Debra Villegas Sentenced to Ten Years

Debra Villegas, left, appealed for leniency because her children were already traumatized by the murder charge their father is facing in the death of Melissa Britt Lewis, at right.

Debra Villegas received the maximum sentence of ten years in prison this morning for her role in the massive Scott Rothstein Ponzi scheme.

The hearing hit its dramatic zenith during testimony from Villegas' psychologist regarding her youth, which she said was marred by an alcoholic mother, living on her own in a truck at the age of 15, and rape. The psychologist, Lori Butts, testified that her children -- traumatized by their father's murder of RRA attorney Melissa Britt Lewis -- would "literally not survive" if she were to be sentenced to prison.

But U.S. District Court Judge William Zloch was unswayed by that testimony, Villegas' own courtroom apology, and her attorney's pleas for a lesser sentence. Zlock hit her with the maximum allowed under the law.

Toward the end of the hearing, Zlock called Villegas to the podium. "Where was the concern for your children when you were involved in this criminal activity?"

Villegas will have to surrender to authorities next June 24 so that she can continue to cooperate with federal investigators on the case.

Read about hearing inside.

Villegas, wearing a pink blouse and black skirt, sat quietly during the brunt of the hearing, not weeping but occasionally dabbing her eyes with a tissue as her psychologist, Butts, told of what she called a traumatic and painful childhood.

Butts first saw Villegas in November 2009 to conduct a forensic evaluation of the former RRA chief operating officer's state of mind during the course of the Ponzi scheme, which imploded in late October of the same year.

And Butts said that even prior to the murder of her best friend, Melissa Britt Lewis, a crime police allege Villegas' husband, Tony Villegas, committed, Debra Villegas suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that was only intensified by the murder and her belief that if she didn't falsify documents and forge signatures for Rothstein, he would be killed by the Mafia.

Her childhood, Butts testified, was marked by an alcholic mother, sexual abuse by one of her mother's boyfriends, and 52 different homes in her native Texas by the time she was a teenager. Butts testified that Villegas moved out of her home at age 15 and lived in a truck while completing high school and working in a bar.

She said Villegas was "abducted" by two men from the bar and raped. Butts testified that police weren't interested in pursuing the case and that Villegas even went to school the next day and back to work at the bar the next night.

Butts then moved on to the defendant's allegedly abusive 17-year marriage to Tony Villegas. 

Butts said Tony Villegas "threatened her life on numerous occasions" and was continuously abusive to her children. She said Debra tried to protect the children as best she could but didn't confront her husband, opting instead for the "path of least resistance."

Tony forced one of her children to sleep in a dog crate at one point, Butts testified, and "[Debra] went into the dog crate with her child and refused to leave." She also found "electrical cord marks" on the backs of her children's legs.

In January 2007, Debra turned to her boss, Rothstein, and her best friend, Lewis, for help, Butts testified. They both "rallied around" Villegas and provided a "safety net" for her.

But Tony stalked Debra, testified Butts. His car would be spotted at the neighborhood, and at times when she was sleeping in her bed, she would awaken to find Tony "standing over her laughing."  

Rothstein told her that he would protect her from Tony, that he would make sure she was "safe at all times." He told her that he didn't believe Tony would kill her because if he was going to do that, he already would have. Rothstein instead told her that he believed Tony was a "coward."

"She feels extremely horrible that she believed in that...," said Butts, referring to the fact that Tony is accused of killing Lewis in March 2008. "She felt like Mr. Rothstein saved her life and the lives of her children, unfortunately at the expense of Mrs. Britt Lewis."

After the homicide, Rothstein took care of Debra, buying her a house in Weston and a Maserati that embarassed her (she preferred pickup trucks, said Butts), raising her salary to $250,000, and even funding a "therapeutic residential boarding school" for one of her sons.

At one point, Villegas attorney Robert Stickney pointed out to Zloch that her two young sons were in the courtroom, and they stood up. Their older sister, Aimee Villegas, who also worked at the Rothstein firm, was never mentioned during the hearing but sat beside them.

Butts reiterated the story told at the previous plea hearing that Rothstein had told Villegas she needed to assist him in a Mafia-run money-laundering operation and that Villegas believed that if she didn't help him, he would be killed.

"She didn't even know what a Ponzi scheme was," Butts said on the stand. "She did as she was told."

Zloch interrupted Butts to ask: "You're not saying loyalty excuses criminal activity, are you?"

"No," said Butts, who later said that if Villegas was taken from her children, "they wouldn't survive" and that they are "scared to death" of their father, who has been jailed since he was charged in the murder and had a competency hearing today.

"You said they literally wouldn't survive," Zloch clarified.

"Yes, I'm not exaggerating," said Butts.

When it was the government's turn, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Schwartz noted that at some point during the course of the Ponzi scheme and prior to its collapse, Villegas said to another RRA employee, "We're all going to jail."

Villegas' attorney, Stickney, tried to impress upon the judge the "family factor," telling Zloch he should "strongly consider not taking my client away from her children." At one point, he told him that it would be more desirable to put her on house arrest for seven years.

"That would be illegal," Zloch said.

"We wouldn't appeal it," said Stickney.

Then it was finally Villegas' turn to take the podium. Her voice was so soft, it was almost faint as she answered questions from the judge.

"You falsified the signatures of plaintiffs?" Zloch asked her.

"Yes, your honor...," she answered. "I didn't prepare any of these documents... I just inserted the names. Mr. Rothstein along with another gentleman created the documents."

When it came time for her to have her own say, Villegas gave a very short apology.

"I'm very sorry to all the victims and to the employees who lost their jobs and to my family...," she said. "I hope the court will show mercy on us today."

That's when Zloch dropped the central question of the hearing on Villegas.

"Where was the concern for your children when you were involved in this criminal activity?" he asked.

There was a long pause.

"I thought it was a one-time thing. Then the murder came, and my head wasn't where it should have been," said Villegas. "I was just thinking about getting... home to take care of my children. It was a huge, grave mistake."

Before he laid down the sentence, Zloch asked a last question of the government. "Was she totally familiar with the operation at the law firm... or was she some lost soul?" asked Zloch.

"No, she admitted she had knowledge of the scheme," answered Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Kaplan answered. "She kind of ruled the law firm."

That's when Zloch announced his sentence: 120 months, the maximum allowed under law.

Villegas didn't visibly react to the sentence but began crying afterward outside the courtroom. 

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman