Sign up for our free newsletter
It was a bright September Sunday, a perfect afternoon for a friendly game of polo. A breeze gently ruffled the shiny tresses of thoroughbreds and trophy wives alike as a high-society crowd gathered on the grassy field at the Gone Away Farm, one of the pampered patches of green in western Montgomery County. The air was spiked by a musky blend of fresh dung and perfumethe unmistakable smell of money.
Clothes by Ralph Lauren, cars by Volvo and Cadillac, horses by a benevolent creator and the world’s top breeders. Polo is known as the sport of kings, and many here at least looked the part. Joe Muldoon Jr., a lanky, gray-haired patrician in riding boots and white breeches, ambled about his place like Peale’s portrait of Gen. Washington come to life. The 63-year-old head of the Potomac Polo Club was hosting the afternoon’s marquee event, a charity match that pitted his U.S. team against Argentina. Despite the ideal weather, an unforeseen cloud threatened the proceedings: The match was scheduled to begin shortly, and one of the Argentine players, Roberto Villegas, still hadn’t shown up.
It wasn’t like Villegas to be late for a polo match. A dedicated and dependable polo professional, the 38-year-old veteran usually spent hours before an event preparing his ponies. Unlike many pros, Villegas often served as his own groom and reveled in the gritty work. Muldoon assumed that Villegas’ trailer had broken down on the drive up from Warrenton, about two hours south in Virginia horse country. Just the day before, Muldoon had played in another charity event with him in Pittsburgh, and Villegas had vowed to attend the match at Muldoon’s farm.
This wasn’t just another polo exhibition to Villegas but a matter of patriotism and pride; the event marked the end of a nasty international stalemate over food imports. After nearly seven decades, restrictions on Argentine meat were finally being lifted. To celebrate, the Argentine embassy had brought to the farm the first official shipment of prized beef. Now, more than 300 pounds of pampas-raised tenderloinsas thick around as logssmoked on an arsenal of grills outside Muldoon’s mansion on the other side of the ridge. This carnivores’ feast was the main attraction of the asado, or Argentine barbecue, to follow the match.
No expense was spared at the “Taste of Argentina,” as the event was billed. There were 1,000 bottles of fine Mendoza wine, and a storied tango troupe had been brought in from New York. The crowd was filled with Argentine big shots, many of whom had jetted up from Buenos Aires for the big day. The new ambassador to the U.S., Diego Guelar, a dapper gent who sported a carved walking cane, was among the many shiny dignitaries.
For Villegas, the event was a long way from home, and not just in miles. He had grown up in a village in the boondocks of Argentina; the son of a farmhand, he had begun his career as a stable boy on a neighboring ranch. In his teens, he had accompanied an Argentine polo star to the U.S. to work as a groom. After almost two decades on the circuit, he had become one of the most respected club polo players in the country. Beyond bringing together his two loves, polo and asados, the match would mark his arrival: The former farm boy breaking bread with the ambassador himself. What would the gauchos back in the provinces say?
“It was something that Roberto wanted to do desperately,” Muldoon says later. “It would have been a great honor for him to play before the ambassador and all his countrymen, especially considering his poor background.”
Muldoon checked the phone messages at his house. Still no word from Villegas. Fortunately, the club was able to find a last-minute replacement. After the match, as the asado began under the canopy of trees in Muldoon’s yard, the bad news arrived in a murmured whisper: The reason Villegas couldn’t make it was he was dead.
That morning, his patron and girlfriend, Susan Cummings, had shot Villegas four times in the throat and chest; authorities found him lying in a pool of blood in the small kitchen of Cummings’ 18th-century mansion outside Warrenton. Nearby, on the hallway floor, was a Walther semiautomatic pistol, one of the best-selling guns from Interarms, the weapons business owned by her billionaire father, Sam Cummings. The 35-year-old heiress says she was defending herself from a knife-wielding Villegas. She claims she wanted to end a two-year relationship that mixed business and pleasure, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Friends of Villegas prefer another version: A jealous, possessive Cummings tried to prevent him from leaving her.
At the asado, news of the slaying was kept
quiet in order not to disturb the festivities.
The tango show went on as scheduled; as darkness fell, torches were lit among the tables. The dancers whirled and stomped to the slashing bandoneón a
nd the crowd’s delighted applause. At the end of every number, punctuated by bitterly danced recriminations, the couple always reconciled in a swooning embrace.
A month later, many in attendance that afternoon can’t shake the sadness brought by the violent death of Villegas, who was regarded as a local hero in Washington polo’s tightknit scene.
An aspiring amateur, Fabian Koss is a weekend warrior who started playing polo just a few years ago. A native of Buenos Aires, he works at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington; he is keenly aware of the uphill struggle Villegas faced in one of the world’s most elite pastimes, typically handed down from generation to generation. “Roberto wasn’t born into a wealthy polo family,” says Koss in his downtown office. “He came from the provinces, from a very humble background, and he pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He was a self-made guy, and that was the beauty of it. He made it.”
Indeed, many confirm that, in spite of his background, Villegas moved with grace in the wealthiest of social circlesthe word “gentleman” is used often. Those who fund the sport, known as “patrons” in the polo world, include the world’s richest man, the Sultan of Brunei, and former Villegas patrons include Australian tycoon Tim Gannon, founder of the Outback Steakhouse chain. A charismatic man, Villegas was known for his quick smile, a Cheshire Cat grin that lit up his dark, rugged face.
