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.

On the night of November 14, 1996, Linda Sarofim Lowe awaited as the high black gates of her River Oaks Boulevard estate opened wide for the arrival of Earle Lilly.

She knew him first as her lawyer -- and then as her lover. On that evening, Lilly came carrying the best of champagne, a $143 bottle of Cristal, suitably chilled for a grand if intimate celebration.

This bulldog of a courtroom battler, with his distinctive gravel-tinged growl, had just gained a final divorce decree for her from billionaire investment czar Fayez Sarofim.

Noted for a tenacious or just plain nasty style of attack, Lilly turned Lowe's divorce suit against Sarofim, with its allegations of mere marital discord, into high drama, with accusations of spousal rape, abuse, cruelty and false imprisonment.

Sarofim would end the dispute with a stroke of his pen on a $12 million check to Lowe. Lowe would suddenly be independently wealthy. She had a lot of warm feelings for the charismatic court crusader who had helped her gain this new status in life.

In Lowe's mind, here was the man who would escape with her from the past known as Houston. They had already talked of togetherness in some faraway place that would bring them peace, paid for in part with Sarofim's settlement. Then they would, well, just live happily ever after as the Lady and her Earle.

Lowe drank his champagne. They consummated the relationship about the time the midnight bells chimed in her mansion, she said.

Rumors of this affair rippled through Houston society circles still rebounding from the earlier gossip generated by the scandalous allegations in the megabucks Sarofim divorce. River Oaks regulars fueled their suspicions of a romance with increased sightings of Lilly with Lowe -- then confirmed it when the twosome jetted away for rendezvous in Acapulco and New York.

Romance reports raced through the elite, followed nearly as quickly by news that the romance was over. Houston society speculated about the problems, but all Lilly had to do was listen to his telephone messages. In contrast to the romance of chilled champagne, the chilling voice of Lowe described her very different dream for him:

"I'm your worst nightmare," she said. "I am rich white trash."

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Linda Sarofim Lowe made her message clear repeatedly in later calls.

"If you and Fayez think that you can just hang up on me, you're wrong. You are absolutely wrong, because I will take you down, just like that -- everything. I hate you all."

A forceful Lowe spoke of a strange faith. "Get right over here, or I am going to burn the fucking house down, and I will be praising Allah in the front yard."

This former Army brat from Bad Kreuznach, Germany, the ex-mistress-turned-millionaire-wife-and-mother with the master's degree in English, appeared to have learned her lessons well under the tutelage of the black belt of marital torts.

In a tale that turned into Sex, Lies and Audiotapes -- River Oaks style -- she talked in the recorded messages of lost love and newfound fury.

Her wrath culminated in a lawsuit filed against Lilly late last year. She accused the prominent attorney of accepting a divorce case that conflicts of interest should have barred him from ever taking. And she alleged that he violated ethical canons by violating her; that he screwed her -- literally -- out of half of the $12 million cash payment from Sarofim.

Lilly, her suit maintains, applied his wily charms to try to woo her out of a new Ferrari as a bonus for settling the divorce. She rebuffed him on that effort. All he got from her, it seems, was a brand-new Mercedes.

"You can't keep on ruining my life," one of her taped messages said. "I hope the next time you take out that fucking Mercedes that I bought for $130,000, that you wreck it and you die."

Her suit says that when he had taken her and what she had to give, the romancing was over. Her court documents allege that Lilly left with his loot and dumped her cold and hard. When he walked out -- or rather, drove away in his Mercedes -- she was left with no more than faded memories and a fresh, unused $10,000 wedding dress.

She sued for breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract -- in other words, Lilly just got too big for his breaches. Lowe accuses him of civil fraud, intentional misrepresentation and infliction of emotional distress.

She wants an estimated $50 million in damages to chase away the demons left by Lilly, Lowe told Lilly's attorneys. She demands the return of her gifts, the final $6 million Lilly deposited from the Sarofim payment, and some $600,000 in other fees paid to the attorney and his firm, according to her lawsuit.

