Did Friendship Cost a Young Scott Rothstein Lawyer Her Life? | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Did Friendship Cost a Young Scott Rothstein Lawyer Her Life?

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.

Even as a kid, Melissa Fisher took care of people. She grew up in Jacksonville, the first grandchild of her family, adored by her aunts and a mother hen to her younger sister, Carrie.

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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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