From young grooms in barn jeans to businessmen in tailored suits, the entire polo community packed St. Stevens Catholic Church in ritzy Middleburg for Villegas’ funeral service. William Ylvisaker, founder of the Palm Beach Polo Club and another former patron, gave the official eulogy (“He loved the sport of polo and everybody loved him”). Later, at a local funeral home, there was an open-casket viewing, as is the Spanish custom. All afternoon long, mourners filed silently past Villegas’ body, which was dressed in a polo uniform over a turtleneck sweater that covered the gunshot wounds. On the foot of the flower-strewn coffin rested an arrangement of crossed polo mallets next to a ball signed by his teammates: the fallen horseman, armed and ready for his final match.
The memorial service wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of Villegas’ friends and countrymen. He was rich in compañeros and little else. In a sport in which top pros earn six-figure salaries, he was a journeyman player and just got by living day to day. Villegas’ widowed mother and his sister couldn’t afford to have his body flown back home, so the Argentine embassy footed the bill, and a fund was established to pay for his burial in his hometown of Chaja in the province of Cordoba.
Susan Cummings was not part of the public outpouring of grief that enshrouded horse country. Authorities charged her with first-degree murder and held her on a $75,000 bond. At a hearing at Fauquier County courthouse in Warrenton, several locals spoke on her behalf, describing her as a gentle, trustworthy person. With the help of a local businessman, she posted $2,500 bail, surrendered her passport and weapons, and pledged her extensive real estate holdings as collateral. After a night in jail, she was free to await the pretrial hearing at her 350-acre farm, where she lives with her twin sister Diana.
In Argentina, newspapers had a field day, blaring such headlines as, “Polo player’s slayer paid her bond and is free.” The implication was obvious: If Villegas had shot Cummings, he’d be behind bars and probably facing the death penalty, while the rich American was getting away with murderat least for now. Likewise, the U.S. media jumped on the case, from Time (“Murder in Pololand”) and Newsweek to Inside Edition and People (“Death of the Hired Man”) to the supermarket tabloids. It’s one of the oldest traditions of a free press: There’s nothing more deliciously scandalous than the sins of the rich. A local woman watching the frenzy at the courthouse summed it up: “There wouldn’t be all this fuss if her daddy didn’t have all that money.”
Indeed. There was another shooting shortly before the Villegas slaying that’s more typical of local homicides: A man gunned down a dude nicknamed Gator outside a country store; they were squabbling over a $50 debt. The incident, which had begun as a tussle in the bed of a pickup truck, rated only the obligatory mention in the local papers.
That sort of pedestrian gunplay pales next to the polo killing, which recalls the ’76 slaying of ski star Spider Sabich by French actress Claudine Longet, who was exonerated. And whatever the Cummings-Villegas incident lacks in the celebrity quotient, it makes up for on the irony meter: The daughter of the world’s largest small-arms dealerexpertly wielding a James Bond-style handgun, no lesskills her polo-player lover, an Argentine charmer who allegedly threatened her life. Her friends say the shy, reserved Cummings is an animal lover who wouldn’t swat a fly; his recall a good-natured, gregarious soul incapable of being rude, much less abusive. Add the hotshot lawyer who successfully defended Lorena Bobbitt. Now that’s a story.
The Willow Run Polo School lies at the foot of a small mountain off U.S. 17 a few miles outside Warrenton. Through the lush pastures winds a creek hugged by the massive, graceful willow trees that give the farm its name. It’s an almost absurdly picturesque scene, and it was in this storybook setting that Susan Cummings and Roberto Villegas met.
During the long days of summer, Willow Run bustles with activity, as novices flock to learn the game of polo. On this fall afternoon, though, the place is quiet, and the setting sun casts long shadows. It’s the end of the polo season, and instructor Jean Marie Turon is preparing to head south for the fall and winter. A small, wiry man with a trim mustache, he’s one of about three dozen Argentine pros whom the locals call “Argies.” These nomads travel the East Coast circuit depending on the season, but most spend the summers in Virginia horse country.
A longtime friend of Turon’s, Villegas often visited Willow Run, which doubles as a popular hangout for Argies. Though not an instructor, Villegas would lead practice matches with students, cook an asado, play cards, or just socialize. The asado pit under a corrugated roof is just a pile of ashes now, a sad reminder of good times past. In the distance, an Argentine groom walks a pair of ponies on their afternoon paces. Now the only excitement at Willow Run is provided by a large, dusky horse raising a ruckus in the stable. “Look at my new gray,” says Turon proudly. “His mother is Argentinian and his father is an American. He has a lot of potential, but he’s a mean son of bitchand that’s what I like.”
Like Villegas and many of the Argies, Turon has found a home in the U.S. He’s been here for years, speaks English quite well, and makes a good living; he even married an American. In the summer of ’95, a shy, slim woman came to Willow Run for lessons. She pronounced her name “Suzanne” in a thick European accent, and she had a reserved manner that bordered on the morbidly taciturn, her dour expression seemingly frozen in a gaze of puzzled concern: our lady of the perpetually raised eyebrows. From the very beginning, she had an interest in the game that was anything but casual, especially compared with the hordes of newcomers taking up polo in search of instant status.
Unlike those nouveau rich, Cummings was born into relatively old money, and she could be counted among the international jet-setters who retire to horse country to live quietly among their own. Indeed, the area boasts so many big-money sorts that millionaires are a dime a dozen. It is the billionaires who own the really lavish spreads here, family dynasties like the Mellons, the Curriers, and, of course, the Kent Cookes.
