"What did he mean by 'cross the line'?" a detective asked her.

"He's just crazy," Debra said. "I think he meant he, you know, would kill somebody... He's just nuts, you know."

Meanwhile, at work, Debra found a savior in Scott Rothstein. As he established bigger law firms, he always took Debra with him. She ascended from being a paralegal with no college degree to COO of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler. Rothstein trusted her to handle the firm's money and paid her a six-figure salary. He made her gatekeeper of his "inner sanctum" — the heavily secured area on the 16th floor of the firm's offices where he allegedly solicited investors in his false legal deals.

Debra Villegas (left) and Melissa Lewis were best friends for nearly a decade.
Courtesy of Lynn Haberl
Debra Villegas (left) and Melissa Lewis were best friends for nearly a decade.
Tony Villegas allegedly threatened to kill his wife if she left him.
Courtesy of Lynn Haberl
Tony Villegas allegedly threatened to kill his wife if she left him.

Debra, in turn, considered her boss to be one of her closest friends. She figured Tony must be jealous of him. "I'm sure he hates Scott," Debra told police. "Scott found the [divorce] attorney. Scott helped us, you know, get situated. You know, Scott pays me very well. Scott's very good to me.

"I couldn't even say Scott's name at home," she said. "'Cause me and Scott are very, very close."

----------

Melissa continued working with Rothstein when she graduated from law school and became a respected labor and employment attorney. "Whatever side it was, you wanted her on your side," her former colleague says.

She was ambitious, hoping one day to be a judge. After a few years, she briefly left Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler to work for another firm. "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]," her aunt, Haberl, told New Times columnist Bob Norman.

But Melissa quickly returned, partly because Debra was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her friends say. Her supervisor this time was Stuart Rosenfeldt. He became her mentor, a lawyer whose studious style contrasted sharply with Rothstein's bravado.

Melissa was finally making the kind of money she had once dreamed about, and she spent it generously. She didn't want children of her own, her aunt says, but she adored spoiling her sister's children as well as Debra's kids. An unabashed fan of Disney World, she bought a time-share there so she could take her nieces to the theme parks. After a stint in Orlando, she'd bring back stuffed animals and souvenirs for her friends at the office. "She was the aunt everybody would wish they had," her former attorney colleague said. "She made everyone feel good."

In her free time, Melissa loved to read, cook Southern food, and shop. She had every cooking gadget imaginable, her aunt says. Haberl remembers her niece driving to Lakeland to whip up some crab and scallop linguine for an aunt's birthday. "Honey, she could cook anything she wanted and I would eat it," Haberl says.

In 2002, Melissa married another lawyer at the firm, Robert Lewis. Five years later, he asked for a divorce. Melissa was heartbroken, her friend Haddad says. (A few weeks before she died, Melissa got another shock. She found out Robert had quietly married a woman who worked for him, and his new wife was pregnant, Melissa's friends told police.) But her friends wouldn't let her stay at home on the couch watching the Food Network.

She became their "cruise director," Haddad says, organizing dinners and happy hours, signing them up for cooking classes. She bought herself a Jimmy Buffett margarita machine to host parties and took Debra's kids to a monster truck rally. She joined Leadership Broward, a community-service and networking group for rising stars of the yuppie set. She began dating again.

And just a few months before she died, she made partner at the firm. "She was embracing life right before it was taken from her," Haddad says.

As Melissa's life improved, so did Debra's. Around the same time Melissa got divorced in 2007, Debra finally found the courage to kick Tony out of the house.

The last straw came one night when Debra's 10-year-old son wasn't finishing his homework fast enough to please Tony, Debra later told police. So Tony "picks up a textbook, whacks [his son] across the head, drags him down the hallway, throws him in his bedroom," Debra told police. Aimee, who was pregnant, tried to step in and help her little brother. Tony threw her across the living room "and bounced her like a basketball," Debra said.

After Tony moved out, Melissa became Debra's support system, Aimee told police. "She's my mom's backbone," she said. "My mom, without Melissa, she wouldn't have ever left [Tony].

"She gets my mom food in the morning. My mom, with all her medical problems, if she's in bed and depressed, [Melissa is] like, 'Get out of bed, let's go, get dressed!' or putting her clothes on for her," Aimee said. "I don't even think my mom would be where she was today without Melissa."

Lucy and Ethel, now both single, spent more time together — sharing lunch breaks, texting before bed every night.

"I know Melissa wanted to spend extra time sometimes with Debra, to kinda protect her," Christina Kitterman, another Rothstein attorney and friend of Melissa's, told police.

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