By Ihosvani Rodriguez, Tribune newspapers
7:45 PM CDT, May 9, 2013
It's the middle finger that flipped across the Internet world — and it belongs to millionaire socialite Filomena "Phyllis" Tobias.
The Heat fan from Jupiter flashed an angry bird inches from the face of Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah Wednesday. The resulting photo of the fierce-looking blonde quickly made headlines across the country.
So who is the woman behind the finger?
She's the 47-year-old widow of a hedge fund owner who, under mysterious circumstances, was found dead five years ago in the pool of the couple's mansion. It was her fourth husband.
Tobias first entered the media spotlight in 2007 following the death of Seth Tobias, 44, former CNBC commentator and hedge fund owner. A legal fight over the dead husband's wealth brought out lurid stories of murder, cocaine binges and trysts with a tiger-tattooed go-go dancer.
Thursday, she unexpectedly emerged back in the spotlight. She drew sharp criticism from other basketball fans, who said she crossed the line with her aggressiveness, and from Heat players, who lamented her actions.
"At the end of the day we're all human. We're regular people just like you and it's unfortunate," said Heat star Dwyane Wade. "We just want to ask our fans to cheer for us, to boo them when you come here and all of that, but let's stay first class around here, Miami."
Asked if he typically has fun with fan interaction, Noah told espnchicago.com he wasn't thrilled about being flipped the bird. "Do you have fun when somebody sticks their middle finger in your face?" Noah replied.
Tobais' middle finger came out during the fourth period, when she was watching the game with her family from posh lower-bowl seats. Noah had been ejected for cursing at referee Scott Foster, and received Tobias' one-finger scorn as he walked past the family on his way to the locker room.
Wearing a multicolored top, tight white pants, plenty of bling and clutching her red designer purse, Tobias and her finger salute became an Internet meme. One sports-related site, Deadspin.com, invited users to create captions and lampoon the photo with alterations.
Many on Twitter proclaimed her the typical cocky Heat fan.
"Typical Miami Heat trashy fan. No class. When the Heat are losing, her seat will be empty like the rest of them," wrote Kenny Ruiz in the Sun Sentinel's Facebook page.
Doug Peters, a friend who sold the seats to Tobias, said the widow was embarrassed. She told those around her that she simply was caught up in the excitement. Tobias declined to be interviewed Thursday.
"She's a really good woman," Peters said. "She got caught up in the heat of the moment. I don't think she'll be showing her face around for a while."
Peters said he felt bad for Tobias, but also said he did not want to condone such boorish behavior.
Peters said he sold the seats to Tobias, also a season-ticket holder, because he couldn't make it to the game. Tobias purchased the tickets to bring more of her family members and friends, which included the children seen in the front seats and the man standing next to her in the photo.
Several news outlets identified the man as Tobias' fiance, Bruce Smith, a vice-president of a sports consulting group in Atlanta that helps athletes with their wealth. He could not be reached for comment.
Before Wednesday night's incident, Filomena Tobias had been making public appearances, including a charity function in Palm Beach County.
Such moments have been more cheerful occasions than the days she faced after her husband's death, the circumstances of which sound like something straight from a Carl Hiaasen novel, set in one of Palm Beach County's most exclusive neighborhoods.
On Sept. 4, 2007, Jupiter police and paramedics found Tobias drowned in his pool. Medical examiners ruled he had a lethal mix of alcohol, cocaine and the sleeping pill Ambien in his system.
A five-month police investigation concluded there was no foul play, and prosecutors declined to pursue a criminal prosecution.
In 2008, Tobias' brothers — Samuel, Spence, Scott and Joshua — accused Filomena of murder in a civil battle to keep her from grabbing their late brother's $25 million fortune under Florida's "slayer statute."
The brothers in the dispute claimed Filomena Tobias spiked their brother's last meal of penne a la vodka with a deadly dose of Ambien. A 300-pound Internet psychic told the New York Times in 2007 that Filomena Tobias confessed that she lured her woozy husband to the pool area, promising him sex with a male stripper know as "Tiger."
Filomena Tobias' attorneys, which included a former husband, described the accusations at the time as ridiculous.
The following year a probate court judge approved a settlement agreement between his widow and his brothers.
The agreement precluded the need for a scheduled eight-day trial that would have featured accusations of gambling, overspending and marriage-ending affairs, which were outlined in court documents.
In the documents, Filomena Tobias described herself as a "housewife" who spent $47,000 in expenses a month, including $4,400 for clothes, $1,500 for beauty salons and $5,000 for the upkeep of her Porsche and Range Rover, according to a 2007 Sun Sentinel article.
On Thursday, reacting to the backlash from Tobias' finger waving, her grown daughter told the Sun Sentinel in a phone interview that her mother "was having fun just like any other fan."
Victoria Racanati said her mother had this to say to her critics: "People need to get a life."
Miami Heat player Chris Bosh said he expects retribution from Bulls fans, when the teams continue their series in Chicago on Friday.
"I'm sure we'll be hearing similar things tomorrow night and Monday night," Bosh said Thursday. "What goes around comes around. We're going to have to deal with it, too.''
Victoria Racanati and Doug Peters both described Tobais and her family as "very private" and declined to talk more about her current life.
Racanati described Tobias as an ardent Heat fan, but was fuming by some of the less-than-flattering comments left on Internet stories about the incident.
"I have to say she still looks really hot," the daughter said.
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