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The Man The Murder and the Mistress

The shocking murder of well-liked Toronto businessman Frank Roberts is only more so after the discovery of his secret life in Florida.

When he threw the opening pitch at the Toronto Blue Jays' home game on Aug. 12, 1997, businessman Frank Roberts seemed at the top of his game both professionally and personally.

The 67-year-old Roberts was the inventor of the Obus Forme back support, used by millions of people worldwide to relieve their aching backs. His success had earned him recognition as one of Canada's "Top 100 Entrepreneurs," while efforts to promote his products had made him a well-known, well-liked figure in Toronto sports and civic circles.

It was a heady moment. Who would have expected that one year and one day later, on Aug. 13, 1998, Roberts would be gunned down execution-style as he arrived at his factory early that morning?

The killing shocked Toronto, the biggest city in Canada and among the safest in North America. Why would anyone want to murder a man almost universally described as kind, generous and devoted to his family? An investigation soon revealed that Frank Roberts had another life _ a life in Florida that was secret to all but a few.

There was the condominium Roberts kept on the 24th floor of a high-rise in North Miami Beach.

There was the good-looking, 31-year-old who lived several flights down. Etty Sorrentino became Roberts' mistress even though she was married and less than half his age.

And there was the $555,000 house on Atlantic Isle that Roberts bought to share with his lover.

In the year since the slaying, Toronto police have interviewed hundreds of people, including Sorrentino's husband. But they don't have any suspects or motives.

"It's not a solved case but it's an extremely fascinating case," says Detective Ray Zarb. "He was a man of wealth and contacts and connections so that in itself breeds a huge web."

From digging into Roberts' background, though, Zarb is sure of one thing:

"His personal life, it would be safe to say, was more complex than most."

"He was very proud'

Like many a self-made man, Frank Leonard Roberts dabbled in a variety of fields before he perfected the product that would make him a legend in Canadian business circles.

Born in Boston, he moved to Toronto in 1959 and over the next two decades built upscale homes, ran a gift shop and sold imported Danish furniture and housewares. As he approached 50, divorced from his first wife and still seeking direction to his life, he aggravated a chronic back problem while playing tennis with his daughter.

As Roberts later told it, doctors put him in a body cast that did an excellent job of relieving his back pain. When it came time to shed the cast, he kept the back half, which supported his spine, as the model for a portable support that could be used in any chair.

"After numerous modifications working in his garage, he created the version we know today as the Obus Forme Backrest Support _ a backrest that conforms to the contours of your back, eliminating stress and fatigue," the company's promotional literature says.

With encouragement from an orthopedic surgeon and money he had saved from his sales career, Roberts opened a factory in a working-class neighborhood of west Toronto. The original Obus Forme, French for "shell-shaped," was joined by an entire line of back-support products that quickly won a devoted following.

"I've had a history of back problems, especially in the car," says Jerry Howarth, a radio announcer for the Blue Jays. "I couldn't drive for more than half an hour or 45 minutes so I put one (Obus Forme) in the car and drove three hours and it felt like a minute."

So good was Howarth's experience that he readily agreed in 1984 when Roberts asked if he would represent Obus Forme on the air. The two men developed a friendship that would continue until Roberts' death 14 years later.

"He was very proud of what he had accomplished," says Howarth. "I remember how cheerful he was, like a little boy at Christmas, going to the opera, going to the ball game and taking his Obus Forme. He used it for his own benefit but he wanted to showcase it.

"I don't think he was in it strictly for the profit but wanted other people to enjoy the freedom from back pain he got."

To increase the visibility of his products, Roberts gave Obus Forme backrests to Blue Jays players and celebrities like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Jackie Chan. He also sponsored a race car and became active in the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

In the mid-1990s, Roberts won key endorsements from the American and Canadian chiropractic associations. Although the associations receive a fee in return for lending their names to commercial products, the testing process is rigorous enough that endorsements are relatively rare.

"We've become increasingly careful on these things as we're recognized more and more as an authoritative source of information," says Julie Warner de Martinez, an executive of the 18,000-member U.S. association. She uses an Obus Forme backrest and calls it "superior to most."