In many ways, Cummings is as muchor moreof a foreigner in the U.S. than Villegas was. Born in Monaco in 1962, she is one of fraternal twin daughters of billionaire Sam Cummings and his Swiss wife, Irmgard Blaettler. Sam Cummings’ firm, Interarms, was founded in 1953 and was for decades the world’s leader in the small-arms trade. According to Patrick Brogan’s 1982 biography, Deadly Business, the Philadelphia-born, Washington, D.C.-bred Cummings “has sold more guns in the past 30 years than any other private individual in history.” The former CIA agent has equipped citizens and armies, dictators and rebels, wars and revolutions all over the globe, often supplying opposing sides in the same conflict: “It’s based on human folly,” he said of the arms business in a 1996 interview. “And the depths of human folly have never been plumbed.”
Cummings launched the company in Alexandria, where an Interarms warehouse still sits in Old Town on the banks of the Potomac. Interarms flourished during the Cold War, and today the $100-million-a-year company is based in Manchester, England; Cummings is a British subject and has lived for decades in the tax haven of Monaco.
Susan and her twin sister Diana (pronounced Dee-Ana) were schooled in France and were raised in the ultrararefied world of Monte Carlo, but theirs was a sheltered upbringing away from the casinos and nightclubs. In Deadly Business, Brogan presents Cummings as a devoted family mandoesn’t smoke, drink, or gamblewho just happens to be the world’s wealthiest weapons tycoon: “There is nothing of the merchant of death about him….He spends the spring and autumn in Monte Carlo, when it is at its sleepiest and most provincial. In the high summer he and his wife are in Villars, a mountain resort in the canton of Vaud high in the Swiss Alps, where children are sent out of their parents’ way to enjoy the clean air and unrelenting dullness of the Swiss….His routine is somewhat changed by his daughters, who may insist on spending the summer in Monte Carlo instead of boring Villars, and drag their reluctant parents down the mountain into the cosmopolitan humidity of the Riviera.”
When they were 9, Susan and Diana gained dual citizenship (American and British), and Susan eventually attended Mount Vernon College in Washington, where she earned a B.A. in arts and humanities. In recent interviews, Susan has said her “real interest was caring for animals.” Like many a young girl she was fond of horses, and in different circumstances she might have become a veterinarian. But she was the daughter of Sam Cummings, so there was no pressing need to pursue a career. If it was country life she craved, all she had to do was ask.
In the early ’70s, Cummings bought a factory at an abandoned airport near Midland in southern Fauquier County. He chose the site not because of its “snob appeal,” writes Brogan, but “because it was cheap, convenient, and there are no unions in the South.” The factory opened in 1976 and was soon cranking out some 25,000 guns a year.
On his frequent trips to the Midland factory, Cummings fell for the scenic hunt country, and he apparently decided to find a place suitable for his daughters to indulge their passion for rural pleasures. In ’84, he purchased the historic Ashland Farm, a 350-acre estate on U.S. 211 between Warrenton and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The main house is a faded stone mansion built in the late 18th century; it was used by Union troops during the Civil War. For the past 13 years, the sisters have lived on the property, though not exactly together. Through whatever agreement exists between them, Susan stays in the main house, and Diana resides in one of the estate’s guest cottages. Sam Cummings and his wife were frequent visitors at the farm until recent years, when his health began to fail. (The 70-year-old is seriously ill in Switzerland and reportedly has not been told of his daughter’s predicament.)
During their residence at Ashland Farm, the Cummings sisters have gained a reputation as, if not full-scale recluses, then certainly as quiet, unassuming members of the wealthy gentry. They have no servants, employing only a few hired hands to help with the horses and cattle on the farm. They work in jeans and boots, and compared with flamboyant high-society butterflies like Marlena Cooke, a former neighbor down the road, the Cummings twins are homebodies.
Even so, Diana is more outgoing and social, while Susan is aloof and reserved. Besides their differences in temperament, the twins share little physical resemblance. “They look different, but they both have a great elegance about them,” says an acquaintance. “They’re quite striking.”
Despite their differences, the sisters found a common love in horses. On her arrest warrant, Susan gave her occupation as “horsewoman,” which around these parts can be a calling as much as a career. Out here, where farms boast names like Houyhnhnm Acres (for the talking horses in Gulliver’s Travels), it’s sometimes unclear who the real masters are, as indulged as some of these thoroughbreds often are. Certainly, the collective obsession for horses makes for a great social equalizer, where heiresses like the Cummings nonchalantly work side by side with hired help.
“When you are passionate about horses, it’s easy to cross those boundaries,” says a local who boards her horses at Ashland Farm. “The people that are really snobby we kind of laugh at, because they’re the people who’ve just moved out from McLean and they don’t get it. They don’t get the whole horse thing. It’s like having a child. Maybe you can afford five nannies, but maybe you don’t want five nannies. Maybe you want to take care of the horses yourself.” The comparison of horses to children is more than apt; Susan has been known to bottle-feed animals.
Local businessman John Pennington has known the Cummings sisters since they first moved to Ashland Farm; he was leasing part of the property when they arrived, accompanied by their own live-in governess. He has seen the sisters mature into self-sufficient, unpretentious women. “Both have a lot of dignity, but they don’t dress up and they don’t spend a lot of money on clothes,” he says. “They’re just a couple of farm girls, and I think that’s what Sam had envisioned for thema very simple, down-to-earth life, away from Monte Carlo and all that.”