In short, Lowe wants a lot of things back. Lilly isn't among them.

The litigator who built his professional prowess on expressing moral outrage on behalf of clients is, ah, morally outraged at the vile assault on his character -- especially coming from the former client he himself had portrayed as a hapless victim of an overbearing ogre of a husband.

Sure, Lilly took aim at Sarofim and unleashed vitriolic barrages on behalf of Lowe. But that was different. That was another divorce case in a long line of such litigation for him. Could Lowe now be turning his own tactics against him?

"I've done nothing to be out Lilly-ed, so to speak," he says. "As tough as I am, I can't create 'facts.' The facts I applied in that [Sarofim] case were facts I obviously didn't dream up.... I believed at that time they were appropriate, and I believe at this time they were appropriate."

"There are a number of things in that [Lowe] lawsuit that are factually inaccurate and legally inaccurate," Lilly attorney James Barker maintains. "In other words, false factual claims as well as false legal claims."

Lilly says he did a superlative job for Lowe, "what I feel is perhaps the most outstanding case in my career."

In terms of fees received for a non-trial divorce settlement, it may be the most outstanding case for any attorney in Harris County, some other family-law lawyers opined.

"Word around the [courthouse] halls was that Earle got a good bonus, that it may have even been as high as $1 million," one attorney said. "This was a case that required a lot of 'hand-holding' for the client, so everybody figured he might have been worth it," the Lilly competitor said. "But $6 million? That's outlandish."

Lilly says it is misleading to believe that he would have demanded 50 percent of Lowe's total take from the divorce. The $12 million in cash was a small part of an estimated $50 million in property he managed to get for her, his defenders say. "I obviously don't want my reputation splattered with inaccurate facts or inaccurate contentions or claims or whatever," he says.

He threatens to sue Lowe for defamation, after the litigation. "Some day, there will be a lawsuit with the evidence that comes [from this case], and I believe all those [Lowe] claims will be flushed down the toilet, where they belong."

However, Lilly hesitates when asked if Lowe concocted the entire account of events contained in the lawsuit. He seems to suggest that, yes, there could have been romance -- but only after he had left his role of attorney.

Some facts in the suit are accurate, but they are not evidence of inappropriate acts on his part, Lilly says. He cites a confidentiality order gained by Lowe in the case and adds, "I don't know how far beyond that I can go."

In this case, though, Lilly hardly holds exclusive claims to moral outrage.
Attorney Richard Keeton branded the allegations by Lowe regarding Sarofim "scurrilous -- none of it is true." And the earlier accusations in the divorce case were equally groundless, Sarofim's attorneys said. Those allegations were never substantiated in any divorce proceedings. While veteran divorce attorney Roy W. Moore was brought in to engineer the divorce settlement, Keeton has represented Sarofim for years.

It is irresponsible for any publication to report the accusations and derogatory remarks about Sarofim, Keeton said. When specific answers were sought to the Lowe allegations, Keeton said, "Don't waste your time." Moore declined comment on the divorce case.

Sarofim finds another unlikely defender in Angleton attorney Michael Phillips, the lawyer for Lowe. He said he believes Lilly manufactured most of the inflammatory allegations against Sarofim in the divorce case. Phillips says Lowe already is being subjected by Lilly and his attorneys to irrelevant issues designed only to embarrass and intimidate her.

Phillips notes that it was Lilly and co-defendant Robert Piro, Lilly's partner, who filed the first lawsuit in the dispute with Lowe. That two-page document merely asked a judge to rule on the legitimacy of the fees. It refers to the payments as "substantial" but less than they could have received under the fee contract signed by Lowe. Gosh, their suit said, Lowe "may be dissatisfied ... for reasons unknown" to them.

