Saturday, March 22, 2008
BY TODD WRIGHT
Tony Villegas was denied bail Thursday morning during his first appearance in front of a Broward judge in the murder of a Fort Lauderdale attorney earlier this month.
The 44-year-old railroad engineer only answered ''Yes, sir'' to several quick questions by Broward Circuit Court Judge Lee Jay Seidman, who wanted to make sure the suspect understood the charges against him.
Villegas appeared by closed-circuit television and was formally charged with premeditated first-degree murder in the death of 39-year-old Melissa Britt Lewis -- a crime punishable by the death penalty.
GRAND JURY BOUND
The case could go before a grand jury next week.
Police allege that on the night of March 5, Villegas strangled Lewis and dumped her body into a canal.
Lewis was a close friend of Villegas' estranged wife, Debra Villegas, who worked with Melissa at the law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
Villegas, who formerly lived in Sunrise and Weston, was arrested early Saturday at his sister's house in North Miami-Dade.
He maintains that he was framed.
Authorities have released little information about a motive.
However, his estranged wife Debra Villegas contends that her husband was jealous of her close friendship with Lewis. The former couple, already separated, were in the midst of a bitter divorce.
Among the evidence police have linking him to the crime are records tracking Lewis' iPhone to Tony Villegas' residence in North Miami-Dade, and signs that Villegas tried to find out how to remove traces of Mace from his hands.
Authorities said Lewis was strangled inside her garage, where investigators found Mace residue and a button from her suit jacket.
She was last seen the evening of March 5 at a Plantation Publix, where she had gone shopping after work.
Her Cadillac sport utility vehicle was found abandoned in a parking lot near her home. Lewis' body was discovered March 7 in a canal near State Road 84 and Pine Island Road.
The Miami Herald has filed a motion to have the search and arrest warrants and affidavits pertaining to the case unsealed.
No date has been set for the motion to be heard.
Police asked a judge to have the documents sealed because the investigation is ongoing.