with their own growing mistrust of Frank so much so that there's now a kind of division among them -- those that think he did it and those who don't.
And now two friends in particular -- Cary, Leta's longtime pal, and Elaine, that same friend who had a brief tryst with Frank -- have launched a Web site - and a search effort - that may help investigators put away Frank Cordes for good.
It's a Monday morning in February 2009 in St. Maarten, and while the rest of the island is sleeping off the remains of a weekend in the Caribbean, a team of around fifty people -- friends of Leta Cordes - Elaine, her son Trent, Cary, plus local volunteers - are gathered at dawn at a quiet surfer beach called Le Gallion. Their goal: to find their friend Leta.
Elaine: We understand that she was wearing jean shorts. A blouse, we don't know what color and we don't know about the shoes.
Leta's husband, Frank Cordes, is noticeably absent from today's search... and it's no secret why. In the months since Leta's disappearance, there's been a fissure between the once-happy group of friends who played and partied together for decades. A rift as heart wrenching as it is puzzling.
Dennis Murphy: In your circle of friends, with Leta in the center, that group of people is now very seriously divided. There's a lot of bitterness there.
Lilee: I realize that.
Dennis Murphy: And Frank is the focal point. You seem to be for Frank, or against Frank. What do you think has happened?
Lilee: Well, honestly, I don't know. I don't know.
The Friends of Leta group, spearheaded by Cary and Elaine, are careful not to voice their opinions in public -- except to say they believe a crime did occur, and they believe St. Maarten authorities are targeting the right suspect. Which makes their mission today two-fold: Find Leta. And find any clues to help bring her killer to justice.
Elaine: This area back in here seems to be the most interest.
After hiking up to a lookout point, the teams map out a strategy for methodically canvassing the area. And the seriousness of what they might find is not lost on any of them.
Cary: We think she was contained. We don’t think he carried her, we think he probably put her in a suitcase, something easy for him.
For one searcher, this day is particularly, achingly poignant -- Bobby, Leta's boyfriend, who always heard Leta talk about the beauty of this place she loved, and who has finally been brought here by her under the saddest of circumstances.
Cy: We're going to try to cover as much ground as possible.
The dog Sam, one of two dogs hired and flown over at the expense of the Friends of Leta group, starts picking his way along the beach.
Handler: Let's get going, settle in.
Then it's time to get to work. The dense scrub is hardly a walk in the park.
Handler: Ouch! See there's a big thorn. He'll go in, I might not. C'mon sam.
Sam hunts in the brush, while the other dog Rudy heads out on a dinghy to search the mangroves from a new vantage point, but no luck. The morning ends with no leads. But by the afternoon they're back at it again, and down the beach near some horse trails, the dogs may have found something.
Trent: We're waiting for the RST to come so we can have police present when we check out whatever the dogs have potentially discovered.
Authorities arrive - the RST, the Dutch version of the FBI - and they want to see the dogs alert. They do so again - a chilling sight.
The scene among Leta's friends is tense, tearful, as officials begin the grim work of digging on the site the dogs have identified.
Cary: We pray it's her but if it's not (choked up), maybe we’ll help someone else.
In the end it turns out to be a blood-stained sheet ... that authorities don't think has any significance to this case.
The Friends of Leta continue hunting for clues on this trip, but without success, at least this time. Authorities are telling them that at this point, without a body, the possibility of cracking the case is limited.
Prosecutor: Without a body, it makes it very difficult to investigate in a case in that way because you don't have a clue what you're looking for. You can say, "I think pretty safely that she's dead." But what has happened? Has she drowned? Has she been shot? Has she been stabbed? Has she been strangled? Did she fall off a cliff? Whatever, I don't know.
Until there's some sort of resolution in the case, the Friends of Leta say they'll never give up searching for her, or asking for help on the LetaCordes.com Web site, which also means there's little hope of healing among the group of people who loved both Frank and Leta for so long.
Gar: She has friends that love her very much, that miss her very much. And I think they want some way of putting this to rest. And that's a way of doing that.
Dennis Murphy: People that were mutual friends. Friends of Leta- they see a different scenario than you do.
Gar: They do. They do. And I don't know why. I'm wondering if they know something I don't. You know, if they prove something, that's different. But he's my friend. And he has the benefit of the doubt until I'm told, you know, conclusively they have proof. And I don't think that they have anything.
