By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The last day Debra Villegas saw her best friend alive, Melissa Britt Lewis came into Debra's office to ask about her outfit. It was a new suit, just purchased that weekend, chocolate brown with pinstripes.
But it was a size 8, and Melissa was afraid it was too big. She was just five-foot-three, with a sensible honey-brown haircut and an easy Southern smile. As a rising star in the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm, Melissa, 39, took her appearance seriously. She carried a red Prada purse and wore a Judith Ripka ring.
Melissa stepped on a ladder to study herself in the tall mirror that Debra, chief operating officer at the firm, kept in her office. She twirled around. "Do you think I should have worn this shirt?" Debra remembered her saying, according to a sworn police interview.
"This is the kind of suit you wear," Melissa told Debra. "I don't usually wear these. If I would have thought about it, I would have gotten you one too."
So it was for the best friends of nine years, so close that they called each other Lucy and Ethel. If Melissa (Lucy) went shopping and found an outfit she liked, she bought one for Debra (Ethel) as well. They texted each other every night, ate lunch together nearly every day.
Melissa even did Debra's grocery shopping. She cooked dinner for her kids on Saturday nights and took the family on vacations to Disney World. When Debra was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Melissa stood by her, dragging her out of bed on the mornings it seemed too much of an effort to get up.
Their friendship buoyed the women through Melissa's divorce, Debra's abusive marriage, and the stress of working at a major Fort Lauderdale firm. But it was also a friendship that the Plantation police say cost Melissa her life.
The next day, Debra was describing Melissa's new suit to police. Sometime after arriving home on the night of March 5, 2008, Melissa had been strangled and murdered, her body dumped in a canal.
The man accused of killing her was Debra's husband, Tony.
At the time, it was nearly impossible to imagine a motive for the crime. Melissa was a well-respected attorney who had just made partner in the firm and had no identifiable enemies.
But two years later, there's renewed interest in the baffling tragedy. Scott Rothstein has pleaded guilty to running a $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme out of the firm. The scam, which began three years before Melissa died, involved coaxing investors into buying stakes in bogus lawsuit settlements.
Debra has been implicated in the scam. Federal prosecutors charged her this week with money laundering. As Rothstein's chief operating officer, Debra handled a lot of his finances, and the feds claim she helped cook the books.
Meanwhile, Tony Villegas remains in Broward County Jail awaiting trial on a charge of first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty. Conspiracy theories abound online about whether he was framed or the fall guy for some larger crime involving Rothstein. But court records suggest a much simpler story. It's Melissa and Debra's story — about love, jealousy, and how far one woman was willing to go to help her best friend.
Her father was an alcoholic, and her parents eventually divorced. One aunt, Lynn Haberl, says Melissa's education was "interrupted" by family troubles when she was a teenager. She dropped out of high school.
In her mid-20s, Melissa landed an administrative job at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale. She got her GED and began taking college courses.
She decided to be a lawyer because she appreciated the "finer things in life," Haberl says — and the finer things required money. So she enrolled at Nova Southeastern University Law Center, living on loans and working as much as she could.
As a student, Melissa seemed quiet at first but proved to be fiercely loyal. "If you were her friend, she would be a great friend to you," says a former attorney colleague and friend who did not want his name printed. No one would mistake her for a pushover. "She was very strong-willed. She had her opinions, and she was not easily swayed."
Melissa's legal talent became apparent quickly. Her peers selected her to be editor in chief of the Nova Law Review, an honor that required a 3.5 GPA.
"She did not appreciate mediocrity," says the former colleague. "She was a person of the highest ethics you could ever find... She won't tolerate bullshit from anybody."
Yet the man who would become one of Fort Lauderdale's most renowned bullshit artists was one of Melissa's early mentors. Scott Rothstein was a professor at Nova and taught Melissa's trial advocacy class. In 1999, he hired her to clerk for him at his fledgling firm while she was still in school. Helping him on labor and employment cases, Melissa found her calling as "the defender of the underdog," Haberl says.
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.
"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.)
"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.
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."
