NBC’s ‘Dateline: Trouble in Paradise: The St. Maarten Mystery’ features the mysterious disappearance of 49-year-old Leta Cordes from her vacation home in Oyster Pond, St. Maarten, in early January 2008. The police pursued several leads and questioned all her friends and accomplices in their attempt to find the missing woman. Even though over one and a half decade has passed since she disappeared, the authorities and the victim’s family still have multiple questions unanswered. If you’re interested in discovering more, here’s what we know.
What Happened To Leta Cordes?
The show described Leta Lynn (née McLendon) Cordes as a spirited and energetic woman known for her full-of-life personality. She spent her early years in Los Angeles, California, as a single mother and a rocker chick, leading a band and reveling in the vibrant music scene of the 80s. She had a circle of friends who remembered her for her magnetic presence. Her former bandmate and friend, Gar Buchanan, recalled how she possessed a personality even grander than her voice and knew what it took to breeze through and catch everyone’s attention.
Gar recounted how Leta’s wide circle included mostly big-hair guys, “making for better photo ops than they did boyfriend material.” However, that changed when she stumbled upon Frank Cordes, who stood out from her usual crowd. Frank, a computer programmer from Germany, pursued her with dedication and was characterized as a genuine and caring partner. They married, establishing a balanced relationship characterized by their contrasting qualities. Leta let go of her music aspirations and joined him in his animation startup.
With Frank doing the technical part and Leta handling the clients upfront, the couple built a successful business and enjoyed vacations and celebrations with a close-knit friends circle. However, a series of emotional sufferings, including family tragedies and health issues, led her to self-medicate with prescription drugs and alcohol. Her constant state of insobriety strained her relationship with Frank, whom friends claimed belittled her and made her feel abandoned during her struggles.
Amidst their marital challenges, Leta began an affair with a younger man, Bobby Hargis, seeking comfort in his arms. When Frank discovered the illicit affair through snooping, a complicated situation arose. She proposed a unique solution — he could have a fling with her friend, Elaine Karas, to settle the score. The incredulous situation led to several further complexities. But the couple seemed to have moved past the hurdles enough to build a getaway house together in St. Maarten by early 2007 — a last attempt to rejuvenate their failing marriage.
In early January 2008, the Cordeses hosted a housewarming party in their new hillside home overlooking the sea. On the night of January 11, Frank’s mother arrived from Germany after the house party and the departure of their friends. Frank, Leta, and his mother enjoyed a casual dinner and engaged in an impromptu cocktail gathering in a parking lot with friends. Eventually, they decided to return home. However, Leta, intoxicated from drinking and prescription pills, had trouble maintaining her balance.
While returning home, Leta dozed off in the back seat. Frank and his mother went inside, and a neighbor remembered seeing Leta in the car around 9:30 pm — the last confirmed independent sighting of her. Frank claimed his wife later woke up and wanted to go gambling. She was fond of the island’s casinos, particularly the one at the nearby Westin resort. But he refused to hand over the car keys due to her intoxication. He asserted the 49-year-old left on foot with cash from their Oyster Pond vacation home and vanished into the Caribbean night.
Is Leta Cordes Dead or Alive?
Frank alleged he hadn’t seen Leta Cordes since, thus sparking an international investigation into her disappearance. As days passed, friends speculated about her possible whereabouts. Leta’s reported propensity for gambling and her friendly nature prompted varied theories. Friends pondered whether she might have sailed away with someone or faced an accident on a boat. The possibility of suicide was considered but dismissed due to her love for life. However, Frank’s behavior raised suspicion among their friends.
They found him surprisingly detached and unemotional, contrary to what people expect from a worried spouse. Meanwhile, investigators on the island worked diligently to piece together Leta’s movements, gathering statements and searching the island with little progress. Despite thorough searches, no physical evidence, such as clothing or personal items, was found along the probable path she might have taken from her house to the casino. Surveillance cameras at the casino revealed that she never arrived there that night.
Frank claimed Leta followed her in the car about 10 to 15 minutes later to convince her to return home. However, he never encountered her on the way and assumed she had reached the casino. For investigators, the timeline seemed implausibly short for her to meet any possible fate. Upon closer examination, authorities uncovered the troubled aspects of Frank and Leta’s relationship. This discovery added complexity to the case, raising questions about potential motives or conflicts that could have contributed to Leta’s disappearance.
The police talked with several friends, including Diane Smith, who claimed Leta called her two days before she disappeared and stated she wanted a divorce. Diane also alleged Leta told her she would not let Frank “get the house.” Others contended he accused her of continuing her affair with Bobby while she suspected he was still frequenting St. Maarten’s legal brothels. Based on her phone records, the detectives thought Frank might have caught her having a conversation with Bobby on January 11, snapped, and killed her before disposing of her body.
Based on their hunches and circumstantial evidence, the police arrested Frank in mid-October 2008. He spent over three months in pre-trial detention before being released due to a lack of evidence. However, Frank remains a suspect in the mysterious disappearance of his wife. Meanwhile, Leta’s friends and her only son, Rory Bryant, conducted several searches throughout the island with the help of authorities, cadaver dogs, local volunteers, and scuba drivers. They have opened a dedicated website and a Facebook group for tips and updates.