October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

IT WAS HIGH SUMMER AND POLO season was at its peak. One by one, members of Virginia’s horsey set rolled up in their Range Rovers and Volvos for a post-match cookout on July 26 at Palmerstone farm, one of the many sprawling estates in rich, rural Fauquier County—a traditional retreat of the Mellons and Kennedys. With his usual charm and skill, Roberto Villegas, a star player from Argentina, had taken on the role of chief cook while his girlfriend Susan (pronounced Su-zahn) Cummings, daughter of billionaire arms merchant Samuel Cummings, mingled in her quiet way with the other 150 guests.

The roast lamb was a hit, but around the picnic tables and hay bales that night, Villegas, 38, and Cummings, 35, were being served up as the main dish: Rumor had it that the handsome horseman had been cheating on his wealthy lover. “Everyone knew,” reported one guest. “He wasn’t being very cool about it.” But no one would have guessed what was coming. Six weeks later, Villegas lay dead with multiple wounds in his throat and chest. Cummings was charged with his murder.

Villegas’s killing has stunned the elite who summer in the privileged hamlets of Middleburg and Warrenton, Va., and winter in Palm Beach and Sarasota, Fla., attracting several dozen highly ranked Argentinean polo players who flock to the U.S. for lucrative fees, the patronage of those for whom the game is affordable, and, with it, their gifts of ponies worth thousands of dollars. Villegas, the dashing only son of a poor farming family, was considered both a superior athlete and a gentleman. “He never did anything violent or aggressive,” Joe Muldoon Jr., president of the Potomac Polo Club, says of the player’s on-field demeanor. “He was a perfect sportsman.”

But Susan Cummings says she saw another side of the man. “The private Roberto was not the one that these people saw, the one everybody is talking about,” Cummings told PEOPLE in an exclusive interview outside her 273-year-old Warrenton mansion. “He did and said nasty, terrible things to me. He was always saying what he was going to do to me.” Cummings claims that on the morning of Sun., Sept. 7, Villegas attacked her, apparently with a knife, in her kitchen and that she shot him in self-defense. Warrenton police confirmed that Cummings had scheduled a meeting with them for the following day—for the purpose, she says, of procuring a restraining order. “My life was being threatened,” says Cummings, showing off long, thin scratches on her left arm.

Despite their dramatically different backgrounds, the romance between Villegas and Cummings was nothing unusual in the polo crowd, where dashing Latin professionals often make their mark off the playing field. Cummings was born in Monaco, one of twin daughters of Monte Carlo-based Sam Cummings, 70—a former CIA agent who has sold arms to Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti in his 45-year career—and his Swiss wife, Irma, 62. Schooled in France, Cummings earned her B.A. in arts and humanities at Mount Vernon College in Washington. But her real interest, she says, was in caring for animals.

In 1984, Sam Cummings, owner of the $100 million-a-year weapons company Interarms, bought historic Ashland Farm, a 339-acre estate 60 miles southwest of Washington, for his daughters. While Diana (pronounced Dee-ah-na), her more outgoing twin, stayed in the guest cottage, Susan lived in the main house, a cavernous stone mansion that was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War, furnishing only a few of its dozens of rooms. Content with the rural life, Cummings devoted her time to raising ponies and learning to play polo.

Villegas wasn’t the first of the sport’s professionals to attract her attention. “She took lessons every day,” says Jean Marie Turon, one of Susan’s early tutors at the Willow Run Polo School. “I just ignored the fact she had a crush on me and concentrated on teaching her to play.” Says another Argentinean player: “Susan was a high-class polo groupie. She told people that if she was going to be a good player, she had to date a professional. She thought, with her wealth, she could buy any man she wanted.”

Cummings met Villegas in 1995 while taking lessons from Turon at the Great Meadow Polo Club in The Plains, Va. Growing up in the province of Cordova, Argentina, where polo is second in popularity only to soccer, Villegas began playing the game at age 15 on a borrowed mount. In 1981 he arrived in the U.S. as a groom for one of the sport’s champions, eventually working his way onto the circuit as a player. Vivacious and handsome, with a wide boyish grin, Villegas became “one of the most well-liked guys in polo,” says his former patron Tim Gannon, founder of the Outback Steakhouse chain. “He played just for the joy of it.”

Soon after they met, Cummings recruited Villegas to play on her private team, paying him no salary but rewarding him handsomely with gifts of polo ponies. “He was apparently happy with that,” says Tommy Monaco, manager of the Great Meadow club. “She handled all the expenses, and he didn’t need any money.” By then it was clear that the two were an item. “They were everywhere together,” says Bill Ylvisaker, a Palm Beach businessman who has a farm in Middleburg, “always holding hands.”

“We cared for each other a lot,” says Cummings in her mixed French-Swiss accent, “especially in the beginning.” Their lives revolved around polo: grooming the ponies, training the team and socializing with the sport’s wealthy patrons. But even-in the early stages of the affair, one friend had misgivings. “Roberto was a great guy until you really got to know him,” says the wife of an Argentinean player. “He had a very dark, volatile side. I was frightened he would hurt her. It never entered my head that he was the one who would end up being killed.”

Lately the flaws in the relationship had become apparent to Cummings. “As time went on, I felt we were not getting along as human beings,” she says. “We had our differences.” Including how they should care for the horses. “He saw them as athletes,” says a polo friend, Peter Arundel, “and she viewed them as pets.” Then there was Villegas’s alleged philandering. An ex-girlfriend from Maryland who has asked not to be identified says she saw Villegas romantically last winter after his affair with Cummings had already begun. “He was a nice guy, but he messed around, no question about it,” says Brian McDonald, an ex-jockey who knew him. “We call it ‘playing away.’ ”

In the weeks before the shooting, Villegas told some friends he wanted out of the relationship and others that he and Cummings planned to buy land together in Montana and even marry. “He wanted a little more freedom than he was having, freedom to pick up and move somewhere else if he wanted,” says Ylvisaker. But Cummings says Villegas was the one who wouldn’t let go. “I was going to give him money,” she says. “I wasn’t going to just cut him off from what he had become used to. But the man was determined this was not going to be.”

Either way, on Sept. 6 the couple displayed a facade of togetherness at a charity polo match in Pittsburgh. That night their friend Joe Muldoon invited them to stay over at his farm. Villegas declined, saying he had some animals to attend to, but promised to return the next day when his team was scheduled to play a match at Muldoon’s club in the presence of the Argentine ambassador. “We waited around for him,” says Muldoon. “But he never showed.”

At 8:51 that Sunday morning, Warrenton police received a call from Cummings, who said there had been a shooting and Villegas was dead. In the small maid’s galley that she preferred to the mansion’s spacious kitchen, police found a Walther pistol, four spent 9mm casings and two knives, including a Swiss Army. After one night in the Warrenton jail, Cummings was released on $75,000 bail. Reluctant to venture into town for fear of facing friends of Villegas’s, Cummings awaits her trial for first-degree murder at home. Meanwhile she dreams of a life away from the polo crowd “in the middle of nowhere… with lots of wildlife. It’s terrible,” she says, “that people hurt one another so much.”


MAGGIE HALL in Warrenton and ANNIE GOWEN and VICKY MOON in Middleburg

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