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."
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."
Lucy and Ethel, now both single, spent more time together — sharing their lunch breaks, texting before bed every night.
"I know Melissa wanted to spend extra time sometimes with Debra, to kinda protect her," Christina Kitterman, another Rothstein attorney and friend of Melissa's, told police.
After work, Melissa wasn't eager to stay home alone in an empty house, so she would go to Debra's to cook and laugh and be with her adopted family.
"I always joke, 'Yep, Melissa's our dad,' " Aimee told police. "She does our groceries, she takes care of us, she spoils us at Christmastime, she spoils my son. We go to the Keys together. She makes sure we have everything that we need."
Her generosity was essential to the Villegas family as Debra pursued a new life without Tony. And it didn't go unnoticed.
Wanting to protect themselves, Debra bought a Taser, and Melissa bought Mace, Holmberg remembered Melissa saying. "And I told her she should have got a gun," Holmberg said.
In mid-December 2007, Melissa sent an email to some of her lawyer friends asking how hard it was to do a will. She was thinking of protecting Debra's children in case Tony did something drastic. "My friend Debra is going through a divorce," she wrote. "Her ex-husband is nuts. To be on the safe side, she wants to be sure she designates who gets her children if he hurts her and goes to jail. Seems extreme, but you have NO IDEA what is going on and restraining orders are worthless."
Around this time, Tony Villegas was keeping a makeshift diary in his day planner. He filled it with entries about how much he missed his family. He also knew that Debra had been spending a lot of time with friends at the Round Up Country Western Club in Davie.
"Missing my family," he wrote in a December 12 entry. "Mad at her but loving her so that it hurts... She look like she in love. At Round Up with some guy for 3 hrs. outside making out. Tony you don't like flys on you meat. Forget her."
A few days later, he added: "Remember Tony, she don't love you. She laffing at you."
According to Caleb Villegas, Tony was also aware of how much time Melissa and Debra were spending together. In fact, Caleb told police that his dad blamed Melissa for Debra's filing for divorce, and that case is still pending.
Once, when Tony came to collect Caleb and his brother for a weekend visit, he noticed Melissa's car at the house. And he brought up the issue to his sons.
"He's like, 'The reason that we probably got a divorce [was] so they can spend more time [together],' " Caleb told Plantation police. " 'Cause she had gotten a divorce; Melissa got a divorce from her husband the same time as my mom and dad got a divorce. So he [Tony] thought it was planned for a while, like they were planning to get a divorce at the same time."
"Did he seem at all upset about that?" a detective asked Caleb.
"Yeah," Caleb replied.
"OK. Did he tell you anything more than what you told me?"
"Not really," Caleb said. "He just thought it was her fault."
After that, police can only surmise what happened next based on crime-scene evidence. Melissa pulled her car into the garage of her house and was attacked. She fought back. Pepper-spray stains, the color of rust, marked her garage floor, walls, and ceiling. Her bull terrier got some on his legs.
On the morning of March 6, Melissa didn't show up for work, and she didn't call. So Debra called a Plantation police sergeant and asked him to stop by Melissa's house to see if she was OK. Carrie Fisher came over with a key to let the officers inside. Melissa was gone. So was her black Cadillac.
That afternoon, police found her Cadillac in a parking lot in Plantation. Her brown suit jacket, missing a button, and her dress shoes were in the trunk. A crime-scene deputy noticed bloodstains on the carpet in the trunk.
It took another day to find the body. A South Florida Water Management District employee was raking debris from water pumps in the New River Canal in Plantation when he saw a body floating face-up in the water. Melissa was still wearing the flowered shirt and pants she had modeled for Debra two days earlier.
Her attacker had beaten her repeatedly around her head and neck, but she had fought back, earning bruises and cuts on her arms. The official cause of death was strangulation.
Police have never found Melissa's Prada purse or her iPhone. They did not note in their reports that her body was found less than a mile from the Round Up club where Tony had watched Debra kiss another man.
But after interviewing Debra Villegas and her children and hearing about Tony's alleged pattern of violence, the detectives began examining his cell phone records and Melissa's.
