Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.
Lynn Haberl, aunt of slain RRA attorney Melissa Britt Lewis, says she remembers when, in very early November, her sister sent her an email about Scott Rothstein.
Lewis (right) with Debra Villegas (left) and attorney Christina Kitterman (center)
Her life hasn't been the same since.
"She wrote that we may be heading for some issues with Melissa," Haberl told me today from her home in Lakeland. "I went immediately to your blog, and that's how I got back involved in it. It was so emotional the first month, all of November, because it was exclusively about Melissa and Scott. It was extremely emotional. I had to regroup. I have talked to my sister [Melissa's mom] and niece [Melissa's sister] a lot. They've had to lay low. As bad as my emotions are, I just release them. I have a good cry and get back into it. It's made me angry again. I had gotten over the anger part of the grief, but now it's made me spitting mad again."
She says the news that her niece's boss was a criminal has forced the entire family to reexamine the case. Although they have a lot of questions, they think they know who is responsible.
"We were vacationing together over the holidays, and we kind of all think that
Tony [Villegas] did it," she told me. "We're pretty sure about that. Melissa's sister, Carrie, went to the grand jury hearing, and she was there when they questioned people, and evidence came out, and she doesn't feel any doubt about [Tony Villegas' guilt]."
Haberl says one of the main reasons for their near surety is that they are certain Villegas was a dangerous man -- a jealous, threatening, violent man -- at the time the murder was committed. She says that in her last conversation with her niece, about a week before the murder, Melissa told her that she was concerned for her best friend, Debra Villegas, Tony's estranged wife. "She and I sat, and we talked and we talked and talked about lots of things," Haberl said. "We were planning a trip to Disney World. I didn't get any indication that she was fearful of anything, but she was worried about Debra."
Lewis, who loved Orlando and Disney, having fun with family.
Haberl says that she has heard that there are witnesses in her niece's Plantation neighborhood who spotted Villegas' Corvette there. She says she has heard that there is DNA evidence pinpointing Villegas. She says there was a button of Lewis' found at the crime scene that had a fiber that somehow matched up with Villegas.
Still, there are serious questions that haunt Haberl and the rest of the family. Like the strange set of circumstances surrounding Melissa's phone. According to police reports, Tony Villegas, after strangling Lewis in the garage of her Plantation home and dumping her body in a canal, kept her phone, which police and prosecutors claim Villegas took with him.
"This is the part that's boggling to me, is this telephone," she said. "I don't care what just happened; why would you take evidence with you? I don't get why he would take the telephone. It doesn't make sense at all. If it was me, I would have thrown it in the canal with her. So why did he take it home?"
She has one theory. "Maybe he put her in the back of her car and while he was taking her to the canal, she was still semi-conscious. Maybe she stuck that phone inside of the car or somewhere. I don't know. But the idea that he took the phone to work with him and had it with him all the next day, there is just no sense in any of that."
Haberl also wonders how it could be possible that Lewis didn't realize that Rothstein was running an illegal operation. She worked for him, and her best friend was a trusted member of the inner sanctum. "I just don't know how she couldn't have known."
But Haberl also knew that when Lewis quit the Rothstein law firm for a time, she did it for one reason: She couldn't stand Rothstein at the time. "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]," said Haberl.
Lewis returned to the firm for the sake of her best friend, Debra Villegas, who needed her in part to help get through a bout with ovarian cancer. "Melissa told me she went back because her good friend Debra needed her and something was worked out that she would work with Stuart [Rosenfeldt]," Haberl said.
Lewis' office was next to Rosenfeldt's, and she became a much-loved member of the firm.
"She's so family-oriented." She said that she met both Rothstein and Rosenfeldt after Melissa's death and that both helped plan the funeral. "Rothstein is an off-the-wall person," she recalled. "I thought he was sort of a clown. He was flamboyant, with his suits and his over-the-top money. He wasn't tearful. He was kind of stoic about the whole thing. It was a sad face, but he wasn't torn up and crying like the rest of us. He had business to do. They paid for the whole funeral."
Rosenfeldt was the emotional one.
"Stuart was the most torn-up. He was sort of her mentor," said Haberl. "Melissa was kind of like a little Betty Crocker; she brought food to the office and stuck notes on their desks. She was a family person, and she treated them like her family. Every time I ever met Stuart, it seemed like he was about to fall apart. He's a very emotional person, and he seemed to really care about Melissa. He was there for us. We think highly of Stu."
It was Rosenfeldt, again a torrent of emotion, who attended the dedication of the Garden of Reflection for remembering victims of violent crime at the Long Key Nature Center in Davie on September 14. Lewis was honored there, and ironically, she had helped plan the site while she was in a workshop that was part of Leadership Broward. Rosenfeldt also came to an event honoring a scholarship in Lewis' name. Rothstein didn't attend. Neither did Debra Villegas, who hasn't communicated with the family since the funeral.
"We were surprised that she really didn't resond to the family anymore, but she may have been in shock," Haberl said of Debra Villegas. "Her best friend is gone, her husband is in jail, she has children who are devastated. But there was never any contact."
When she says she's more than 90 percent sure that Tony Villegas is the killer, she still wonders if something else happened. And she says that if Melissa had an issue with Rothstein, she wouldn't have been shy about it. "Melissa was a strong and smart person," said her aunt. "She would have gotten right in his face... Motive-wise, that's where our doubt is. Was it just jealousy, or was it something else?"