For years, Susan limited her equestrian activities to “hunter pairs,” a cross-country event that trains horses for fox hunting. Diana competes mostly in jumpers and other show-horse competitions. Local resident Louisa Woodville boards her horse at Ashland and often rides with Susan at the farm and at charity events; they have been friends for nearly a decade. “She’s a lovely, gentle person,” says Woodville. “I would say she’s a little bit shy, but I find her to be a very warm and kindshe’d do anything for you. She’s gracious and compassionate, and she wouldn’t hurt a fleashe really loves animals.” A neighbor says that when the sisters had to get rid of some pesky groundhogs, they hired a firm that trapped the vermin humanely and set them free elsewhere.
In the summer of ’95, Susan discovered a new pursuit that would disrupt her routines and expose her to an entirely new social milieu. “When she started doing polo, I didn’t see her as much,” says Woodville. “Because I’m not interested in polo.”
Cummings undertook her new venture with the utmost seriousness, a devotion that was not lost on her polo instructor. “She was coming almost every day to ride,” recalls Turon. “I have different groups, and she was jumping into any group. She was kind of following me around, so some of the people joked about it.”
It’s not uncommon for students to have crushes on their riding teachers, and Turon says he brushed it off as no big deal. He had enough problems just trying to converse with his new pupil. Her emotionless, icy exterior unnerved the laid-back Turon, who was more accustomed to the boisterousness of his fellow Argies. “Susan has a weird personality,” he says. “She doesn’t really show any feelings. You don’t know if she’s happy or sad. She’s just there.” She was a decent rider, Turon says, but like most beginners showed little of the athletic skill it takes to whack a tiny white ball while riding at full gallop.
According to Turon, Cummings soon turned her attention to a Mexican groom, but a steady relationship never developed. She forged on with her polo lessons, hooked by a sport that some devotees compare to drug addiction.
But Cummings apparently didn’t want to remain just another bumbling beginner or Willow Run groupie. According to Argentine pro Rodrigo Salinas, Cummings told a female novice that taking classes wasn’t enough: If you want to become a good polo player, she advised, you have to date a professional. Everyone knows the best players around are the Argies, and the most charismatic, friendly Argie was Roberto Villegas, star of the local polo scene.
“She wanted to get into the polo world,” says Koss. “And what better way to get into the polo world than to buy herself a polo pro?”
It wasn’t long before Cummings and Villegas were a couple, on the field and off.
A week after Villegas’ death, the Great Meadow Equestrian Center in The Plains is packed with spectators. Every Friday night, the club hosts twilight polo, and this is the final match of the season, a charity fundraiser known as the Last Divot. It is also a memorial of sorts to Villegas, who as much as anybody made the weekly ritual so popular.
This event features arena polo, a faster, higher-scoring game than traditional open-field polo. Despite its name, arena polo is an outdoor event held in a circular paddock much smaller than the playing area in field polo. There are three players per team instead of four, and each game has fewer chukkers, or periods. Because it requires fewer ponies, arena polo is less expensive and more accessible to newcomers who don’t have a million bucks to blow.
For the last several years, Villegas was an undisputed star of the twilight matches, thrilling fans with his flamboyant, aggressive horsemanship and flashy scoring. The last two summers, he played here nearly every week, either for Cummings’ Ashland Farm team, which included Susan, or the host club, Great Meadow. According to club president Richard Varge, Villegas was the major attraction that pulled in the crowds. “Everyone wanted to watch him play because he was such an exciting, outstanding athlete. He was extremely quick on the horse, always making spectacular plays. But he was also a great sportsman and a gentleman. He never discriminated against lower-level players. He was their mentor,” says Varge.
Villegas helped revive a sport that had fallen out of favor. In Washington, arena polo has its roots in the Potomac, Md. area, where it enjoyed immense popularity from the late ’50s into the ’80s. “It was the largest outdoor cocktail party in the Washington area, every Friday night all summer long,” says Joe Muldoon.
Led by Villegas, the arena matches at Great Meadow made polo a hot sport again in horse country, and the twilight events are the pinnacle of horsy hip. Groups of young professionals hold tailgate parties just outside the paddock walls. Many have struck it rich in the computer industry, and they smoke their overpriced, trendy cigars and try to emulate some half-baked fantasy of the country life. Meanwhile, packs of young women known as polo groupies (or polo sluts, depending on whom you talk to), clomp through the grass in high heels and miniskirts eager to meet a player or patron.
A local winery has set up tables tonight to fete the weekly singles crowd. For most, the cocktail chatter under the stars proves far more enticing than the action in the arena; the majority pay attention only during an awkward moment of silence in Villegas’ honor. Not that they’re missing much, at least tonight. According to a player in the audience, the match is desultory and barely resembles competitive polo. The reason is simple: Villegas wasn’t there.
“You can’t have decent polo without Robertos,” says Muldoon. “At this low-level [club] polo, if you put four businessman against four businessmen, it’s like killing snakesnothing happens. All you need is players of Roberto’s ability and two sponsors on each team, and then you get something happening. Then the game moves.”
It’s not as if Villegas was the best ever to pick up a mallethe was simply impressive in context. Just as the top golfers travel on the PGA tour and the rest work at local clubs, Villegas was a solid, low-level pro who never reached the international stardom attained by some Argies. His four-goal handicap, while high at a club like Great Meadow, isn’t much next to the eight-, nine-, and ten-goal champions who rule hallowed venues like Campo Argentino de Polo in Buenos Aires, where the best polo in the world is played.
