Tony Villegas' long-delayed trial for the murder of Scott Rothstein law firm partner Melissa Lewis has been set for September, and the case has enough intrigue to fill a John Grisham novel. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Villegas, 50, a railroad conductor with no prior criminal history, has pleaded not guilty.
"We're just ready to get it over with," Lewis' sister, Carrie Fisher, told me Friday.
The latest in a string of status hearings was held last week, and Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson wants the 6-year-old case to reach a jury.
Lewis' body was found in a canal near her Plantation home in March 2008. Villegas was indicted by a grand jury later that month and is being held without bond at the Broward main jail. The big question hanging over the trial: What impact will the 2009 Ponzi scheme implosion of Rothstein's law firm have?
Especially when you consider that two key people in Lewis' life — Debra Villegas and Rothstein — are now in federal prison for their roles in the $1.6 billion fraud.
Debra Villegas, Tony Villegas' estranged wife and Lewis' best friend, was chief operating officer of Rothstein's firm and is serving a 10-year sentence. She's on the state's witness list, and defense lawyers are sure to make an issue of her credibility. Police and prosecutors theorize that an enraged Tony Villegas killed Lewis because he blamed her for his marital breakup.
Rothstein, Lewis' boss and her former law school professor, is serving a 50-year sentence. He is not on the witness list, but Tony Villegas co-counsel Al Milian told me the defense team might want to depose Rothstein. In a December 2011 civil deposition related to the Ponzi scheme, Rothstein admitted he slept with Lewis when she was a 30-year-old law student. He lost his composure when an attorney started asking questions about Lewis' murder, asking if she was killed "because she knew too much."
Rothstein responded: "Excuse me? Are you attempting to insinuate that I had something to do with that poor girl's death? Have you lost your mind? ...You're disgusting. Everyone knows that I wasn't involved in it. That's disgusting."
Rothstein might find the conspiracy theories repugnant, but there's no telling what a jury will make of the overall situation.
Milian describes the state's case as "circumstantial." The strongest evidence: DNA that matches Tony Villegas' was found on Lewis' jacket in her abandoned SUV. Milian wouldn't discuss defense strategy, but I could see how Tony Villegas might claim evidence was planted and that he was framed.
"The way I look at it, if I was on that jury, how could you not think there's reasonable doubt?" said Larry Drulard, Tony Villegas' former supervisor. Drulard called Tony "a meek guy;" he said he believes Tony is innocent.
When I asked Lewis' sister, Carrie Fisher, how the Rothstein Ponzi implosion might impact the murder case and whether she thought Tony Villegas was the killer, she said, "I can't comment on that."
Drulard said he still gets postcards from Tony Villegas, but he stopped getting jail phone calls from him a year ago. "He writes that he can't wait to get out, that he's sure he's coming home and he's looking forward to spending Christmas with his family," Drulard told me Friday. "He wants to get his old job at the railroad back."
Tony Villegas had two stints in lockdown units at state psychiatric facilities, in 2010 and 2011, when he was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
Said Drulard: "From some of his latest letters, it seems he's having a hell of a time keeping things together. But after all he's been through, that's understandable. It's been a long six years."