By Bill Hewitt
September 13, 2004 12:00 PM

It was loneliness and dissatisfaction with her marriage, says San Antonio lawyer Mary Roberts, that prompted her three years ago to start cruising an Internet sex site looking for lovers. Posting an ad that read “Professional woman who is full of desire but not having her needs met,” she didn’t stay lonely for long. During the fall of 2001 she struck up relationships with at least five men, including a vice president of a pharmaceutical company, an Army officer and a top executive of a tech firm. In between trysts, she and her lovers traded steamy e-mails, one of which she signed, “Your demon love slave.” Their frolicking, Roberts, 48, had said in her Web come-ons, should have “no strings” attached.

But what she didn’t mention was that a legal noose was about to be slipped around her paramours’ necks. As the San Antonio Express-News disclosed in June, within weeks of Roberts ending the brief affairs, several of the men received letters from her husband, Ted, 47, a successful medical malpractice lawyer, threatening court action unless they coughed up a monetary settlement. In all, the men paid out a total of as much as $155,000 to keep the matter quiet. What makes the episode all the more remarkable is that no laws may have been broken. While declining to explain exactly why she and her husband did what they did, Mary insists that everything was perfectly above-board. “This was not a case of extortion,” she told PEOPLE. “I cannot emphasize that enough.”

But that doesn’t mean that people in San Antonio aren’t appalled by what appears to be the skirting of ethical boundaries. For weeks the case was subject No. 1 on talk radio and at cocktail parties. “This is the kind of thing you read in the paper in the morning and it makes you spit your coffee,” says San Antonio’s district attorney Susan Reed. “It bothers me a lot.” Whether Reed will be able to do anything about it, though, is another issue. The Robertses operated under the cloak of an obscure Texas legal procedure, known as Rule 202, that allows a lawyer to go directly to a judge with the facts of a case and ask if further investigation and a possible lawsuit are justified; even if the case has no merit, it becomes a matter of public record. In letters to his wife’s lovers, Ted Roberts enclosed drafts of his proposed Rule 202 filings, implying he would go public with the affairs.

Ted also suggested that he was prepared to drag the men’s employers into the case, telling one of them, for instance, that he intended to look at his company’s computer and e-mail records as part of an investigation of the affair. With the Army officer, he threatened to nail the military for “negligent supervision.” Not surprisingly, when local prosecutors approached the ex-lovers, no one was interested in cooperating. The state bar association’s probe was aborted when a court sealed all records at the Robertses’ request, though the FBI says it has an ongoing investigation into the matter. “People are outraged at the idea that lawyers are allowed to do things legally that in other circumstances would be illegal,” says Geary Reamey a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in Texas, Mary Roberts’s alma mater. “This looks a lot more like coercion than a settlement in anticipation of litigation.”

As for Mary, she blames it all on the computer. Recovering from surgery in 2001, she says, left her stuck at home with nothing to do except think about how her 11-year marriage to Ted wasn’t going well. (The couple have one son together, and Mary has two children from a previous marriage.) “Divorce was crashing down the tracks,” she says. “I became angrily promiscuous.” She says she turned to a sex site on the Web for solace.

Mary claims she didn’t tell her husband to send the letters, though she admits helping him identify the men. In her view, she’s the real victim because of the Express-News‘ decision to publish the details of the episode. “This was a painful, private part of my life that has become public,” says Mary. “[My children] have seen their mother shed more tears than I thought possible.” Her marriage now? “We’ve worked hard to put together a new relationship,” she says.

Since the story broke, Ted has kept mum. A stellar graduate of the University of Texas law school, he’d established himself as one of the mainstays of the state malpractice bar. Known as a blustery, aggressive—and effective—attorney with a fondness for steaks and expensive cigars, he has made no apologies for putting the squeeze on his wife’s former boyfriends. (According to the Express-News, part of the money that was paid out—it’s unclear how much—went to a children’s charity the Robertses had established.) At a court hearing in 2002, according to an account obtained by the paper, Ted said, “I met with these people, and I know they felt they were doing the right thing” by making the payments.

With local talk radio shows lambasting the couple, the Robertses vowed to file suit against the newspaper. Says Mary: “I think the Express-News screwed with the wrong pair of people.” No doubt her ex-lovers, now poorer and wiser, would wholeheartedly agree.

Bill Hewitt. Cary Cardwell in San Antonio