By most accounts, Villegas was happy with his lot as a journeyman pro, living the nomad’s life and sharing the field with a succession of patrons. “Roberto always seemed to be on the endless trail, but he always enjoyed himself, and he enjoyed life, and people enjoyed him,” says Bill Fallon, a former sponsor who played on a national championship club team with Villegas in ’90. “The guy could ride absolutely anything, whether it was green, broke, or made. He was just an incredible horseman. He’d been riding horses all his lifehe thought like a horse.”
Villegas had come a long way from a dusty farm in rural Argentina. “He was from the fuckin’ ass of the world,” says a fellow Argie. “So he was happy just to have a nice roof over his head. In his kind of polo, if you’re a three- or four-goal player, you’re gonna have a good life, eat a lot of asados, have fun doing what you likebut you’re not gonna get rich.” To make the top ranks of polo is a tricky business, and it depends as much on riding better and better ponies as it does on your ability with a mallet. Friends and former teammates say that Villegas was satisfied to remain at the club level, playing a sport that sponsors spend their vast fortunes to make possible. In the ’80s, he worked his way up the polo ladder, mostly based in Sarasota, Fla. By the early ’90s, he was playing for top clubs in Virginia, including Ylvisaker’s Middleburg team, Cotswold Farm, and Fallon’s Rappahannock Club.
But the years on the circuit took their toll, and Villegas told friends he was ready to settle down, for a while at least. He accepted Cummings’ offer to become resident pro on her new Ashland Farm team; though he apparently received no salary, she paid the upkeep on his ponies, covered his expenses, and gave him a place to stay. In Cummings, the longtime bachelor found a patron and a love, of both of which he’d had more than his share. (“Roberto loved to party every day,” says one Argie.) She in turn had found her polo pro, and soon she found herself thrust into a scene beyond her country estate.
“Roberto was really her entree,” says Peter Arundel, founder of Great Meadow Polo Club. “He gave her a lot more social activity than she had ever had. They held hands everywhere, and in social circles they stood arm in arm, wrapped around each other. He was always very gregarious and had a great sense of humor, and she was always very reserved and remote.”
If they seemed an odd couplethe billionaire’s daughter and the farmhand’s sonfriends say they complemented each other quite well. “She’s European, so she was more suited to him than if she’d been an heiress who grew up here,” says a local woman. “She wasn’t the typical girl from here who’d gone to Foxcroft or National Cathedral and had her debutante ball in Washington. Somebody like that might have been more inclined to turn up their nose at a professional horseman.”
For his part, the extroverted Villegas helped her come out of her shell, however tentatively, while she seemed to assert a calming influence on the former playboy. Though not a smoker and no longer a drinker, Villegas was still an inveterate partygoer, and years of asados had given him a middle-age paunch. After embarking on a diet recommended by the health-conscious Cummings, he slimmed down.
After six months of dating, they were a tight couple. In the winter of ’95, Villegas went to Florida for the polo season, and Cummings visited him. During the next summer, they played together again on the Ashland team and apparently lived together on the farm as well. “They were inseparable,” says Varge. “Wherever you saw Roberto you saw Susan, and vice versa. They did everything together. They didn’t have a groom; they did it themselves, and she was very fastidious about the care of the horses. We used to kid Roberto all the time that he was already marriedit was like husband and wife.”
Certainly, they were getting more serious about their relationship. Last winter, Villegas stayed in Virginia rather than head south with the other Argies. Even now, though, he was by no means a kept man, and apparently he enjoyed little charity from Cummings, whom some say is a notorious tightwad. He told his friends he was taking a break from polo, and he worked the cold months at an apple orchard called Sunnyside Farm in nearby Rappahannock County.
In the spring, Villegas took another step away from his former independence when he sold Cummings his truck, trailer, and string of horseshis sole worldly possessions. Some of his Argie pals claim he only made the deal to get plane money to attend his father’s funeral in Argentina, because Cummings was too miserly to pay his airfare. Others say he was broke and more than glad to be rid of such an expensive responsibility. “I remember him telling me how much better he was going to play this year because the financial burden had been lifted and he was going to be able to focus on being a good player,” recalls Arundel. “And he definitely was more confident and happy as a player.”
The couple sometimes entertained friends at Ashland Farm. After a match, they would have an asado and a party. Some visitors were surprised to find the main house so underfurnished, as if only part of the place were being lived in and the rest was simply museum space. Turon recalls Cummings proudly showing guests her gun display, an entire room filled with weapons of all sorts, from ancient muskets to shiny handguns. It was a sort of mini-arsenal, courtesy of Interarms. Turon says that Villegas often bragged about what a sharpshooter Cummings was, and that he once joked that she had shot at him in the middle of the night when she had mistaken him for an intruder.
Cummings’ fondness for guns is nothing special in hunt country, where many women carry pistols in their purses and keep shotguns in their houses. “It’s not a weird thing to have a gun if you’re a woman here,” says a local horsewoman. “I have a lot of friends who carry guns. But if you’re a woman and you get a gun, the thinking is, make sure you know how to use it.”
As the summer polo season began, Villegas and Cummings seemed the happy, smiling darlings of the twilight polo matches. Villegas often mentioned to friends that they were talking about marriage. But beneath the perfect picture of intercontinental romance, cracks were beginning to show.
Villegas had rented a room in a house on the edge of Warrenton. Though he still worked at Ashland Farm and played for the team, the new living arrangements signaled some sort of change in the relationship. Maybe Villegas felt he needed some breathing room; maybe the domestic life wasn’t for him after all. Or maybe Cummings had kicked him outat least, out of her bedroom in the big house. She may have grown tired of Roberto the boyfriend, even though she still needed Roberto the polo star.