By Aug. 13, 1998, Obus Forme had grown to 100 full-time employees and was selling tens of thousands of back supports annually in the United States, Canada and 26 other countries. It had been named one of Canada's 50 Best-Managed Private Companies and its founder was considered one of the greatest marketing geniuses in Canadian history.

Point-blank range

As usual, Roberts arrived at the factory that day at 7:30 a.m. He had just stepped out of his black Mercedes convertible when he was shot in the head and chest at point-blank range. Witnesses saw a man running from the scene.

"Everybody loved him so much because he was such a good man," Dominique Leval-Roberts, the most recent of Roberts' three ex-wives, sobbed to reporters.

"I just don't know why (someone) would do this."

Hundreds of people turned out for Roberts' funeral, where the grandfather of 13 was remembered as a model employer, a generous corporate citizen and a devoted family man. But as detectives and reporters began to look into his past, they found that Roberts' private life was markedly different from his public one.

According to Canadian Business magazine, the failure of Roberts' home-building company had left suppliers with thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, while an import firm had fired him after it discovered he was selling a competing line of products.

"He made a lot of enemies," a former Obus Forme executive told the magazine.

But the most sensational revelations came from North Miami Beach. Detectives soon learned that Roberts had a three-bedroom condominium at Mystic Pointe, a gated-community of high-rises with views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.

In a condo downstairs lived Etty Sorrentino. Slim, 5 feet 4 and deeply tanned, she was a striking Israeli emigre who at 31 had been married, divorced, married again and had a daughter.

Sorrentino's second husband, Fernando, had been struggling for years to make it in Dade County's competitive restaurant business. The couple had been married only a short time before Cafe Versace, a restaurant he managed, ran into enough trouble that a legal guardian had to be appointed to try to straighten out its finances.

"He always seemed like a nice guy," lawyer Allen Shore said of the 57-year-old Sorrentino. "He was a really great chef, the food was good, the location wasn't bad but they opened in the off-season and they just didn't have enough working capital to keep it going over the hump."

With the Sorrentinos' marriage and finances both in apparent jeopardy, Etty Sorrentino turned to another, much-older man _ Frank Roberts, whose third marriage was on the rocks. They met in the Mystic Pointe complex where both had condos, and began a three-year relationship that Sorrentino managed to hide from her husband.

According to the Toronto Star, the pair made several shopping trips to exclusive Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. Roberts complained to a friend, however, that he worked hard for his money and couldn't afford such an extravagant lifestyle.

In February 1998, a Canadian company registered to the Obus Forme address paid $555,000 for a house on Atlantic Isle, along Miami-Dade County's swank "Golden Mile." Though the house was in need of work, it was on a secluded cul-de-sac that had a stunning view across the water of the Oleta River State Recreation Area. About the same time, Roberts took out a large mortgage on his Toronto home.

The plan was for Roberts to sell his condo, renovate the house and move Sorrentino and her daughter in. Then came Aug. 13.

Like a Grisham novel

Both Sorrentinos had an alibi _ they were in Europe at the time of Roberts' murder. "I have no clue what happened, believe me," Etty Sorrentino told the Star by phone from Italy. "I'm going through a hell of a time here, I've been depressed."

Apparently frightened, too. A few weeks later, when a Toronto Sun reporter and photographer managed to elude security at Mystic Pointe and get to her ninth-floor condo, Sorrentino answered the door with a mobile phone and gun in hand. She slammed the door in their faces.

Since the murder, the Atlantic Isle house has been sold. The Sorrentinos have not filed for divorce, according to public records, and Etty Sorrentino, at least, continues to live in the condo. She has stopped talking to the press _ asked recently if she was certain she didn't want to comment, she replied "a million percent certain" in a low, throaty voice.

Brian Roberts, who took over as president of Obus Forme after his father's death, also declined interview requests. He finds the events of last summer too painful to discuss, a spokeswoman said.

Zarb, the Toronto police detective, is trying to keep an open mind but says the killing has all of the earmarks of a professional hit. As to who pulled the trigger _ and why _ the mystery remains.

"I don't think John Irving or John Grisham or anyone would have thought of this plot," says Zarb. "But I'm not at the end of the book."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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