By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
She enjoyed representing the plaintiffs in employment cases, says longtime friend Tonja Haddad, because 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.
Debra Taylor came to Florida to start over. She'd left her family, her job, and her ex-husband in Texas and moved to Daytona with two young daughters.
"I grew up very hard in rural Texas, and my parents were not very good parents," Debra would later tell Plantation Police detectives. "[Melissa is] 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 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 caring for two other children, 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. (Debra Villegas, through her attorney, declined to comment for this article.)
One of the first nights she lived with her mother's new husband, Aimee Villegas was petrified. She was only 6 or 7 at the time, and the family had just moved into a townhouse in Pembroke Pines. One night, she told Plantation Police, she heard her mother screaming from another part of the house, "Help me! Help me! Help me!"
"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 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 those 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, he'd "feed [her] 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.