They found that Melissa's phone kept moving after she was attacked. It communicated with cell phone towers in the area, following a path that "closely mirrored" the route from Plantation to the Miami Gardens apartment where Tony was living.
The day after Melissa disappeared, Tony went to work in Fort Lauderdale as usual around 5 a.m. Melissa's phone followed his path to work and the route of the train he was operating that day. Her cell phone also traveled to the places where her body and her car were found.
According to Debra, a deposition in her divorce case had been tentatively scheduled for the day Melissa disappeared. But she said Tony's attorney never confirmed the time or scheduled the deposition, so it never happened. She told police she wasn't sure if Tony even knew about it.
"He didn't even know that my depo was set," Debra said in a sworn interview. "He didn't know about it... because his attorney said that, you know, it wasn't a real date, and we just cleared it over the phone."
But Tony may not have been as ignorant as Debra thought. Tony's roommate, Wilset Pascual, said that on the evening of March 5, 2008, Tony came home from work around 5:30 and said he was leaving for an appointment with his attorney.
"He came home, took a shower, and left," Pascual told Plantation police in a sworn interview.
"He didn't mention the attorney's name he was going to see?" a detective asked Pascual.
"No. It was a deposition, if I am not mistaken, a deposition," Pascual said.
That evening, Pascual left to have dinner with a girlfriend. He arrived home around 11:30 p.m. to find Tony washing his arms in the bathroom. Tony seemed to be itchy, scratching himself.
"What's wrong? You OK?" Pascual asked him.
Tony explained that he had been sorting through some moving boxes and that a can of pepper spray had exploded on him. He asked Pascual if he knew how to get the stuff off his hands.
"I don't know — check the internet," Pascual remembered saying. Then Pascual went to his laptop and searched for "pepper spray." Computer records confirmed Pascual's account.
On March 10, Plantation police detectives confronted Tony at work with a search warrant. He told them he had been expecting them. As the interview began, he broke down crying.
On the night Melissa was murdered, he said, he was either home in Miami Gardens, at his parents' house, or at one of his two sisters' houses. He "denied any involvement in the murder of Melissa Lewis," according to the police report.
Tony admitted that "he was bothered by guys being at 'his' house with Debra, but he was not bothered by the relationship that Debra had with Melissa," the report continued.
"Debra was a smart woman and did not need Melissa," he said.
Meanwhile, Tony said that he didn't own pepper spray and that "there is no reason it would be on him and that he has never used pepper spray."
Nine days later, forensic testing revealed that Tony's DNA had been found on Melissa's suit jacket — the same one that ended up in the trunk of her car the day she died.
He was arrested on March 15, 2008, and charged with first-degree murder.
That's what Debra Villegas told Plantation police in a sworn interview days after Melissa disappeared. But as time went on, it became clear that Debra had some serious blind spots when it came to her best friend's death.
The day Tony was arrested, Debra told the Miami Herald she was shocked that her ex-husband could have committed the crime. "It never crossed my mind," she said. "I certainly have an overwhelming amount of guilt."
Plantation police had questioned Debra repeatedly about whether Tony had a motive to kill Melissa. And Debra always struggled to believe that her husband — despite the violence and threats he made toward her — would lash out at her friend.
"I am 99.9 percent sure he's not your guy," she told police.
"Why is that?" a detective asked her.
"I wish I could tell you, because I thought about it a hundred times since we talked yesterday," Debra replied. "Just, when you lived with somebody for 17 years, you just know them, you know what I mean? And ah, he couldn't do it... He could not, especially somebody like her..."
It's tough to know whether Debra was in denial, a common affliction for women in abusive relationships, or if she truly believed Tony was innocent.
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:
"WE WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT HER — SHE HAS HELPED ME AND CONTINUES TO HELP ME MORE THAN I COULD EVER EXPLAIN... OUR OFFICES THAT WE CURRENTLY OCCUPY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN COMPLETED WITHOUT HER... OUR GROWTH WOULD BE IN REVERSE."
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.