FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – Opening statements got underway Monday in the murder trial of a man accused of killing Plantation attorney Melissa Britt Lewis then dumping her body in a canal.
Tony Villegas was originally ruled incompetent to stand trial and spent 10 months locked in a mental health facility. That decision was then overturned after two forensic psychologists found him mentally fit.
Melissa Britt Lewis was a law partner of notorious case convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, She was also best friends with Villegas’ ex-wife, Debra Villegas, Rothstein’s chief operating officer.
Despite conspiracy theories early on, investigators concluded Lewis was not a part of Rothstein’s $1.6 billion Ponzi scheme and her death had nothing to do with him.
Prosecutors say Villegas killed Lewis in March, 2008 because he blamed her for the breakup of his marriage.
The defense may try to plant the suggestion that Rothstein was behind Lewis’ murder because, as an attorney said in an earlier civil proceedings, “she knew too much.”
The judge has forbidden the defense from bringing Rothstein into the murder trial, but that could change if any witnesses make unsolicited reference to the Ponzi schemer.
Defense attorney Bruce Fleischer offered no detail in his opening remarks to jurors, saying only that the death of Melissa Lewis was a puzzle.
“There will be pieces of the puzzle, important pieces of the puzzle, that when you analyze them, that are missing,” Fleischer said.
Assistant State Attorney painted a seemingly overwhelming case against Villegas. His DNA was found on her suit jacket in her abandoned SUV. It was missing a button that had been torn off. A matching button was found on her garage floor. Also on the garage floor was pepper spray residue.
Villegas’ roommate testified that when he came home the day of Lewis’s disappearance, the defendant was washing pepper spray off of his hands and arms.
Police could not find the victim’s cell phone. They say tracking records show it went back and forth between Broward and Miami- Dade on an FEC train line after her death. Villegas was a conductor on the train.
Debra Villegas was sentenced to 10-years in after pleading guilty to her role in Rothstein’s scheme. Rothstein was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Villegas won early release for cooperating in the Ponzi investigation.
Debra Villegas is expected to testify against her ex-husband. She will say her estranged husband was violent and threatened to “chop her up and feed her to alligators” if she went through with the divorce. Villegas faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.