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Mystery in St. Maarten: Missing in Paradise

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Frank Cordes doesn’t seem like a man with a lot to hide. Answering the door to his upscale townhouse in Mission Viejo, Calif., he is stripped to the waist and shows off a chiseled physique and sunny smile. But after a few pleasantries, he gets down to a troubling subject—the disappearance of his wife, Leta, 49, who vanished without a trace from the island of St. Maarten in January. Seven months later Frank, 43, the owner of a prosperous medical animation business, is eager to dispel the nasty cloud of suspicion that has settled over him. “I understand that it’s statistically probable that I had something to do with it,” he says in his matter-of-fact way. “When someone disappears, who is suspected? The husband. But I did not kill her, I did not have anything to do with her disappearance. I am a victim here, too.”

At this point, authorities on St. Maarten are not even sure that a crime has been committed. There is not any evidence that Leta is dead, either by accident or foul play. According to Frank, the couple, along with his mother, who had just arrived for a visit, had driven to their vacation home on St. Maarten on Jan. 11 after an evening of drinks with friends. He says that Leta, a frequent gambler, wanted to go to the Westin casino a half mile away. He didn’t, so she left on foot around 11 p.m. Worried that she might have fallen on the rough road, he says that he soon went looking for her. When he didn’t see her, he assumed she had made it to the casino, and he went to bed. After a fruitless search early the next morning, he reported her missing. For now, police on St. Maarten have neither cleared Cordes nor named him as a suspect. “I think there is probably a lot more to the story than Frank has told us,” says a police source familiar with the case. “That’s not to say that he killed her but that there are some pieces to the puzzle that we don’t know, and that Frank could probably tell us.”

One of the puzzles all along has been Cordes’s behavior. Friends of Leta’s say he took a keen interest in the case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on Aruba. (Cordes says he was “aware” of the Holloway story, but “didn’t think anything more about it than anyone else.”) Frank and Leta met in California more than 20 years ago, when he was a German immigrant and she was a single mom who was going to college, working as a waitress and singing in a rock band. By all accounts, the first years of their marriage were happy, and they started their successful animation business.

Then a series of tragedies hit Leta. Two of her brothers died of drug overdoses and her mother developed Alzheimer’s. She had started to drink heavily and gamble frequently. She also went on antidepressants. Cordes says that last year Leta had an affair, and that he had one in retaliation. Friends say the couple talked about divorce from time to time but didn’t seem serious about it. Karen Laurence, who with husband Joe was drinking with the Cordeses on the night in question, says all seemed well with the couple. “They seemed very much in love,” she says.

So what could have happened to her? Though St. Maarten is considered quite safe, the stretch of road from the Cordes home to the Westin is dark and deserted and has been the scene of several robberies of tourists in the past year. Frank argues that circumstances don’t point to his involvement. “Would I kill my wife on the very day that my mother came to town?” he asks. “That rules out premeditating it, and if it were an accidental death, how would I be able to cover my tracks so well? It doesn’t make sense.”

Leta’s son Rory Bryant says that he “has chosen to stand behind” his stepfather. But friends and family are privately troubled by Cordes’s stoicism—a problem that Cordes himself acknowledges. “I don’t show emotion a lot,” he admits. He underscores that a moment later when talking about the possibility that his wife may not be alive. “I hope she’s okay,” he says, “but I know the reality of the situation.”