She enjoyed representing the plaintiffs in employment cases, says longtime friend Tonja Haddad, since they were the people who claimed to have been mistreated by their companies. Sometimes she'd even volunteer to take on a juvenile case — a kid who got caught shoplifting, for example — and do the work for free.

"If she felt that someone had been wronged... she would basically be in your corner and fight for you to the end," Haddad says.

When Melissa started as a law clerk, Rothstein had a tiny office with only a handful of people, a far cry from the 70-attorney firm that Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler became at its height. It was in that small office where Melissa befriended Rothstein's secretary and office manager, a tall, boisterous Texan named Debra.

Tony Villegas
Tony Villegas

Debra Taylor came to Florida to start over. She'd left her family, her job, and her ex-husband in Texas and moved to Daytona with two young daughters.

"I grew up very hard in rural Texas, and my parents were not very good parents," Debra would later tell Plantation police detectives. "[Melissa's] the only person in my whole life who has actually loved me and done for me and been good to me."

One spring in Daytona, Debra met Tony Villegas, a train conductor from Miami who was on vacation. The two began dating long-distance, and Debra soon moved in with him in Pembroke Pines. But she had some doubts about him from the beginning, according to a sworn statement she gave Plantation police in March 2008.

When her youngest daughter was about 3, they were riding in the car with Tony. Her daughter was babbling away in the back seat, as toddlers do, and "it drove [Tony] crazy," Debra told police.

So he pulled the car over to the side of the road, found some duct tape, and taped the toddler's mouth shut, Debra said. All the while, Tony "didn't even blink," Debra recalled.

"And I'm just sitting in the car thinking, 'You can't do that to her,' " Debra said. "But he didn't see anything wrong with that."

Despite her reservations about Tony, she didn't leave him. "I felt like I didn't have anywhere to go. I had no family here, no friends."

To complicate matters, Debra, 25 and already a mother of two, got pregnant. She filed a paternity suit against Tony in Broward County Court when her son was born in 1993. But the couple must have decided to work things out, because a year later, they were married and soon had a second son. (Debra Villegas, through her attorney, declined to comment for this article.)

One of the first nights she lived with her mother's new husband, Aimee Villegas was petrified. She was only 6 or 7 at the time, and the family had just moved into a townhouse in Pembroke Pines. One night, she told Plantation police, she heard her mother screaming from another part of the house, "Help me! Help me! Help me!"

"Me and my little sister were terrified. We wouldn't even come out of the room," Aimee, now 23, told police in a 2008 interview. "And from that day on, I never liked him."

Tony had a habit of excluding Aimee from family activities, she said, and he directed some of his most vicious attacks toward her. Mainly, he targeted her when Debra was at the office, because at the time he worked nights as a train conductor and was home during the day.

One day, Aimee went to the kitchen to get a drink. Tony came up behind her, grabbed her by the neck, and shoved her against the fridge. "You don't [eat] my food; you don't drink or eat in my house unless your mother is here," she remembered him scolding her.

She also saw Tony hit her younger brothers. If the boys' room wasn't clean, Tony would walk in and start throwing toys at them. "If it hit their head, oh well, 'Toughen up — you're a man,' " she remembered Tony saying. "Or sometimes if he hit them and they'd cry, he'd hit them even more.

"And sometimes he would come in our room and because one person got in trouble, everyone had to get hit," she said.

Caleb Villegas, who was 14 when Plantation police questioned him in March 2008, confirmed these allegations. "If my room wasn't clean or I didn't do a chore... he would throw stuff at us," Caleb told police in a separate interview.

Debra was spared from seeing much of the violence, Aimee told police, because Tony wouldn't hit the kids much in front of her. But he would stalk his wife, showing up at her office parking garage after work if she didn't come home at the appointed time. "And I would get in my truck, and all the way home, I would just cry and be angry," Debra told police.

Debra said she lived in near-constant terror that her husband would kill her or Aimee. Tony once calmly informed her that if she ever tried to leave him, "I'll feed you to the alligators so the body won't be found," she said.

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chaplain sol rothstein of boyton police

Wally Kalbacken
Wally Kalbacken

I don't know any of the people involved. I'm just a spectator to this circus, reading about all these matters in retrospect. Finding it very entertaining, by the way.

But I'd say one problem with the portrayal of the victim as "not appreciating mediocrity" and "a person of the highest ethics you could find" is that either you had to be deaf, dumb and blind as a member of Scott Rothstein's firm, or, at the very least not very inquisitive, to even be in the same building as this guy. She wasn't as perceptive or as ethical as portrayed, methinks.

Ware Cornell
Ware Cornell

I knew Melissa. I know Scott. The problem with this story, which is basically the narrative in the prosecution's case against Tony Villegas , is Scott.

Rothstein's scheme and the extent of his closeness to the law enforcement community has propelled the conspiracy theorists into the stratosphere. Debra Villegas was clearly involved in Rothstein's Ponzi operation, and may have leaked the details of some of it to Melissa, prompting Scott to order her death.

Scott's eulogy at Melissa's funeral, which I attended, was bizarre. Basically it seemed to be an extended promotion of his firm delivered with self-congratulatory sentiment totally out of keeping with the loss of a promising young lawyer. Given that Stuart Rosenfeldt was Melissa's mentor and not Scott it appeared that Scott had orchestrated a pep rally for RRA rather than a memorial for a slain colleague. Stuart, by contrast, was totally bereft. When I spoke to Stuart immediately after the service about Scott's eulogy, Stuart told me that it was " just Scott being Scott."

In the end Scott has given Tony Villegas a great gift. He has given the defense lawyers their own narrative. Should they successfully spin this to the jury, Scott will claim one more victim.

Bad People
Bad People

I don't think the husband did this. Mr. R-Steen and his assistant allegedly had the real motive to kill.

They are the bad people.

The "evidence" here...would be very easy to do a frame-up with.


I have read all about this case and I have to agree I think the husband is the scapegoat.  It sounds as though Debra was "such" a user.  Who lets their friends do so much for them.  Seems she was well taken care of by her boss and her best friend.  I find it hard to believe after her saying she had a bad feeling when she met her husband that she still married him and stayed with him after the incident with her young child.  I am a survivor of domestic abuse and I would have "found" a way to get out of the situation once it involved one of my children.  The poor husband is innocent probably.