Lowe benefited handsomely from their representation, they said. "There is nothing wrong in a large fee," Lilly said. "In our society, people make large fees. In all walks of life they make large fees: large corporate fees, large sports fees, large fees in certain circumstances in law and medicine."

Piro and Lilly have teamed up with an unusual helper -- Southwestern Bell CallNotes. In 153 recorded messages to Lilly's phone, Lowe lashes out at this former object of her affections. She threatens suicide, demands her gifts back, berates him as "fuck-wad" and "chicken shit" and disparages his family.

During Lowe's deposition in the case, Lilly's attorneys played two hours of tapes for which they sought explanations from her.

Lowe conceded that she had been involuntarily committed for alcohol and prescription drug problems earlier, and said she did not remember most of the calls. "I was out of control," she said repeatedly.

Her attorney, Phillips, praised his client's willingness to be subjected by Lilly's lawyers to hours of humiliating questions and tapes. "It took some real courage," Phillips said.

Lowe said she has regained her stability, and knows with certainty what Lilly did to her and why she is pressing her claims:

"Mr. Lilly was a strong, powerful man who took advantage of me when I was weak, out of control. He stepped over the professional line to enable him to better his interests [while] not representing me and my best interest. And I don't feel that -- I doubt much will come of this case, but I hope that he will stop this practice and he won't victimize more women."

Linda Loie Olson was born in Germany with a warrior's blood, the daughter of a U.S. Army colonel and a homemaker. The family was on a perpetual march, it seems, with Linda making nine moves -- one of them trans-Atlantic -- before she finished her public schooling.

She made the grades, gaining an exemption to her senior year of high school to pursue an English degree at the University of Alabama. She married Air Force officer Edward Hicks in 1971 and had her master's degree in English by 1974.

In 1977, she gave birth to Sean, who is now in his second year at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Despite the child, the marriage was collapsing. Hicks had left the Air Force and was flying a helicopter for a medical transport company. They were soon separated, with a final divorce in the early 1980s.

"We had grown apart," Lowe told attorneys at the deposition.
"In what way?" asked Lilly's lawyer.
"I was more mature."

Maturity, though, did not mean experience in the job market. At the time of her separation, she found herself with a young son and a female roommate in an apartment by Woodlake Square. She drove a modest Ford Granada into an uncertain future as a single mother.

Lowe's life shifted into sharp focus in 1979, when she stepped off the elevator at the 29th floor of Two Houston Center at the offices of investing czar Fayez Sarofim.

Lowe, who said she had never worked a day at an outside job before, became a broker/trader. She would call banks to confirm that there was enough money to back up the big-stakes stock trades and purchases that had made Sarofim a rising star in the financial circuits. She would also review the trade sheets with bank balances and related financial material.

Lowe estimated that she made between $25,000 and $50,000 annually for the three years she worked for the company. But it was her moonlighting work that would make all the difference in her development.

Lowe got about $25 an hour to be a baby sitter -- for the Sarofim family's two children. In two-hour stints about two or three times a week, the struggling woman witnessed her first scenes of real wealth.

Sarofim, born of a wealthy Egyptian landowner and honed by a Harvard MBA, was drawing international attention for his investment savvy. It centered on a simple stock strategy -- buy name brands and be conservative.

He had founded the investment company bearing his name in 1958, and was well on his way to the status of guru when Lowe entered his life. Sarofim was touted regularly by the U.S. business press as a man who could step into the ring with a wildly swinging stock market and beat it virtually every time. By 1992, he was general of a $28 billion portfolio, calling the trades for the massive Ford Pension Fund and Dreyfus Appreciation Fund.

He was smart, but his start had been aided as well by marriage many years earlier to Louisa Stude, adopted daughter of legendary icon George R. Brown, a man whose power and persuasion shaped Houston and its destiny for decades. With a scion of the Brown family at his side, the groom nicknamed the "Sphinx" walked down the aisle leading into the inner temples of Houston's richest social elite.

