With recent developments surrounding the Law Firm of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler the answer to that question just got 1,000 times more complex. “I read your post about Melissa Lewis. Are you aware of the recent events in Ft. Lauderdale?” the caller asked me. I wrote about Melissa Lewis back on March 2008.
What happened to Melissa Lewis? If you can answer that question you may get a $250,000.00 reward. Steve Lombardi, March 11, 2008.
Back in March 2008 I wrote:
"So what happened to Melissa Lewis? As a partner in her law firm she was talented and seemingly married to the law and now is the victim of a crime. She lived in Plantation, Florida. Last week after returning home from the grocery store she ended up dead and floating in a canal. Mace was sprayed all over the inside of her garage. The burglary system still in place and her two dogs undisturbed the groceries she purchased and her purse were later found to be missing. The local police suspect robbery."
Then and now the story smelled fishier than the oldest fish file in this law office. If you’ve kept up with the story, about the law firm where she worked, you know that the principal lawyer of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler is under investigation for … well, as the WSJ puts it:
“In the complaint, prosecutors claim that Mr. Rothstein operated the Ponzi scheme since 2005 using his law firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler. Investors were promised fat profits of 20% or more by paying lump sums to people who had won legal settlements that would supposedly pay out larger amounts over a longer period. Mr. Rothstein's attorney didn't respond to two phone messages seeking comment.”
Since March 2008 several key developments have transpired. The most significant being missing money, firm accounts, campaign contributions, donations, plane rides, leaving town without an explanation, asking lawyers in the firm to do research on not-so-friendly extradition countries like Morocco and Israel followed by the filing for dissolution and liquidation, a process somewhat similar to a bankruptcy.
“If the firm is dissolved it could meet the same fate as Dreier LLP, a New York law firm that was closed after its founder, Marc Dreier, was arrested for defrauding investors by selling bogus notes. Earlier this year, Mr. Dreier was sentenced to 20 years in prison. It is still unclear, however, whether the Florida firm would have to disband.” WSJ, Nov. 4, 2009
At least one former business associate is distancing himself from any existing business relationship. See, The Fall of Scott Rothstein, By Roger Stone
“While Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler is certainly a highly capable law firm of talented and professional individuals, there was never any evidence that the firm generated the kind of revenue that Rothstein was spending on real-estate, exotic cars, wrist-watches, charitable contributions, political contributions, jewelry, watercraft, designer clothing and multiple luxury homes in Fort Lauderdale and New York City.
Rothstein's spending became so profligate that one year ago I retained Adam Mangino, a former DEA Agent, to investigate and determine the source of Rothstein's new found wealth. While Mangino could not determine the source of Rothstein's wild spending, he did advise me that the money was not Rothstein's.
I asked Rothstein to dissolve RRA Consulting LLC a year ago and his sponsorship of the STONEzone ended July 29th of this year. I am not an investor in any of his schemes and can't believe anyone in their right-mind would entrust him with investor money.”
And so the Florida attorney called and asked, “Why did an attorney from Iowa find the Melissa Lewis disappearance so interesting?” Instinct I guess. Trial lawyers have to have good instincts to survive and I guess you could say instinctively the Melissa Lewis story just didn’t add up for me. So now I’m left to ask, “Did Melissa Lewis know too much?”
I have no way of knowing how money was maintained in the Ft. Lauderdale law firm, but I do know how money is kept by most lawyers. Lawyer trust accounts are like most trust accounts; deposits are someone else’s’ money, meaning keep you mitts off of it. Withdraw and spend that money and it better be to pay for your kid’s life saving operation. In Iowa we have a strict rule about lawyers using trust account funds; if you do it then you automatically lose your license to practice law. The Iowa Supreme Court has a long history of revoking law licenses when lawyers steal from the trust account. Several lawyers have had the not too pleasant experience of being on the receiving end of law license revocation. Revocation is similar to quick and timely legal funeral. As a lawyer you might as well be dead because without a license you can’t practice law.