There were other subtle changes. Some recall that the couple were often absent from the post-match cocktail circuit. Rodrigo Salinas noticed it was Cummings who now drove the truck to polo matches; before, Villegas had always been behind the wheel. To Salinas, this was her way of making it clear to Villegas that she was the bossstill a rarity in polo, the most male-dominated of all horse sports. “She controlled the money, the horses, everything,” Salinas says. “She had the power.”
Cummings’ attorney Blair Howard dismisses such talk, saying it was Villegas who controlled the relationship, albeit behind the scenes. In an interview shortly after the shooting, Howard says Villegas had a dark side that he showed only to Cummings. “Everybody thought that O.J. Simpson was the most charming man, that he was mild-mannered and always smiling,” he says. According to Howard, his client was trying in vain to end the romance. “It’s like every other relationship in the world, whether you’re a princess and heir to the throne or not,” he says. “Relationships go bad, and people go their separate ways.” Despite Cummings’ efforts, Villegas allegedly had his own plans, says Howard: “There was a psychological dominance, or at least an attempt to psychologically dominate and control her with threats of violence.”
At least one former girlfriend, Kelli Quinn, says she saw no semblance of an abusive person in Villegas. During their four-year relationship in the early ’90s, the couple traveled the East Coast circuit; she helped take care of the ponies while Villegas played in polo matches. It was not an easy life, but Quinn recalls it with fondness. “He was a nice person, and he was good to me,” she says. “We were together pretty much all the time. It wasn’t a perfect relationship, and sometimes we argued like normal people do.” Quinn dismisses Cummings’ allegations of a domineering Villegas as so much hogwash.
Likewise, friends and acquaintances say that Villegas was the same good-natured person off the field he was on: the perfect gentleman. “Polo is a sport that brings out the best and worst in people, because it’s so physical,” says Muldoon, who competed against Villegas in countless matches. “Gen. Patton said it was the best training for war outside of war. It’s the kind of thing where if you’re going to lose your temper, that’s the place to do it, but Roberto never did.”
Locals who aren’t part of the polo community have a less sympathetic view of Villegas and his fellow Argies. One deems them a “band of gypsies who invade Fauquier County” every summer to scorein polo and in romance. To them, the Argies fit the stereotype of Latin lady-killers who prey on smitten Southern belles. “A lot of them are lacking morals to the worst degree,” says a long-time resident. “I know some of them have wives, but they also date other women while they’re here.”
Villegas was by no means refined. “He had a [peculiar] sense of humor,” says Alex Roldan, an Argie who knew Villegas for years. Roldan compares Villegas to a cowboy whose idea of a joke is watching someone fall off a horseslapstick, definitely not cerebral stuff. “Maybe a joke in Texas would be considered rough in New York,” he says.
But attorney Howard maintains that Villegas was all too serious, and that Cummings grew fearful of her boyfriend. On Aug. 20, she went to the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Department to get a restraining order against Villegas. In a two-page statement, Cummings detailed the alleged threats in her neat, schoolgirl’s cursive handwriting: “Within the last six months, he has began to show signs of aggression toward me with threats to kill me. His words are: ‘I will put a bullet through your head and hang you upside down to let the blood pour on your bed.’ This is only one example of such strong destructive language. Drowning me was also mentioned several times and it seems this is becoming a daily discussion. These various threats always follow after a very minor disagreement on my part. For example, I will say I do not have time for you today, Roberto, I have a lot of work to do. He always reacts negatively to my demands or personal duties. He is overpowering, short-fused, nontolerant, changes his moods quickly and admits that [he] is the ‘crazy type.’
“He insists on marrying me and wants two children because he says, ‘The world needs more people such as himself to teach everybody a lesson’ (what lesson I do not know). His words are also, ‘I will show you and all these little rednecks over here what a real man is. I will teach them who is the boss and after you go, Susan, I will kill a few cops and the rednecks before I put a bullet in my head…’
“Roberto Cerillio Villegas, as far as I know, is struck with a mental condition, one that can be very dangerous for the people surrounding him at a critical moment. I have offered to let him go, not to be involved with me anymore, I have tried to be his friend and understand him. He refuses to let go. The game of Polo is what associated us.”
Villegas’ friends say these angry declarations (and use of terms like ‘rednecks’) sound nothing like the man they knew, while supporters of Cummings say the words ring all too true, especially concerning Villegas’ allegedly one-sided interest in marriage. “I have never heard Susan or Diana speak of that relationship being that serious as far as them talking about marriage,” says John Pennington. “Normally, you hear a lot more from the girls than the guys when it comes to getting married.” Nuptials are not something to be taken lightly by heiresses of a billionaire. “Marriage for either one of those girls is a very complicated thing,” says Pennington. “It’s almost a business proposition as well as a romantic one, because of their assets.”
A sergeant from the sheriff’s office told Cummings to file a complaint with a magistrate and post “no trespassing” signs at her farm. She refused, and friends say they’re not surprised. Both the sisters were known for their self-reliance and downright stubbornness in refusing to ask for help. One neighbor recalls that during a blizzard one winter the sisters were snowed in for days before they asked (“almost apologetically”) for help plowing a path to the barn so they could get feed for their animals.
Instead of seeing a magistrate, Cummings scheduled another appointment with the sergeant for Sept. 8, the day after the shooting. Even though Cummings felt frightened enough to go to the authorities, she apparently never tried to simply fire Villegas (instead of “offering to let him go”) and bar him from her property. After all, she was his employer, and firing him could have perhaps made a restraining order unnecessary.
