Rothstein conducted his business meetings in a heavily secured area in the Bank of America building, which housed his law office. He had a private entrance. Employees who wanted to speak with Rothstein had to go through Debra first, and Rothstein has told New Times that she handled his finances. In a March 2009 email to his employees, obtained by New Times' Bob Norman, Rothstein made Debra's importance abundantly clear:

"WE WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT HER — SHE HAS HELPED ME AND CONTINUES TO HELP ME MORE THAN I COULD EVER EXPLAIN... OUR OFFICES THAT WE CURRENTLY OCCUPY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN COMPLETED WITHOUT HER... OUR GROWTH WOULD BE IN REVERSE."

Rothstein has pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and wire fraud. He has not yet been sentenced. Debra is expected to be arraigned on the money-laundering charge this week. Her attorney, Paul Lazarus, declined to comment for this article.

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.

The Ponzi scheme has created a frenzy of renewed interest in Melissa's death. Online commenters wonder if she knew about the criminal activity in the firm. If so, was there some kind of conspiracy to kill her?

Then there's a question of conflicts of interest: The original prosecutor on the murder case, Howard Scheinberg, left the Broward State Attorney's Office to work at Rothstein's firm. Rothstein's personal head of security, Joe Alu, is also a former Plantation Police officer.

But Melissa's friends and family don't seem sold on any conspiracy theories. They say Melissa was extremely busy working on labor and employment cases that had nothing to do with Rothstein. In a large law firm, it's easy to become preoccupied with your own assignments and have no clue what your co-workers are doing.

If Melissa had known about Rothstein's scheme, she never would have tolerated it. "She took way too much pride in what she did," her friend Haddad says.

Two years after Melissa's death, no one else has been charged in the murder. Tony Villegas remains in the Broward County Jail, ineligible for bail, because the crime was allegedly premeditated. His attorney, Al Milian, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

----------

No matter how much time passes, the shock over Melissa's death remains. Haddad says she's still occasionally tempted to call or text her longtime friend. She attends every calendar call in the murder case, because she knows Melissa would do the same for her.

"She was the glue that kept us all together," Haddad says.

Through Leadership Broward, Melissa was involved in helping to plan a memorial garden in Davie for victims of violent crime. The Garden of Reflection at the Long Key Nature Center and Natural Area now bears a plaque with Melissa's name. "We consider that her spot," Haberl says.

None of Melissa's family and friends is looking forward to Tony Villegas's trial. They want him to get a fair shake, but Melissa's aunt worries that's not possible now because of all the doubts created by the Rothstein Ponzi scheme.

"We want to see justice served," Haberl says. "We used to think we were going to, and now we're not so sure."

When the case finally makes it to a courtroom, everyone will learn what Melissa's family already knows — how generous she was and how she might have paid dearly for taking care of her friend Debra.

"That's a risk people who love deeply take," Haberl says. "And she would risk her life for a friend."

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