Courtship, River Oaks Style

High-powered attorney Earle Lilly was Linda Sarofim Lowe's divorce lawyer, then her lover. Now he's left her, and she wants her $6 million in attorney fees and her Mercedes back.

Lilly also loves to retell how he successfully fought for an ex-husband to gain custody of his beloved dog, Satan.

Those compassionate stories gained him notice in the news media, but follow-ups are nowhere to be found. The champagne wedding with Keys went flat. And they had their own brief dogfight -- over their pet, Moses. That one didn't go to court, but Keys got primary custody of the canine.

And a portion of a 1988 magazine interview would prove particularly pertinent later. Lilly scoffed at the image of divorce lawyers beaming through the nation's television screens in the immensely popular L.A. Law series.

"The divorce lawyer in that firm has sex with his clients and gets involved personally, and that's not the way a law firm is."

Lilly says he stands by that statement today.

Linda Sarofim Lowe said she did not know Lilly until after she arrived at his firm's law office in 1990, to have his partner, Piro, negotiate a prenuptial agreement that remains largely confidential.

Her later suit against Lilly referred to one provision which apparently ensured that, in the event of a divorce, she would collect at least $1 million for every year of marriage to Sarofim, provided that she did not challenge the contract. Lilly witnessed the signing of the document, her suit said.

Little more than a year after the wedding, that prenuptial arrangement faced its first test. Lowe filed a divorce petition that tamely cited discord and conflict. It languished in the courts and was dismissed in 1993, shortly before the Sarofims moved into the impressive home on River Oaks Boulevard. About a year later, they separated again, for the final time.

One River Oaks insider said Lowe had expected the marriage to be her entry into the coveted "old guard" of Houston's elite. But she did not understand that Sarofim himself had been admitted only through his previous wife's status as a Brown family heir. Lowe quickly became frustrated when her expectations were not realized, the source said.

Piro returned to the courthouse in 1995 to file another divorce petition for Lowe. Lilly followed with the amended suit, which launched the all-out attack on Sarofim as a sexually abusive, spousal-raping imprisoner of Lowe.

That divorce action estimated Sarofim's assets at $2 billion, and sought $100 million for Lowe, plus primary custody of the children. Lowe showed her gambling instincts in the case, betting the $5 million sure thing from the prenuptial deal against far greater payoffs if the pact could be voided in court. Impressive as her suit demands sounded, there were two massive obstacles in the way for Lilly and Lowe.

Potential conflicts of interest reared up immediately for her attorneys because of their roles in the prenuptial contract work. In her current suit, Lowe said they never informed her of those conflicts. They failed to advise her that Sarofim's lawyers could "coerce a settlement" by using those problems to get Piro and Lilly disqualified because they were potential fact witnesses in the case, her suit alleged.

Lilly scoffs at such allegations. There was no problem, because any potential conflict never harmed her. He argues their work helped her gain a much better divorce settlement than she could ever have expected in her situation, otherwise.

Some other attorneys privately question that logic. "If somebody came to me and said, 'Your partner negotiated a "prenup" and you witnessed it, and now I want you to challenge that same agreement,' I don't know how a lawyer could take that case. If that's not a conflict, I don't know what is one."

And Lowe faced a critical personal problem. By her own later admission, she was losing her grip on reality because of an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. In her deposition, Lowe said she spiraled sharply downward from August 1995 until she hit bottom in March 1997. Near the end of that time, Lowe said, she was gulping 15 milligrams of the sedative Valium every two hours -- around the clock.

Lilly's tapes of his phone messages logged calls from Lowe during all hours of the day and night. Like most high-flying crashes, this one had its black box of recordings to be retrieved and analyzed in slow, agonizing fashion. During the deposition, Lilly's attorneys hit the play button on their recorder again and again, asking for explanations for the unexplainable.

Lowe's attorney, Phillips, protested extensively as 153 tape recordings were played to his client. She said she recognized her voice, but could not remember making the statements.

Phillips said he is astounded that Lilly, who was her attorney at the time, would collect the kind of evidence that would have crippled his client's position in the divorce case. His objections were duly noted at the deposition -- and the tapes played on:

"Earle," her voice says. "Get back with me right away or I'll come over with my Jag and jam your car apart."

In another message, she refers to a "sue list," apparently of people she planned to file lawsuits against after the divorce proceedings were over.

At 12 minutes to midnight on an unspecified evening, the messages move into the suicidal. "Call me tonight or I am going to slit my wrist. Somebody call me or I will kill myself tonight." One evening, she says she is ready to put her "head through a marble wall. Are you going to call me, or what the fuck are you going to do?"

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