What St. Maarten prosecutors do -- and don't -- have on their lead suspect is something Frank Cordes himself has been trying to unravel for over a year.
Frank: They found a pool of blood with a cadaver dog.
Frank: Leta was a very outgoing person. And she could make a place that was dead, where people were bored, into a party house in about five minutes. Anybody who was, you know, down on their luck or had a bad moment, she could make smile.
Dennis Murphy: Do you miss her?
Frank: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
So here's Frank's story about the events you've been following:
He remembers Christmas 2007--the housewarming--as a special time, a time to celebrate St. Maarten as a fresh start for the both of them.
Dennis Murphy: As you look back on that period, that holiday period, the first time in the house, what do you remember?
Frank: Well, the happy times. You know, the clubs, the parties at the house, Christmas, New Year's, the beaches.
Dennis Murphy: And was Leta still happy there?
Frank: Oh, yeah.
Dennis Murphy: So that was gonna be a place you were gonna use more and more?
Frank: It was gonna be at least a 50 percent base of where we were going to spend our lives.
He admits things hadn't always been going smoothly for him and Leta, but says by Christmas 2007 they'd put all that relationship turmoil behind them.
Frank: We were gettin' along. Yeah, I mean there was some crazy things, I would almost call them crazy, that happened, you know, a few years before, and, you know, even leading up to that. But--
Dennis Murphy: There's a little bit of bed-hopping and friends become lovers--
Frank: Oh, is that the terminology? (laughs)
Dennis Murphy: -mix and match, huh?
Frank: Yeah, there was--
Dennis Murphy: And maybe a little more--
Frank: --no-- no mix and matching. More-- I mean... There was an affair. There was an affair on her side. I didn't have an affair. I just had, let's just say other consensual things that she approved and wanted me to do so that she wouldn't feel like she was to be the bad person in the relationship.
Dennis Murphy: Even out the balance a little bit, huh?
Frank: Right. Right.
Dennis Murphy: Here's the important point, Frank. Whatever bad feelings there might have been about the affair, was that old history? Or was that--
Frank: Oh, no. In my mind, that was a year old. By the time the beginning of 2007 comes, there was no problems.
And, says Frank, during that Christmas trip, there may have been talk of divorce - but no different than every other time in their 20-year marriage.
Dennis Murphy: Was she threatening to leave in that period of the Christmas holidays?
Frank: That started about 20 years ago, when i forgot to bring a hamburger home. So the word divorce has been around. Leta went from zero to 100 when she got angry. So when somebody says, you know, she wanted divorce, that was maybe for about an hour and a half, and then we would say, "okay, get dressed. We go to dinner. Okay."
Dennis Murphy: Did the topic of divorce come up, when you were--
Dennis Murphy: --having your beers, down at the French side after dinner?
Frank: No, no. Not at all.
Dennis Murphy: Back at the house that night?
Frank: No. We were all too tired. I was tired. Leta wanted to go gamble. I was ready for sleep. There was no talk about divorce.
But what about a fight the day she disappeared? That big blowup Leta told friends about -- the one that led her to finally say "it's over!" Perhaps uttering what would be fatal words: "You're not getting the house?"
Dennis Murphy: Did that happen?
Frank: Yeah. There was a fight. And unfortunately, I didn't participate in it, so I can't really talk much about it.
Dennis Murphy: What do you mean? A one-sided fight?
Frank: Well, the fight happened while I was gone.
Frank says he had no idea that Leta was steamed at him, because he was out of the house picking his mother up at the airport . And by the time he returned, once again the storm had passed.
Frank: When we came back from the airport, I entered the house and Leta acted normal. And, you know, greeted my mother. And my mother greeted her. And I didn't even know that she went through that, you know, horrible-- (laughs)
Dennis Murphy: So whatever she'd been talking to her friends about, it had blown over.
Frank: Right. Yes. I didn't even know about this.
Frank said that he explained all of this in the course of several long prison interrogations. But he said by then the authorities were focused solely on filling in the blanks in the case that they were building against him.
Dennis Murphy: Here's the big theory that's out there. Huge fight between you. She wants a divorce. You don't put up with it. You give her a pop. You don't mean to kill her, but all of a sudden it's, "oh, my god. I've killed my wife. I've gotta--"
Dennis Murphy: "--dispose of the body." that becomes the case against you, huh?
