You’re the judge: A friend in need
Two women became close... One ended up dead. But why?
They say that a friend in need is a friend indeed. In 2006, Debra Villegas and Melissa Lewis found this to be true. Already close colleagues at the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler law firm, in South Florida, they now had something else in common.
They were both newly single and looking for company.
Melissa had split from her husband of five years.
And Debra had separated from her husband of 15 years, Tony.
Debra and Tony’s home, in Plantation, Florida, had been far from harmonious.
Debra said Tony was violent and abusive.
The teenage sons he shared with Debra had both run away in the past.
There was also conflict between Tony and his stepdaughter, Debra’s child from a previous relationship.
Debra reckoned it was down to jealousy.
Thought he couldn’t stand her being close to anyone else.
Even her own daughter. The truth was that Debra had never had an easy life.
Raised by an alcoholic mum, she’d been the victim of sexual assault as a teen.
She’d also battled ovarian cancer.
Now she was determined not to go on suffering in a miserable relationship.
So she left Tony and, as she adjusted to her new life as a single woman, she had her dearest friend, Melissa, to turn to for comfort.
The two women became inseparable.
Confided in each other, always over at each other’s houses.
They even went on holiday together.
Melissa, an attorney, had offered to help coach her friend through her divorce.
Debra’s kids adored Melissa, too.
So they and Debra were devastated when Melissa suddenly went missing.
She’d last been seen at a supermarket in Plantation on 5 March 2008.
CCTV footage showed nothing untoward.
But when police searched Melissa’s nearby home, they discovered some concerning signs of a struggle.
Traces of pepper spray in her garage.
Melissa had carried it for protection.
What had happened to her?
Now her friends and family were petrified that someone had followed her home and attacked her.
Sadly, within days, their worst fears became reality.
A body was found dumped in a canal a few miles away. It was Melissa.
She’d been strangled, her people-carrier found nearby.
As Melissa’s red Prada handbag was still missing, investigators initially worked on the theory that she’d been killed during a robbery.
But they soon arrested someone for the killing.
Debra’s estranged husband, Tony Villegas.
Police charged him with murder.
Of course, as the best friend of his ex-wife, he’d known Melissa well.
But why on earth would he have harmed her?
After initially being declared unfit to stand trial, Villegas remained in custody.
But a year after Melissa’s murder, the case took an unexpected turn.
Tony’s ex-wife – who by now had changed her name to Debra Coffey after remarrying in 2009 – was also arrested.
But it wasn’t in connection with the murder of Melissa.
She was suspected of being involved in a fraudulent investment scheme orchestrated by her boss at Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
Scott Rothstein was accused of scamming clients out of $1.2 billion (nearly
to fund his lavish lifestyle.
His firm was said to be the epicentre of the scam.
He pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges and was jailed for 50 years, but many of his associates were also implicated.
After a trial in 2010, Debra Coffey was jailed for 10 years for her role in the scam.
However, she was released early as a reward for helping prosecutors bring others involved to justice.
Then, in 2016, Debra was in court to see Tony Villegas, then 52, stand trial for the murder of her friend.
The prosecution told the court that Villegas had been enraged by Melissa’s closeness to his ex and their two sons.
Said he’d blamed the women’s close friendship for the marriage breakdown.
They told jurors that his fury and jealousy had led to him following Melissa home on 5 March 2008. Then he’d attacked her, strangling her to death in her garage.
Debra testified against her ex-husband in court, saying that both she and Melissa were fearful of him after he’d made threats against them.
She said Melissa had armed herself with a can of pepper spray as he’d vowed to harm them.
The prosecution also presented compelling evidence in their case.
One witness had seen Tony’s car, a silver Corvette, at the car park where Melissa’s people carrier was found.
Another witness had caught Villegas scrubbing pepper spray off his arms the day after Melissa’s disappearance.
Pepper spray had been found all over the crime scene.
Police had discovered Villegas’ DNA on the jacket Melissa had been wearing when she died.
Even signals from Melissa’s missing mobile phone had followed Villegas from the crime scene to his home the night she disappeared, then along the rail route he took at work as a train conductor the following day.
However, Villegas’ defence team claimed he was innocent.
They said the idea of him being jealous of Melissa Lewis was inaccurate because the Villegas’ marriage had been failing long before she came on the scene.
‘Would you agree that your parents were not getting along in their marriage a long time before Melissa ever became involved in your family?’ Villegas’ lawyer asked one of the couple’s sons.
‘Yes,’ Caleb Villegas said. The defence also argued that the murder was somehow entwined with the Rothstein moneylaundering case.
The court heard that Melissa had once had an affair with her boss, Scott Rothstein.
There were even some sensational claims that Melissa had been killed to order because she’d found out about the fraud scheme.
So had Melissa been killed by an enraged, jealous husband?
Or was there more to this death than first appeared?
And was Tony Villegas being framed?
It took the jury only two hours to convict Tony Villegas of first-degree murder.
Jailing him for life, Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey R Levenson said, ‘Mr Villegas, by your conduct, you’ve not only affected yourself but you’ve affected the lives of many people. There are no winners in this case.’
Calling Melissa Lewis an innocent victim, he added, ‘She did nothing but become a friend of your wife. And she suffered the consequences.’
Relatives of Villegas and Melissa embraced in court, having supported each other through the trial.
Melissa’s devastated mum Lisa La Pointe paid tribute to her daughter, saying,
‘I was extremely proud of her, the whole family was proud of her, she was going to be the next matriarch in the family and she was just taken away just like that.’
Despite the conviction, Villegas’ defence lawyer said his client would appeal and continued to claim that
Scott Rothstein was connected to the case, saying, ‘There are other, shall we say, Rothstein tentacles connected to this case that we were not permitted to go into.’
After the trial, Debra Coffey spoke of her relief at the result.
‘I’m happy for Melissa’s family, to get a day of closure for them, they have justice,’ she said. ‘For my kids, it’s obviously very difficult, but also for them, they get to bring this to a close.’