Angels and Curanderos

Teresa Rodriguez is getting by with some help from interesting friends

With the federal trial of Teresa Rodriguez getting under way this week in Judge Sim Lake's court, Houston's fallen society angel can look forward to some strange twists and turns. One potential witness for the government may testify to the activities of a Mexican "curandero," or traditional healer, who was a salaried member of Rodriguez's business empire and told the future, none too accurately, for some of the folks who invested in her businesses and lost millions.

But Rodriguez, whose trial could keep the city entertained for a month or more, can take solace that at least one friend in the fat times is standing by her now. Walter Aymen, the owner of Cent'Anni and Sea Senor restaurants, is paying some of the incidental expenses for her defense, such as consultants on jury selection and a study of under-representation of Hispanics on federal grand juries in Texas. The tab, at last clocking, was approximately $5,000.

Aymen is also providing Rodriguez, his former bookkeeper at Cent'Anni, with a cubbyhole office space in the restaurant whenever she needs it. Rodriguez's own offices closed down after her empire collapsed in the spring of 1993 amid accusations she had used her connections with River Oaks socialites to pull in millions of dollars in investments in a Ponzi scheme of bogus enterprises.

It isn't the first time Aymen has made a gesture of support for a very public Houstonian in distress. In 1989, as searchers combed the hill country of southern Ethiopia for a plane carrying the late Mickey Leland, Aymen sent trays of food to the Leland staff maintaining a vigil at the congressman's office in downtown Houston. Leland, before his death in that plane crash, had been an avid patron of Cent'Anni, Aymen's upscale Italian eatery near Shepherd and Richmond.

Aymen describes Rodriguez as "a buddy of mine" but says he knows little about the government's case against her and doesn't care. "I don't drop my friends, I really don't," says Aymen. "When this happened, she had no friends, and my heart really goes out to people who have no friends."

The restaurateur also counts Rodriguez's attorney, Joel Androphy, as a pal. "Sometimes there's miscellaneous expenses that Joel won't necessarily cover, and I don't mind helping out if they are small amounts of money. Little things like a 'research this or that,' and I don't pay any attention to what he's using it for. I don't care. It's an itty-bitty amount of money."

Androphy, who partners with David Berg in a defense firm specializing in white-collar crime and civil cases, says he's spent "thousands of hours" on the Rodriguez case. His fee, normally figured in the $300 to $400 an hour range, will be far less in the Rodriguez case, he says. Rodriguez agreed to an initial fee but does not have the resources to cover the additional costs, which will likely run well over a million dollars. The U.S. Attorney's office has expended an equal effort and may call as many as 70 witnesses to bolster its case against Rodriguez.

Aymen thinks Rodriguez has gotten a bad rap in the local and national media that began when IRS agents raided her Montrose townhouse two years ago and seized crystal, jewelry, designer clothes and furnishings that were sold off in highly publicized auctions. "The preponderance of the news coverage is that she's apparently a bad gal," says Aymen, "but this person they're talking about in the news media isn't the person I know ... maybe I'm naive but the fact of the matter is that she's really a nice person who loves her family, loves her husband, and is real kind to people."

One person who worked in Rodriguez's organization before the fall and may be a witness in the trial offers a rather different picture of Aymen's relationship with Rodriguez.

That former Rodriguez employee says the relationship was binded by the now-defunct La Mer restaurant, in which both Aymen and Rodriguez had an ownership interest in at some point. "I think Teresa hooked into Walter because he was so successful with Cent'Anni, La Mer was on a roll, and it was a mutual 'I'm going to use you as much as you can use me' kind of relationship," the ex-employee says. Aymen says his ownership in La Mer ended when Rodriguez bought into the operation.

There was even a spiritual link, according to the ex-employee, who claims Rodriguez maintained a curandero from Toluca, Mexico, on her payroll. A curandero is a Mexican healer-fortune teller who specializes in folk remedies and spells.

"One of the ways Teresa got people's money was to seek individuals who are having crises in their lives," says the onetime associate. "She would snare people having problems and say, 'I've got this wonderful psychic and he's a healer and let me set you up."

The curandero apparently was not infallible, since he also invested money with Rodriguez and "guided Teresa on all of her major decisions," says the ex-employee.

When Aymen was having trouble during his ownership of La Mer, the curandero was brought over to the restaurant for a consultation, says the source, and threw bones on a table to forecast the restaurant's future and the health of Aymen's mother.

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