Frank: --I guess.
Dennis Murphy: That's the suspicion. What about it, Frank? Was there a fight?
Dennis Murphy: Did you give her a blow that you later regretted?
Frank: No. If there would have been a fight taking place, somebody would have heard something.
Frank thinks he unwittingly brought all the attention on himself when nine months after Leta went missing, he asked island prosecutors why they weren't doing more to find his wife. But authorities say by that time they'd already been planning their next move in the case -- a full-on CSI-style search of Frank's homes both in St. Maarten and southern California.
Frank: They took all my computers from both locations and searched basically in both houses.
Frank believes that if they'd found anything suspicious in either house, his car, or his computers, he would have been confronted with it during his time in prison. But he wasn't. But Frank says the authorities did quiz him about something he was told dogs had hit on at the property next door - blood.
Frank: And they took a sample of that blood.
Dennis Murphy: And what did it turn out to be?
Frank: Dog blood. Canine blood. But by that time-- but by that time, I already have been committed to another 30 days.
Dennis Murphy: You went to jail 30 days because--
Frank: An extra 30 days, yes.
Dennis Murphy: --because there was dog blood in the neighbor's house.
Frank: Uh-huh, yes.
The authorities also got ahold of the rental car that Leta's friend Elaine Karas had brought to the house in the first 24 hours after Leta went missing. And she later told police that that those rental car keys oddly went missing for a period of time.
Frank: So the theory goes that on the night of the 11th, I supposedly disposed of Leta in the neighbor's backyard. Leave her there for two days, and then the friend comes to the house and I take her rental car in the middle of the night, unseen, unheard. Now, mind you, this is at a time of day when nobody sleeps because Leta's gone. So, supposedly, I drag her back from the neighbor's backyard, put her in the rental car and, I guess, find a better hiding location. That is substantiated by the fact that cadaver dogs now start liking that rental car.
But Frank says there are two problems to this neat theory, if that's even in fact the theory authorities are working from. For one, the rental car was located by investigators MONTHS after it had already been back on the St. Maarten roads. And as far as Frank can determine, the dogs never found any blood at all.
Frank: What they alerted to in the rental car is not even blood.
Dennis Murphy: It was rust or something, huh?
Frank: Yeah. It was probably transmission fluid and--
Murphy: Car fluids from the car?
Frank: --yeah. Ketchup or something like that, yeah. And that was compared to my DNA. The result of that was that I-- that I definitely needed a tune-up.
Dennis Murphy: And you definitely needed a lawyer.
After four months behind bars, Frank Cordes was released from prison after prosecutors admitted they didn't have enough evidence to take their case to trial.
Dennis Murphy: In the end you got cut loose from the jail. What happened?
Frank: Uh-huh. Well, all the evidences, all these fantastic stories that were presented to me, they fell apart. Technically there is no evidence of a victim. There's no evidence of a crime. And beyond that there's actually no evidence that I did anything. Because there is nobody who says that they saw Leta dead, that any blood was found, any DNA, that anybody heard a crime, anybody saw a crime, that I told anybody I did a crime, that anybody saw me do a crime. That there's any evidence in my house, my car or on my computers that I did a crime.
Dennis Murphy: Was there a fight? Did you kill her?
Frank: No, no.
Dennis Murphy: You, who know the island so well and the waters, were you able to dispose of her body?
Frank: At night? I mean, how-- how's that gonna happen?
Dennis Murphy: It's not a huge island.
Frank: It's not a big island, no. I mean, it's big enough to have areas that take more time to search. But generally by now, I would presume somebody would have been found.
Authorities say Frank Cordes is still the one and only suspect in their investigation of the disappearance of Leta Cordes, and that the case remains open. Until it is solved, Frank Cordes himself seems resigned to living under a cloud of suspicion ... and goes about mourning in his own way.
Dennis Murphy: Did you ever have the moment of grieving for Leta?
Frank: Absolutely. Absolutely. But I grieve in private. I don't cry in public.
Dennis Murphy: Would life had gone easier on you if you'd had?
Dennis Murphy: Speculation. Let's call it speculation. What do you think happened to Leta?
Frank: I can't speculate. The speculations are just, you know, not useful for me. Because, everything that I'm trying to think of may have happened, I have no-- no reason to believe that that's the way it happened.