Into that life inched Linda Lowe, the baby sitter and beginning employee 25 years younger than Sarofim. In her recent deposition, she would admit to having a years-long affair with Sarofim, but she insisted that her first sexual encounter with Sarofim came against her will.

She said Sarofim told her in 1981 -- two years into her job -- that she faced an ultimatum: Go to a downtown hotel and make love with him, or be fired.

"Did you meet him there and have sex with him?" Lilly's lawyer asked.
"Yes."
"For what period of time?"
"Several years."

Lowe told attorneys at the deposition that she considered it immoral and unfair to his children -- not his wife.

Lowe said she continued the affair with Sarofim to save her job; later in the deposition she testified that the affair cost her that job. An executive at the investment company fired her for the relationship with Sarofim, she said.

After three years at the company -- the only three years in her life that she ever worked outside the home -- Lowe was no longer a broker/trader. She was a mistress.

That mistress showed her first litigation skills in 1983, against Sarofim himself and his company. She alleged he assaulted her in 1982 and the company conspired to cover it up, causing her "great emotional distress," Lowe's attorney, George Karam, stated in the suit.

Sarofim's attorneys filed a stock response, denying the allegations and asking for a judgment that would award nothing to Lowe. Instead, a confidential settlement was announced on January 19, 1984.

Information sealed in that suit did not surface again until the deposition 14 years later. Sarofim, she said, raped her. Her required medical attention, she said, was for an abortion. She was about nine weeks pregnant when she walked alone into a Planned Parenthood clinic near downtown and had the operation. Sarofim paid the bill.

Attorneys for Lilly pressed Lowe for Sarofim's position on the pregnancy, and a pregnancy that followed seven years later. What was his feeling about an abortion?

"Do it," Lowe quoted him as saying.
And her own feeling about the affair with Sarofim? They continued that relationship, even after the lawsuit and settlement. A man familiar with the couple at that time shook his head when questioned about Sarofim's reconciliation with the suing mistress.

"The guy's got to be a genius, at least in investing, but there is no way in hell to imagine how he'd go back to her after she hauled him into court," the former associate said. "Beauty? She wasn't really attractive in looks or in intelligence. She already had a kid. Maybe it was the age thing -- she was young and he was getting up there in years.

"But let's face it, a man with that kind of money could have his pick. It never made sense why he chose her."

On November 27, 1984, the reunited mistress gave birth to a baby boy. Nearly two years later, she provided him with a brother, also out of wedlock.

River Oaks insiders had known about Sarofim's mistress much earlier and were described as fairly tolerant of that and other affairs of the wealthy. But when the maids in River Oaks brought in the mail, the most accepting of Sarofim's associates were stunned by the openness of this relationship.

There was no hiding the existence of either love child. In fact, traditional birth announcements, one of them neatly accented by baby-blue ribbon, trumpeted the births. Over the years, that mail-out has become legend among the upper crust. The story has evolved into one of two versions: Lowe licking the stamps to flaunt her special relationship with Sarofim, or wife Louisa displaying her disgust at her husband's blatant shenanigans.

In the deposition earlier this year, Lowe said Louisa was responsible for the announcements. Attorneys for Lilly said these were hardly limited-edition notices -- a copy ran in the advertising columns of the Houston Chronicle.

At the deposition, Lowe was asked of her reaction to the announcements.
"I thought it was pretty despicable."
"Why?"
"I just did."

On January 3, 1989, life became a bit less complicated in the Sarofim triangle. Louisa Stude Sarofim dropped out and filed for divorce. That spared any need for announcements when Lowe gave birth to yet another child later that year.

In her deposition, Lowe identified the father as a builder who'd worked on a Sarofim project years earlier, who she said neither denied nor acknowledged paternity. Lilly's attorneys asked Lowe for Sarofim's reaction on the paternity.

"Nothing," Lowe said.
Sarofim, in his divorce from Louisa, reached a confidential settlement -- reported to be $250 million, one of the largest in the area's history -- on June 25, 1990.