Nonetheless, despite the apparent internal friction, the couple continued to attend polo matches, and the rare social function, as hand-holding lovebirds. Still, there were occasional lapses of decorum, as when Villegas was spotted with a date at some local watering holes, Mosby’s and Fiddlers, a week before the shooting. “I went up and gave him some shit,” says a friend of the couple. “I said, ‘Ohhhh, Roberto, where’s Susan?’ And he basically just gave me a smug little grin and didn’t say anything.” People were starting to talk, and it became prime gossip that the Argie was playing the field once again. A question still hangs: Did Cummings know or care about his alleged extracurricular activities?
A few days before the killing, Villegas stopped by Willow Run for an evening visit. He, Turon, and two other Argies played some truco, an Argentine card game similar to poker. According to Turon, Villegas spoke enthusiastically about various plans that he and Cummings were busy making together: looking at some land in Montana, building a polo field on the bigger, more level Cummings property known as LeBaron Farm, still discussing the possibility of marriage.
Villegas’ visit wasn’t just a social one, though. He wanted Turon to accompany him to the exhibition match up at Muldoon’s club that Sunday. Turon had already told him he probably wouldn’t be able to fit it into his schedule. Villegas made a convincing argument, though, especially when he reminded him about the asado after the match. No self-respecting Argie could pass up an asado, especially this one, with beef from the home country. Turon promised he would try to make it, and Villegas told him he would stop to pick him up on the way to Muldoon’s.
What he didn’t tell Turon was that Cummings wasn’t pleased about Villegas’ plan to attend the Sunday match and that she had no intention of letting him take the ponies there. One of the main points of conflict between them concerned the treatment of the horses. Cummings cherished them as pets to be pampered and indulged, while Villegas considered them work animals whose purpose was polo, plain and simple. “Roberto was a real gaucho, like our cowboys out West,” says polo patron Jack Whittemore. “He was a tough player and he was hard on the horses, because that’s the way they handle them in Argentina.”
There were other problems: Villegas was also scheduled to play in another charity match that Saturday in Pittsburgh, and Cummings had tried to bail out of that as well. But the sponsor told her it was too late to find a replacement for a four-goal player like Villegas, so she reluctantly agreed to attend. Her lawyer Howard says that this trip was not a sign that she was still interested in him romantically, merely a byproduct of Cummings’ desire to fulfill a social commitment.
They eventually made it to the Pittsburgh event, but tensions were high. Muldoon, who helped organize the charity match, says the couple stayed in separate motel rooms. But others saw them holding hands during the event, just like old times. Before everyone headed home, Muldoon offered to put the couple and their ponies up for the night at his place, but Villegas politely declined, assuring him that he would see him the next day for the “Taste of Argentina.”
At 8:51 a.m. the next morning, a Fauquier County dispatcher received a 911 call from Cummings. Speaking in a calm but hesitant manner, she told of a shooting at her house at Ashland Farm. “I need to report a shot man, and he’s dead,” she said softly in her thick French accent. She gave the victim’s name, carefully spelling “Roberto Villegas,” then blurted out, “He tried to kill me.” “Did you shoot him?” asked the dispatcher. “I had a gun, yes,” replied Cummings. The dispatcher repeated his question. “I need to talk to my lawyer,” said Cummings.
The 12-minute tape was played in its entirety at a recent pretrial hearing at the Fauquier County courthouse. During the playback, Cummings sat silently at a table, facing a life-size oil portrait of Chief Justice and Warrenton native John Marshall, which hangs above the judge’s seat. The century-old courthouse is a musty stone building that breathes historyConfederate hero John Mosby practiced law here after the war. Without bathrooms and lit by a quartet of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, it has high windows and a gallery of rickety wooden pews that held more journalists covering the case than spectators.
For the better part of the morning, Cummings sat quietly and perfectly stillhands resting on her kneesin a row awaiting her hearing. She was dressed in tight black jeans, a black pullover, a cashmere sweater, and black tennis shoesnot so much casual as simply functional, as if she’d barely finished feeding the horses before catching a ride to court. In person, she appears thin and fragile but oddly alluring. She has a bony, classically attractive face and heavy-lidded eyes underneath flowing brunette curls, more like an anorexic Botticelli heroine than a murderer.
As the court docket dragged onmostly baggy-trousered teens pleading guilty to marijuana possessionCummings stared expressionless at the proceedings. Surrounding her in two pews were nearly a dozen supporters (among them her sister Diana), all of whom but one were women. During the wait, a pair on either side rubbed Cummings’ back and thighs and stroked her hair, a mobile support group lending comfort. Meanwhile, only one friend of Villegas’ attended the hearing, a former patron from Fairfax named Travis Worsham. He explained that the polo crowd had headed down to Aiken, S.C., for the fall season, but he simply had to be here. “Roberto was like a brother to me,” Worsham said.
During a break, a Vanity Fair reporter conversed gaily in French with members of Cummings’ entourage. Meanwhile, Cummings remained in her pew staring ahead as if she were preparing her final walk to the guillotine. In fact, she had little to fear, at least at this stage in the legal process. No pleas are entered in a preliminary hearing; the judge simply rules on whether there is enough evidence to send the case to a grand jury for possible indictment.
