Debra Villegas on Rothstein: "I'd Like to Believe That He Loved Me"

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Melissa and Debra (Small).jpg
Debra Villegas and Melissa Lewis.
Three months after Debra Villegas pleaded guilty to aiding in Scott Rothstein's massive Ponzi scheme, there's still plenty of mystery surrounding her relationship with the disgraced lawyer. How much did she know, and when did she know it? Did her best friend's death have anything to do with the Ponzi scheme?

In a 50-page transcript of her confession in federal court, Debra describes her conflicted feelings about Rothstein, her boss of 17 years whom she considered "like a brother." She began assisting 
Rothstein with what she thought was a money laundering scheme just weeks before her best friend, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler attorney Melissa Britt Lewis, was killed in March 2008. (For more on their friendship and the murder, check out this New Times feature story).

After Melissa died, the "money laundering" scheme escalated. But Debra didn't connect the murder with the financial crime. Clearly, Debra -- who gave her testimony while on medication for depression and anxiety -- never fully accepted the notion of Rothstein as a con man. She still sounds like a battered wife, struggling to understand how a man who claimed to love her could also endanger her life.

Looking back in retrospect, probably Mr. Rothstein was trying to engender loyalty from me. I don't really know. I'd like to believe that he loved me and cared for me and was doing these things for me and the children to help us because he knew we had nobody else to depend on; but way before the Ponzi scheme existed, Mr. Rothstein did very generous things for me.

Even in the beginning of his practice when he made very little money, he did extremely generous things for me that I never really understood. And he always told me it was because he believed me to be the hardest working, most loyal person he knew.
Debra assumed Rothstein was taking care of her because she was divorcing her husband and needed help. The $475,000 house and 2009 Maserati that Rothstein gave her didn't strike her as bribes, she says.

And, yes, a house, that was a gift that was beyond my wildest dreams and my mind couldn't imagine. But to be honest with you, I -- this was immediately after the death of Melissa,  and I was depressed and didn't get out of bed.

It wasn't that he and I sat down and he said he was going to buy me a home. He showed up in Weston with a real estate agent and drove me over to the house and told me that this was where I was going to be living since I didn't have a home to live in.
Today, Debra would seem to have lost everything. She's forfeited the house and the car. Her ex-husband, Tony Villegas, is in the Broward County Jail accused of murdering Melissa -- although experts are still debating whether he is mentally able to stand trial. Rothstein is in prison for 50 years. 

But Debra, who has four children, is better off than you might expect. She's remarried, and living in Clewiston. When she's sentenced next month for conspiracy to commit money laundering, she could face more than 10 years in prison. Then, for the first time in nearly two decades, Debra won't have anyone around to protect her.


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