Three months later, Lowe formally became Mrs. Fayez Sarofim. In the process, her path crossed that of her future lover and adversary, Earle Lilly.

Romantic urges were one challenge for Sarofim, but another was warding off financial ruin from family-court judgments. He had gone through the divorce settlement with Louisa and paid dearly. Before any wedding with Linda, there was going to be a prenuptial agreement. Lowe looked to the firm of Robert Piro and Earle Lilly to help her negotiate a pact.

Lilly has been fabulously successful for a man who was little more than an insurance adjuster in search of success when he arrived in Houston in 1959. The son of a cabdriver and a homemaker, he prides himself on the lean years of his youth in an outlying area of Boston.

He turned cabbie himself to finance his way through the University of Massachusetts. A newlywed, he headed to Texas when an uncle told him he could find insurance-adjusting work in Houston.

Lilly took a liking to the legal field. While working for an insurance company during the day, he attended the University of Houston law school at night for more than six years to get his law degree.

As an attorney, he first took on the drab role of defending insurance companies in lawsuits. After that, Lilly switched to personal injury litigation, for ten years of work that was also largely lackluster.

And, had the late Houston oil tycoon J. Collier Hurley stayed happily married, Lilly might never have made the transition into a family law practice. A woman whom he had represented in a minor case, years earlier, called to line him up as the attorney for Hurley's second divorce. In interviews, Lilly still laughs about asking the millionaire oilman for a modest $5,000 retainer. That legal down payment was part of $100,000 in fees Hurley ultimately paid him in the case.

Hurley brought in two more divorce cases, both his own, for Lilly. There was also a little criminal work mixed in. Hurley's fourth bride was reported to have been distraught over the end of the relationship and tried to leap from the eighth-floor balcony of his posh Memorial Drive apartment, police were told. An aide, who served as Hurley's driver and butler, told of grabbing her arms and trying to hang on. His grip was not quite good enough, apparently, as she plummeted to the ground for the final -- and literal -- breakup of the relationship.

Lilly's law career, however, soared higher than ever.
Couples who could resolve their differences in divorce, or walk away without major wars, usually selected other attorneys. The scorned, or those intent on having their way at any cost, came to Lilly if they could afford it.

Now 60, Lilly still relies on his trademark raspy tones tinged with the northern accent that lingers from his Boston youth. He employs these tones effectively in pleading for compassion for clients or commanding them to correct the wrongs of their condemned counterparts.

A trace of Bogart once radiated from that low voice and long-jowled face. Years have sent his hairline in gray retreat and widened his waist until he could pass for a dapper, charming big brother of actor Danny DeVito.

Lilly's courtroom opponents say they are sometimes appalled at how he can push the limits of the legally acceptable. In past cases, his private investigators did not merely trail the former husband or wife -- they acted as bait to see if their target could be caught soliciting a sexual liaison.

He once had a female investigator make herself available for propositioning by an estranged wife who was reported to be attracted to women. Lilly said criticisms of that method and other tactics are unjustified, because they are taken out of context and were used in past eras, when such investigative conduct was considered more acceptable. Another favored ploy of Lilly's is to provide videotapes of his angelic clients at home, lovingly caring for their children.

Opposing attorneys said most of his tactics are stock-in-trade for divorce battles, although Lilly takes them to new highs -- or lows. With the immense wealth of many of his clients, he can bankroll broad investigations that regularly find their marks.

Lilly is considered a master showman and self-publicist who maximizes his triumphs -- and they are many, over his career. Socialite Carolyn Farb had signed a prenuptial agreement limiting her to $1 million if she ever divorced developer Harold Farb. She did. Lilly got her $23 million from her now-deceased husband.

King Ranch co-owner Robert Shelton gained custody of four of his children in a divorce from wife Deborah -- then he hired Lilly to take the final two from her as well. In a 1990 interview, she said she was "nailed to a cross and hung upside down" by Lilly. Her only apparent crime as an ex-wife was dating an unattached man, but that was enough for Lilly.

