But after interviewing Debra and her children and hearing about Tony's alleged pattern of violence, the detectives began examining his cell phone records and Melissa's.

They found that Melissa's phone kept moving after she was attacked. It communicated with cell phone towers in the area, following a path that "closely mirrored" the route from Plantation to the Miami Gardens apartment where Tony lived.

The day after Melissa disappeared, Tony went to work in Fort Lauderdale as usual around 5 a.m. Melissa's phone followed his path to work and the route of the train he was operating that day. Her cell phone also traveled to the places where her body and her car were found.

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.

According to Debra, a deposition in her divorce case had been tentatively scheduled for the day Melissa disappeared. But she said Tony's attorney never confirmed the time or scheduled the deposition, so it never happened. She told police she wasn't sure if Tony even knew about it.

"He didn't even know that my depo was set," Debra said in a sworn interview. "He didn't know about it... because his attorney said that, you know, it wasn't a real date, and we just cleared it over the phone."

But Tony might not have been as ignorant as Debra thought. Tony's roommate, Wilset Pascual, said that on the evening of March 5, 2008, Tony came home from work around 5:30 and said he was leaving for an appointment with his attorney.

"He came home, took a shower, and left," Pascual told Plantation Police in a sworn interview.

"He didn't mention the attorney's name he was going to see?" a detective asked Pascual.

"No. It was a deposition, if I am not mistaken, a deposition," Pascual said.

That evening, Pascual left to have dinner with a girlfriend. He arrived home around 11:30 p.m. to find Tony washing his arms in the bathroom. Tony seemed to be itchy, scratching himself.

"What's wrong? You OK?" Pascual asked him.

Tony explained he had been sorting through some moving boxes and that a can of pepper spray had exploded on him. He asked Pascual if he knew how to get the stuff off his hands.

"I don't know — check the Internet," Pascual remembered saying. Then Pascual went to his laptop and searched for "pepper spray." Computer records confirmed Pascual's account.

On March 10, Plantation Police detectives confronted Tony at work with a search warrant. He told them he had been expecting them. As the interview began, he broke down crying.

On the night Melissa was murdered, he said, he was either home in Miami Gardens, at his parents' house, or at one of his two sisters' houses. He "denied any involvement in the murder of Melissa Lewis," according to the police report.

Tony admitted "he was bothered by guys being at 'his' house with Debra, but he was not bothered by the relationship that Debra had with Melissa," the report continued.

"Debra was a smart woman and did not need Melissa," he said.

Meanwhile, Tony said he didn't own pepper spray and "there is no reason it would be on him and that he has never used pepper spray."

Nine days later, forensic testing revealed that Tony's DNA had been found on Melissa's suit jacket — the same one that ended up in the trunk of her car the day she died.

He was arrested March 15, 2008, and charged with first-degree murder.


"Other than my children, I love Lucy [Melissa] more than I love my parents, more than I love anybody... And I, I wish I could have been in that car that night, because I would give my life for her today."

That's what Debra Villegas told Plantation Police in a sworn interview days after Melissa disappeared. But as time went on, it became clear that Debra had some serious blind spots when it came to her best friend's death.

The day Tony was arrested, Debra told the Miami Herald she was shocked that her ex-husband could have committed the crime. "It never crossed my mind," she said. "I certainly have an overwhelming amount of guilt."

Plantation Police had questioned Debra repeatedly about whether Tony had a motive to kill Melissa. And Debra always struggled to believe that her husband — despite the violence and threats he made toward her — would lash out at her friend.

"I am 99.9 percent sure he's not your guy," she told police.

"Why is that?" a detective asked her.

"I wish I could tell you, because I thought about it a hundred times since we talked yesterday," Debra replied. "Just, when you lived with somebody for 17 years, you just know them, you know what I mean? And ah, he couldn't do it... He could not, especially somebody like her..."

It's tough to know whether Debra was in denial, a common affliction for women in abusive relationships, or if she truly believed Tony was innocent.

A year and a half later, Debra was implicated in the Ponzi scheme that destroyed the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler firm. According to federal prosecutors, from 2005 to 2009, Scott Rothstein persuaded investors to buy stakes in fake lawsuit settlements. Clients were supposed to be repaid over time, but instead he used their money to support his lavish lifestyle — a fleet of flashy cars, waterfront houses, a yacht. He also bankrolled the campaigns of favorite politicians, such as Charlie Crist.

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