A year and a half later, Debra was implicated in the Ponzi scheme that destroyed the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler firm. According to federal prosecutors, from 2005 to 2009, Scott Rothstein persuaded investors to buy stakes in fake lawsuit settlements. Clients were supposed to be repaid over time, but instead, he used their money to support his lavish lifestyle — a fleet of flashy cars, waterfront houses, a yacht. He also bankrolled the campaigns of favorite politicians, such as Charlie Crist.

Rothstein conducted his business meetings in a heavily secured area in the Bank of America building, which housed his law office. He had a private entrance. Employees who wanted to talk to Rothstein had to go through Debra first, and Rothstein has told New Times that she handled his finances. In a March 2009 email to his employees, obtained by New Times' Bob Norman, Rothstein made Debra's importance abundantly clear:


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.

Rothstein has pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and wire fraud. He has not yet been sentenced.

Debra is expected to be arraigned on the money laundering charge this week. Her attorney, Paul Lazarus, declined to comment for this article.

The Ponzi scheme has created a frenzy of renewed interest in Melissa's death. Online commenters wonder if she knew about the criminal activity in the firm. If so, was there some kind of conspiracy to kill her?

Then there's a question of conflicts of interest: The original prosecutor on the murder case, Howard Scheinberg, left the Broward State Attorney's Office to work at Rothstein's firm. Rothstein's personal head of security, Joe Alu, is also a former Plantation police officer.

But Melissa's friends and family don't seem sold on any conspiracy theories. They say Melissa was extremely busy working on labor and employment cases that had nothing to do with Rothstein. In a large law firm, it's easy to become preoccupied with your own assignments and have no clue what your coworkers are doing.

If Melissa had known about Rothstein's scheme, she never would have tolerated it, Haddad says. "She took way too much pride in what she did, " she says.

Two years after her death, no one else has been charged in the murder. Tony Villegas remains in the Broward County Jail, ineligible for bail, because the crime was allegedly premeditated. His attorney, Al Milian, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

No matter how much time passes, the shock over Melissa's death remains. Haddad says she's still occasionally tempted to call or text her longtime friend. She attends every calendar call in the murder case, because she knows Melissa would do the same for her.

"She was the glue that kept us all together," Haddad says.

Through Leadership Broward, Melissa was involved in helping to plan a memorial garden in Davie for victims of violent crime. The Garden of Reflection at the Long Key Nature Center and Natural Area now bears a plaque with Melissa's name. "We consider that her spot," Haberl says.

None of Melissa's family and friends is looking forward to Tony Villegas' trial. They want him to get a fair shake, but Melissa's aunt worries that's not possible now, because of all the doubts created by the Rothstein Ponzi scheme.

"We want to see justice served," Haberl says. "We used to think we were going to, and now we're not so sure."

When the case finally makes it to a courtroom, everyone will learn what Melissa's family already knows — how generous she was and how she may have paid dearly for taking care of her friend Debra.

"That's a risk people who love deeply take," Haberl says. "And she would risk her life for a friend."

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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.