His personal favorites are the cases that garnered him the most acclaim, as well as guest appearances on the national television talk-show circuits.

In 1988, Lilly represented Patti Sue Sullivan Chiles in her divorce after two years of marriage to Jerry Chiles, son of Eddie Chiles, former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise.

Lilly broke new legal ground in his suit, asking that Patti Sue's prenuptial agreement be voided and that she receive $5 million in damages for "emotional abuse," a claim previously barred by Texas family courts.

Chiles protested that he was being victimized by a gold digger who had pushed him into prolonged drinking. In typical Lilly fashion, the attorney presented Chiles as an abuser, cocaine user, drunkard and philanderer -- who was infected with venereal disease as well. A Houston jury awarded Patti Sue $500,000.

In that same period, Lilly won damages for former airline flight attendant Sandra Renfro, who gave birth to a child by former baseball star Dave Winfield. That award came on her contention that the two had a legal -- if short-lived -- common-law marriage under Texas law.

He cites those cases as ones propelling him beyond the role of tough divorce attorney, and into the loftier status of legal scholar. But Lilly is less eager to discuss the aftermath of the Chiles and Winfield cases -- long after the publicity, outcomes in both cases were rejected on appellate review.

Lilly protests that they were not technically reversals, but concedes that appeals courts wiped away the verdicts and shipped them back for retrials. The Winfield case was settled when the baseball star agreed to pay $26,000 in attorney fees, and Lilly points out that the state Legislature did expand the law later to include emotional-abuse damages in divorce cases.

On a personal level, Lilly also has ample experience in divorce court. He has had three failed marriages, but he said he counts each of them a success for the years together and the four children they produced. Divorces did not douse his romantic fires, by all indications.

He delighted in relating his story about the humble Russian immigrant who turned to him for help in gaining custody of his child, then persisted in arranging a date for him with a young actress named Laura Keys, 25 years younger than Lilly. Readers of Maxine Mesinger's Houston Chronicle society column learned that Lilly proposed to her in 1990 by hiding a ring in her glass of champagne.

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?"

Lilly's attorneys at the deposition were somewhat less than sympathetic to her earlier pleas.

"What marble wall were you threatening to put your head through?" Barker asked.

"I don't know."
"Did you have a marble wall in your house?"
"Several."
"Where did you have marble walls where there was a phone?"
"Several rooms."

A male voice, that of her adult son, Sean, breaks the pattern of calls to Lilly. "I will make this message as sweet and short as possible, you son of a bitch. We got it all fucking working perfectly, then you had to come over and spoil fucking everything and ruin our goddamned hopes. I want you to get your ass over there, apologize to her, because if not, I'm coming right home and I am going to beat the shit out of you."

And a child's voice: "Earle, it is 6:45 and my mom wants you to come over. Thanks. Bye."

"Earle," Lowe tells him at one point, "I love you and I need you as support to keep me sober. Please be there. I just love you."

After berating him for having an apartment "that reminds me of a slum in Brooklyn, she adds, " ... All you had to do was just stroke me on the back a few times and I would purr like a kitten and [have] done anything you did...."

Those expressions were rare in the deposition tapes, although the selection of messages played at the deposition was left up to Lilly.

Lowe left one message telling him she had sex with a young handyman who is "much more romantic than you are." In the deposition, she denies having sex with that person, or having an affair with another man referred to in a later tape.

"I forgot to tell you that John is bisexual, not just homosexual, and that he was with a woman over the weekend, and we tried but we just couldn't do it because we have been friends for too many years and it was impossible to do."

Her cook comes in for considerable abuse, with Lowe complaining to Lilly that the servant and staff eat steaks "and everything else at lunchtime and at breakfast time. Then at dinnertime, if I am in bed, then I get dog food. And then Manuela [the cook] went over there crying because I refused to eat dog food."

