He also enjoyed watching violent movies, far more than his wife thought was normal. When Debra questioned him about it, "He would just tell me, 'You know, sometimes you just want to cross the line,' " Debra told police.

"What did he mean by 'cross the line'?" a detective asked her.

"He's just crazy," Debra said. "I think he meant he, you know, would kill somebody... He's just nuts, you know."

Melissa Lewis, seen here with Scott Rothstein, celebrated becoming a partner at the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler firm shortly before she was killed.
Courtesy of Lynn Haberl
Melissa Lewis, seen here with Scott Rothstein, celebrated becoming a partner at the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler firm shortly before she was killed.
Debra Villegas (left) relied on Melissa Lewis for comfort and support after her separation from Tony Villegas.
Courtesy of Lynn Haberl
Debra Villegas (left) relied on Melissa Lewis for comfort and support after her separation from Tony Villegas.

Meanwhile, at work, Debra found a savior in Scott Rothstein. As he established his law firm, he took Debra with him. She ascended from being a paralegal with no college degree to COO of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler. Rothstein trusted her to handle the firm's money and paid her a six-figure salary. He made her gatekeeper of his "inner sanctum" — the heavily secured area on the 16th floor of the firm's offices where he allegedly solicited investors in his false legal deals.

Debra, in turn, considered her boss to be one of her closest friends. She figured Tony must be jealous of Rothstein. "I'm sure he hates Scott," Debra told police. "Scott found the [divorce] attorney. Scott helped us, you know, get situated. You know, Scott pays me very well. Scott's very good to me.

"I couldn't even say Scott's name at home," she said. " 'Cause me and Scott are very, very close."


Melissa continued working with Rothstein when she graduated from law school and became a respected labor and employment attorney. "Whatever side it was, you wanted her on your side," her former colleague says.

She was ambitious, hoping one day to be a judge. After a few years, she briefly left Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler to work for another firm. "She told her mother that she wouldn't work for the — I don't curse — but she said she wouldn't work for the SOB anymore, and she meant [Rothstein]," her aunt, Haberl, told New Times columnist Bob Norman.

But Melissa quickly returned, partly because Debra was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her friends say. When she came back, her supervisor was Stuart Rosenfeldt. He became her mentor, a lawyer whose studious style contrasted sharply with Rothstein's bravado.

Melissa was finally making the kind of money she had once dreamed about, and she spent it generously. She didn't want children of her own, her aunt says, but she adored spoiling her sister's kids as well as Debra's kids. An unabashed fan of Disney World, she bought a time-share there so she could take her nieces to the theme parks. After a stint in Orlando, she'd bring back stuffed animals and souvenirs for her friends at the office. "She was the aunt everybody would wish they had," her former attorney colleague said. "She made everyone feel good."

In her free time, Melissa loved to read, cook Southern food, and shop. She had every cooking gadget imaginable, her aunt says. Haberl remembers her niece driving to Lakeland to whip up some crab and scallop linguine for an aunt's birthday. "Honey, she could cook anything she wanted and I would eat it," Haberl says.

In 2002, Melissa married another lawyer at the firm, Robert Lewis. Five years later, he asked for a divorce. Melissa was heartbroken, Tonja Haddad says. (A few weeks before she died, Melissa got another shock. She found out that Robert had quietly married a woman who worked for him, and his new wife was pregnant, Melissa's friends told police.) But her friends wouldn't let her stay at home on the couch watching the Food Network.

She became their "cruise director," Haddad says, organizing dinners and happy hours, signing them up for cooking classes. She bought herself a Jimmy Buffett margarita machine to host parties and took Debra's kids to a monster truck rally. She joined Leadership Broward, a community-service and networking group for rising stars of the yuppie set. She signed up for cooking classes. She started dating again.

And just a few months before she died, she made partner at the firm. "She was embracing life right before it was taken from her," Haddad says.

As Melissa's life improved, so did Debra's. Around the same time that Melissa got divorced in 2007, Debra finally found the courage to kick Tony out of the house.

The last straw came one night when Debra's 10-year-old son wasn't finishing his homework fast enough to please Tony, Debra later told police. So Tony "picks up a textbook, whacks [his son] across the head, drags him down the hallway, throws him in his bedroom," Debra told police. Aimee, who was pregnant at the time, tried to step in and help her little brother. Tony threw her across the living room "and bounced her like a basketball," Debra said.

After Tony moved out, Melissa became Debra's support system, Aimee told police. "She's my mom's backbone," she said. "My mom, without Melissa, she wouldn't have ever left [Tony].

"She gets my mom food in the morning. My mom, with all her medical problems, if she's in bed and depressed, [Melissa's] like, 'Get out of bed, let's go, get dressed!' or putting her clothes on for her," Aimee said. "I don't even think my mom would be where she was today without Melissa."

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5 comments
inez
inez

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.

Ragdoll
Ragdoll

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.

 
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