After the 911 tape finished playing, Howard went into high gear, eloquently arguing self-defense. Howard is one of the most dramatic and effective lawyers you’ll ever see. In Manassas back in ’94, he successfully defended Lorena Bobbitt, just one of many clients he has kept out of prison in his career. When you get into trouble in these parts, you call Howard. He lives in nearby Marshall, and he is an avid fox hunter.
The morning of the shooting, Howard was at the house in Ashland Farm less than an hour after the shooting, a point he brought up repeatedly to Judge Charles Foley. When he arrived, he said, he saw raw, red slashes on Cummings’ wrist, and he cited photos that showed “blood running down her arm.”
The scenario presented by Howard is a clear-cut case of self-defense: In the kitchen of the stone mansion, Villegas was making good on all his threats, putting Cummings in mortal fear of her life. He attacked her repeatedly with a bone-handled knife he’d won at a polo match several years earlier. The weapon was found on the floor near his body. He was dressed in a work shirt and blue jeans, lying face down in a pool of blood. Howard maintained that only after she had fired four shots into his neck and chest with the Walther semiautomatic could she finally stop the raging bull.
Howard said the autopsy implied that the fourth and final bullet was the actual cause of death. “This man was advancing on her with a knife in her home on a Sunday morning, and she kept firing until he dropped,” he bellowed. Then Howard invoked the memory of “our forefathers” and their hallowed “defense of the castle” law handed down from olden times. “We’re not talking about the usual self-defense,” he said, his voice echoing in the high-ceilinged chamber. “We’re talking about something that happened in her home on a Sunday morning.”
“The irresistible conclusion here is that she was being assaulted,” Howard said in his final statement. “She was assaulted. She was cut. And in defense of her life, in her own home, she had a right to take this man’s life. That’s the law.”
But the prosecutor presented a drastically different version of what happened that Sunday morning in the kitchen at Ashland Farm. Commonwealth’s Attorney Kevin Casey said he had proof that Villegas was shot while he was seated at the table, not the most strategic position from which to assault Cummings with a knife. “This is our photograph of Mr. Villegas lying on the floor,” said Casey. “It’s a wider angle than the one offered by Mr. Howard. You will see Mr. Villegas’ legs under the table and the chair, and you will also see on the chair itself blood. And the autopsy shows that Mr. Villegas was shot four times by Ms. Cummings while sitting at that table, not advancing on her.”
In the commonwealth’s version, Villegas is no wanton attacker but an unsuspecting house guest settling in for a morning cup of coffeeand getting blown away. As for the knife, it’s a common enough tool for equestrian work, and all the Argies have one. Then there’s the fact that Cummings pulled the trigger four times on a Walther, a powerful, double-action semiautomatic pistol. According to the prosecution, this wasn’t self-defense but premeditated murder, with a couple of extra bullets added to make sure the job was done properly: “No. 1 [bullet] was chosen as the cause of death in the autopsy report,” said Casey in his closing zinger. “The one that tore through Mr. Villegas’ neck, tore out his carotid artery, struck his spine, and burrowed 10 inches down his back. That shows you the cause of death.”
Foley praised both performances from counsel and then ruled that the case be turned over to the grand jury, scheduled to meet Nov. 24 in Fauquier Circuit Court. Howard seemed pleased and even buoyant, as if he’d already won. Outside the courthouse, he held court for a throng of reporters, as Cummings was whisked away in a waiting car.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” said Howard. “That was their evidence we were looking at today. Wait until you see what we’ve got.”
Shortly after the hearing, on a bluff near the edge of town that faces the Blue Ridge, an old woman kneels in the dirt and digs in her frontyard garden, planting her fall crocuses before it gets too cold.
A tiny, sprightly lady, she is the landlady who rented a room to Villegas during the final months of his life. She’s perturbed when she finds out she missed the hearing this morning. A local paper erroneously reported that the court date had been postponed. She mutters that she’ll be sure not to miss the trial, that’s for sure.
“I was the last person to see him alive,” she announces almost with pride, squinting in the midday glare.
The landlady says she knew Villegas quite well and had coffee with him every morning before he went to work at Ashland Farm. She was very fond of Villegas and deemed him a good, honest man. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have rented him a room in her house in the first place. She’s had many a boarder, so she knows how to size people up. Villegas was one of the best, she said, on time with the rent and good-natured to boot. He kept a photo of Cummings by the bed and spoke of her constantly.
Through conversations with Villegas, the landlady got to know Cummings intimately, and she even met her several times. “I liked both of them,” she says. “But she lived in a fantasy world. Sometimes in the fantasy world and sometimes in the real world. She could do both, you see.”
It’s clear with whom her sympathies lie. She sounds like a mother describing how a beloved son got his heart broken by some lowdown, bewitching femme fatale. “She had him buffaloed,” she says. “She took everything he had.”
Then the landlady kneels to resume her digging: “I know everything, you see, but I’m not giving any information out for free. That costs money.”
Jumping up nimbly from the ground, she darts inside her house and reappears in a flash, clutching a supermarket tabloid called the Sun. The garish cover screams “Kirstie Alley DietLose 20 Pounds,” but she goes straight to an article crowned by an all-caps headline”BLUEBLOOD MURDER” featuring three paragraphs of her quotes. “They paid me $500,” she says with satisfaction. “They pay in cash, you know, so much for each question. I’m 80 years old, and I deserve a little something.”
Then she looks up to the blue autumn sky and shares one final, free-of-charge comment about her former tenant, Roberto Villegas. “I know that he is a star up in heaven,” she says. “And he is looking down on her, trying to show her the way.” Then the old woman clams up and goes back to her digging.CP