In several calls, she demands the return of all her gifts, including the Mercedes, warning Lilly she will report it as stolen. She also says she will send emergency ambulances, fire trucks and police to his house if he continued to refuse to call her.

Her messages call him "scum like any Jew" and describe him as sexually inadequate. "Are you so fucking old that you go to bed at this time of night," another message begins. "I mean just like Fayez. I mean, I already know you're impotent and balding and Jewish and fat, and everything else...."

Lowe said in the deposition that she only referred to Lilly as impotent in the sense that he had lost the power he had over her.

Lilly is told in one call to sue Sarofim "for cancer things for me ... before we even go to court before this goddamn divorce." She explains that she heard that abortions increase breast cancer odds by 20 percent, so she has had to have mammograms every six months. "And so when they told me I have big breasts, that is just amazing to me. Since I have grown in the past year from a 32A to a 36B, obviously, something is wrong."

Something was very wrong -- her admitted addiction. In her deposition, Lowe both took responsibility and gave Lilly ample blame. He was the one, she said, who decided to call in two doctors for a $10,000-a-month treatment program that included ample prescriptions. He did it even while knowing that it could be used as evidence against her in her efforts to gain primary custody of the children, her suit said.

Lilly attorney Barker challenged Lowe's claims against Piro and Lilly. "Nobody ever held you down and poured alcohol down your throat, did they?"

"Mr. Lilly would bring alcohol over to the house and stated that he did not believe I was an alcoholic and that -- he opened many bottles and shared many drinks with me," she said.

"It was your choice to do it, was it not?" Barker said. "Ma'am?"
"I think when a person is out of control and was dependent upon them, that they should not have been bringing alcohol over in sight. It's fuel for the fire."

Barker attacked her position, asking how Lilly could have enticed her to drink when she was drunk and making abusive calls to his home. And what about the time he took her to Alcoholics Anonymous? Or locked up the liquor cabinet? She insisted she did not take prescription drugs before the emotional distress with Lilly occurred.

On February 19, 1997, she was involuntarily committed to St. Joseph's Hospital to begin her recovery from alcohol abuse.

Some of Lilly's hardest critics among attorneys do not endorse Lowe's attacks on him with regard to her addiction and the treatment program arranged by him with private doctors long before the commitment. They said that the substance abuse would have emerged in any trial, and that the best way to mitigate that damaging evidence would be to try to convince a judge or jury that Lowe had started on the road to recovery.

However, Lowe's deposition testimony about her addiction could support her arguments that she was too unstable and irrational to comprehend the kinds of fee contracts that were presented to her by Lilly -- the ones that added up to the $6.7 million in payments.

Lowe also maintains that the romance with Lilly drained her of any objectivity to what was happening.

Barker questioned her about her claims of sexual relations with Lilly.
"It depends on what you mean by 'sexual relations,' " she said. "Hugging, kissing, yes, that went on for months and months."

They first had intercourse on the night of the Sarofim divorce decree in November 1996; then they made love in their hotel room in Acapulco ten days later, she said. Within weeks, they were at it again, this time in an apartment owned by a Lilly friend at the Carlisle Hotel in New York, Lowe testified.

Asked for witnesses to these sexual encounters, Lowe provided no names. She volunteered that her security staff at the River Oaks home would have seen Lilly arrive and depart the premises -- and the maids changed the sheets and may have noticed the stains.

Lowe also alleges that Lilly misled her about the divorce settlement offers from Sarofim. She said her ex-husband and his attorney, Keeton, told her earlier this year that they had made proposals to Lilly for even better settlement packages than the one Lilly advised her to accept. Sarofim and Keeton were denied a request to see the fee contract from Lilly, and Sarofim would have granted her "huge" monthly allowances had he known Lilly was working on a contingency fee agreement, she said.

"They had said since they were dealing with Earle and Bob [Piro] -- and since Fayez dislikes them intensely -- that he was trying to keep the cash settlement as low as he could" to avoid whopping payoffs to her attorneys, Lowe said.