As you can well imagine anyone in a firm with knowledge and a reputation for telling the truth would pose a considerable threat for those who would be on the receiving end of such an investigation surrounding missing account funds. If the amount missing is in the millions then the civil and criminal challenges become insurmountable. Unless of course the main witness disappears. So what happened to Melissa?
Even John Grisham or Steve Martini would have a best seller with the likes of the facts in this case. Get a load of this news report.
"In Breaking News, Deirdra Funcheon reports that the law firms accounting employee’s husband has been charged with the murder of Debra Lewis." The motive in that case as alleged by the prosecutor seems ludicrous. “The motive was supposedly revenge for Lewis's closeness with Debra.” The criminal defense team alleges the husband was framed. And to complicate the situation even more one of the prosecutors who first worked on the Melissa Lewis murder case went to work for Rosenfeldt Rothstein Adler. The list of possible suspects goes deep. Melissa Lewis had an ex-husband that some say should be a suspect. Who can say when the main witness is dead.
“According to the arrest warrant for Tony Villegas, police received "a copy of an e-mail drafted by victim Lewis dated December 20, 2007, wherin she requested assistance for her friend Debra Villegas (wife of Tony Villegas) stating that 'How hard is it to do a will? My friend Debra is going through a divorce. Her ex-husband is nuts. To be on the safe side, she wants to be sure she designates who gets her children if he hurts her and goes to jail. Seems extreme, but you have NO IDEA what is going on and restraining orders are worthless.'" The affidavit does not specify from what account the e-mail was sent, to whom it was sent, or how detectives obtained it.´ Breaking News, Deirdra Funcheon
This case has facts that would make CSI drool. Rick Cassel and Kate Beckett would love this case.
“Police noted that Tony Villegas was a train conductor, and that cell phone pings from the victim's phone in the hours after her death matched up with Tony Villegas's train route. The affidavit also cites witnesses who claim to have seen Villegas washing pepper spray off his hands the evening the murder was committed. Villegas remains in jail awaiting trial; Fleisher believes it will be at least a year before the case is tried. He says Villegas is "holding his own" in there.” Breaking News, Deirdra Funcheon
Even Martini, who I like better than Grisham couldn’t weave these facts into the suspense novel it’s becoming. And the ending of who killed Melissa Lewis still hasn’t been written.
Who are the cast of characters in this unfolding drama?
Melissa Britt Lewis, attorney at Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler who was murdered.
Scott Rothstein, attorney at Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
Debra Villegas, employee of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, who allegedly handled the books.
Tony Villegas, former husband of Debra Villegas and the man charged with Debra Lewis’ murder.
UPDATE: November 19, 2009
The Sun Sentinel Newspaper writes today "Does lawyer's murder need fresh look after Ponzi allegations?" The news columnist, Michael Mayo interviews the younger sister of Melissa Britt Lewis about her experience with being around Tony Villegas (the man accused of Lewis' murder) and about her experience with Villegas' wife, Debra Villegas (the COO at the law firm where Scott Rothstein was a partner. It's well worth reading and provides further evidence of the relationships and character of the people involved. Here are a few passages:
After her sister's funeral, Fisher said Debra Villegas came up to her and said, "Let's keep in touch. If you or your family need anything, just call."
Fisher said she tried calling Debra Villegas three or four times the following year.
"I never heard back," Fisher said. "I thought maybe she was depressed and having a hard time, feeling guilty about my sister's death (because her ex-husband was accused), so I gave up. It made me feel sorry for her. But now I'm just angry."
"Melissa said Tony was always cordial to her — that's why she wasn't afraid of him," she said.
Tony Villegas had no criminal record before being charged with the Lewis' murder, and there were no domestic violence complaints or restraining orders against him.
Fisher said she now wonders about Debra's credibility and motives. Some in her family wonder if Debra played Lewis and Tony Villegas against each other, and if she wanted Tony Villegas or Lewis out of the picture."
A jury will be asked to figure out what would make a guy snap and want to kill his soon to be ex-wife's best friend? Of course that jury will certainly be aware of the Rothstein financial mess and Villegas' position in that firm. By the time the murder case is heard charges may be filed in the financial wrongdoing case which may provide a clearer motive, but point the prosecutetorial finger in another direction.