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Crime News Sins of the South

Arms Heiress Claims Self-Defense In Shooting Death of Her Star Polo Player Boyfriend

“I need to report a shot man, and he’s dead,” arms heiress Susan Cummings told 911. "I had a gun ... he tried to kill me."

By Joe Dziemianowicz

On September 7, 1997, Susan Cummings, a 35-year-old millionaire heiress, called 911 from her 300-acre estate in Warrenton, Virginia.

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“I need to report a shot man, and he’s dead,” she told the dispatcher in a recording obtained by Sins of the South, airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.

“I had a gun, yes,” she continued. “He tried to kill me.”

The victim was identified as Cummings’ boyfriend and employee Roberto Villegas, 38, an internatinally ranked polo player from Argentina.

“He’d been shot multiple times,” said Michael S. Lamper, a now-retired detective with Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office.

“There was a large volume of blood on the ground,” Lamper added. “He had a knife between his bicep and his forearm.”

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Who is Susan Cummings?

Cummings had reported to authorities that Villegas had been threatening her two weeks before the fatal shooting. She was slated to see a magistrate on the matter on September 8.  

Cuts were observed on Cummings’ arm. The wounds suggested “she was defending herself with the gun that was laying on the floor,” said Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jim Jones.

Investigators learned that Susan’s father Samuel Cummings is a leading arms dealer. She and her twin sister Diana grew up in Europe and moved to Virginia after college.

Susan Cummings featured on Sins Of The South episode 102

Crime scene questions emerge

Lamper observed that the blood around the victim’s body had already begun to separate. It indicated Villegas had been there “a half an hour at least” before sheriffs arrived.

Fauquier County Sheriffs’ Office Deputy Shawn Walters noted that officers arrived within 10 minutes of getting the 911 call. Had Cummings waited before calling 911? If she fired in self-defense, why would she wait?

More questions arose from the scene, which was so tidy they had doubts about Cummings’ account. “It just wasn’t adding up to us like there was an attack going on when Mr. Villegas was shot,” said Lamper.

Who was Roberto Villegas?

News of his shocking shooting death spread quickly. Justin Bonnel, Villegas’ son, described his father as “hardworking. He loved horses. He went from dirt poor and Argentina to a rock star in the polo world.”

Villegas emigrated to the U.S. in 1991. “With his charm and his polo skills, everybody quickly fell in love with him,” his friend Tareq Salahi told Sins of the South.

Like others, the friend was mystified by the fatal turn of events. However, Cummings, who’d dated Villegas for two years, told her lawyer the relationship had become rocky and she was ready to end it.

Blair Howard, Cumming’s defense attorney, said she told him that if things didn’t go Villegas’ way, “he would become abusive.”  

“She said that he said, ‘You continue to push me out of the picture, I’m going to kill you,’” Howard added. “He was gonna hang her upside down and let her blood drip on the bed.”

On the morning of September 7, she claimed an argument erupted. “He produced a knife … and was cutting me,” Cummings reportedly said, per Howard.

She was able to step away and get a gun she had hidden in a kitchen cupboard. She fired four times. Howard said she acted in self-defense.

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Susan Cummings is arrested

Based on her 911 admission, sheriffs arrested Cummings. The autopsy revealed that Villegas was shot four times. He suffered fatal wounds to his neck and chest. Additionally, food was found in the victim’s mouth, indicating that he was eating breakfast when he was shot. “That's no longer self defense,” said Lamper.

Investigators learned that Cummings and Villegas met when she decided to pursue polo, according to Washington City Paper staff writer Eddie Dean.

Susan and her sister “didn’t really make an effort to become a part of the community until Susan decided to pursue polo," said Dean. “Roberto provided Susan with a way into this very insular Southern subculture.” 

In the spring of 1997 they launched Ashland Farms Polo Club together. “Roberto not only becomes her star player but it makes Ashland Farms a cool team,” said Dean.

Roberto Villegas featured on Sins Of The South episode 102

“They were the new power couple," said Salahi.

They were also very different people. He was a charmer, she was an introvert. “His wallet was thin. She took care of him,” said Peter Arundel, founder of the Great Meadow Polo Club.

Detectives learned that the relationship had shown signs of cracking. “She had Roberto under her thumb,” said Dean. “He was trying to get away from that and she wasn't going to let him.”

Susan Cummings’ Defense Strategy

Heiress Susan Cummings Alleges Abuse from Roberto Villegas

On September 10, Cummings was released on bond. Her attorney pushed the self-defense claim aggressively. Robert was painted as a bully, while Susan was portrayed as the victim.

Investigators focused on the knife found at the scene. A close inspection of crime scene photos by forensic specialist Sgt. Robert Zinn raised questions about the knife, specifically its positioning and lack of blood transfer, which made it appear that it had been placed there after Villegas hit the floor, he told Sins of the South. Detectives considered that the cuts on Susan’s arms could have been self-inflicted.

At Villegas’ funeral, one of his close friends confided that Cummings had previously pursued a relationship with him. “It was almost a ‘Single White Female’ stalking kind of obsession,” said Dean.

Cummings eventually set her sights on Villegas. Investigators learned that not long before the shooting the two had allegedly argued about his participation in a polo benefit for Argentina.

To build the defense case, Howard tracked down witnesses to testify about Villegas’ violent behavior. He found two men who said Villegas pulled a knife on them. A woman who dated him said he tried to run her off the road, according to Howard.

Prosecutors had physical evidence in their favor. “If they can't attack physical evidence, they're going to attack the victim,” said Lamper.

A stable worker said he saw Villegas slap Cummings, according to Howard. “He said Roberto told him ‘I treat my women just like my horses. If they refuse to do what I want, I'll kill ’em,'" Howard alleged.

At the end of the trial in May 1998, Cummings was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. She was sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $2,500, per The New York Times.

Five years later, Cummings was hit by a $15.35 million civil wrongful death lawsuit. She settled for an undisclosed amount, the Washington Post reported.

To learn more about the case covered in the episode, “The Heiress and the Polo Star,” watch Sins of the Southairing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.

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