She said Piro was to be the specialist in any property settlement, and he brought in Lilly as the attorney who was the child custody expert. Despite the public allegations of Sarofim abusing her, Sarofim gained primary custody. While terms of the divorce agreement remain sealed, Lowe's deposition describes standard noncustodial visitation rights -- Wednesday nights and alternating weekends with the children. Lilly's attorneys said that, given her addiction and abusive conduct to Lilly and others, she was lucky to get that much visitation.

Lowe blames her custody terms on the decisions and actions of Piro and Lilly in her case, and said she plans to seek more custody and visitation rights after this suit.

Lilly's attorney asked: If the divorce settlement was bad, if it denied her the kind of custody rights she sought with her children, then why didn't she reject it?

"I agreed to it because I didn't want to go to court. I never wanted to fight Fayez. I was too out of control, too embarrassed, too weak, too dependent. I didn't want to be a public spectacle."

"What were you embarrassed about?" attorney Barker asked.
"My alcoholism, my pill-taking; if any people thought I had a relationship with Earle Lilly, that was embarrassing. Just the whole thing was embarrassing."

Embarrassment, by all indications, has given way to more and more anger in one of the most contentious cases in Harris County. Attorneys chided each other during the April deposition over camera angles and even the seating beyond the wood-and-beveled-glass doors of Lilly's conference room. Lowe said she felt threatened by the close proximity of Piro and Lilly, and her attorney complained that the video-camera angles were designed to make her look deceptive in her responses.

Disputes over the deposition led to its entry into the official case file, infuriating Lowe attorney Phillips. Meanwhile, a flurry of subpoenas has been filed with state District Judge Tracy Christopher, to track everything from prescription records at the Avalon Drug Store to credit card receipts and emergency calls made from the Lowe home.

Phillips gained a confidentiality order to restrict the release of evidence gained through subpoena and the discovery process.

In life after Lilly, Lowe has found new love. She met her husband, Mason Abram Lowe, during her hospital commitment in 1997. Lowe testified that he is a former legal assistant who is a manic depressive.

Lowe credited her husband and his stability with breaking her of the Valium habit, which he accomplished by flushing two bottles of those pills down the toilet in March 1997. She said they have discussed buying property in Hawaii and relocating there, but those are not firm plans.

Lowe testified in the deposition that she busies herself with commanding the staff of servants, the cook, the gardener and the security personnel at her home, picking up her children from Sarofim on Wednesdays and alternating weekends for visitations, and serving on the boards of Houston Grand Opera and the Awty School.

Of course, she does manage to break away from that grind on occasion. Lowe said that since the divorce, she has eked out treks to Acapulco, New York, Italy, Africa, the Amazon, Los Angeles and twice to Paris. There were no frequent-flier miles on the trips to the beach house and ranch.

She wants custody of her children, but said she is picking her legal fights one at a time -- and her first target is Lilly.

In spite of the legal fight with Lowe, love also has crept back into Lilly's life. He is engaged again, to a wonderful woman, he said. She is real estate agent Cathy Cagle.

Romance for the participants in this suit has not softened the fury, it seems. Lowe had been scheduled to continue her deposition on June 1, but Lilly asked to postpone it so he could attend the funeral of his mother, Evelyn, who died May 28.

Lowe objected to the request. She was overruled, and Lilly buried his mother that day.

Lowe's wedding dress, for the Lilly nuptials that were not to be, now displays an evidence exhibit sticker instead of a $10,000 Neiman Marcus sales tag. Cupid, a jewelry pin given by Lilly to Lowe, has joined the dress and other gifts in the wait for a trial tentatively scheduled to begin April 19, 1999.

As for the Mercedes, the divorce lawyer who drives the hard bargains is still in the soft leather driver's seat -- at least for now.

E-mail George Flynn at george_flynn@houstonpress.com

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