Worker Benefits?

Houston's NAACP faces a protest of its own when it takes sides in a divorce case

On an evening in late October, the elegantly clad couples began arriving at the George R. Brown Convention Center. But the woman waiting to greet them wasn't attired in formal wear, and she definitely didn't have an escort.

Elease Love, a former forklift operator, had never felt more alone. She was in a bitter divorce with her husband, a master carpenter named Fabio Avendano.

Their whirlwind romance from the previous year had fed their entrepreneurial dreams. Love had launched her own meat-distribution enterprise and was delving into desktop publishing, while Avendano hustled his own Fabulous Home Remodeling firm.

Love,  outside the headquarters  of her legal nemesis
Daniel Kramer
Love, outside the headquarters of her legal nemesis

When the couple split up a year later, Love could accept it. "If this was just up to us making a decision that, hey, we're not getting along, then fine," she says stoically. "We could have gone down to the courthouse and done this in a very civil manner."

Instead, there were ugly recriminations and even life-threatening allegations. It had gone beyond mere feuds between her and Avendano -- and that was exactly why Love was standing outside the gala event.

She was handing out leaflets, demonstrating against an organization known for championing the causes of the disenfranchised.

Love was protesting the Houston NAACP at its own fund-raiser. As an African-American woman who had lived in the Third Ward for more than 40 years, Love demanded to know why the NAACP was using donations to target her in her personal divorce proceedings.

An NAACP executive emerged from the gathering to deal with this distraction, explaining to Love that a state grant for legal aid -- not donations -- was paying for the NAACP lawyer opposing her in court.

This explanation made even less sense to Love. "They've got people in this community who really need the help that those grants provide," she says. "They don't need to be using it to destroy me."

Four decades in the Third Ward have flame-hardened the resolve of Love, an energetic woman whose rapid-fire conversation can reflect both toughness and vulnerability. After she was laid off from her $19 hourly forklift job at Champions paper plant in 1999, she struggled to keep her prized possession: a modest $65,000 home on Winbern Street near the Texas Southern University campus.

She learned the meat-distribution business from friend Samuel Coleman, naming her enterprise Sam the Meatman. Love would head to wholesale meat distributors, load up, then prepare the cuts and packages for delivery to various residential and commercial customers. She had a custom-built cooler prepared to fit in her truck to make the runs.

And on April Fools' Day, 2003, she first met Avendano, an immigrant from Nicaragua who had lived in the United States for several years. Love was taking bids on the building of a privacy fence at her home. She turned down his offer as too high, but Love couldn't reject his repeated calls for a date.

A month later, they married. She says she helped him with his carpentry business, but the relationship began to sour on several fronts. At times after arguments, he'd sleep in his car in the driveway. Love said in a sworn affidavit that he resented her family and friends, and his insecurity would trigger angry episodes.

"…He would cry and tell me that his anger comes from him not feeling like he's the man of the house," she stated. "I don't feel I am the man [of the house], you are like the man."

To try to give him more control in things, Love's affidavit said she "allowed" him to co-sign a $10,500 refinancing loan for home improvements. Tensions increased, however, after an old furnace ignited their attic in February. The blaze consumed much of the roof and caused extensive damage in the living areas. Partial insurance provided an apartment for them while restoration was under way, but the arrangement only increased the friction.

Avendano, she said, falsely believed that his signature on the earlier improvement loan had given him ownership of the house. "Fabio began to tell people that I lost my house; he would brag and beat his chest with his fist and shout, 'This is my house. Elease lost her house,' " her affidavit stated. When she showed him her name on the loan and title, he accused her of forgery, she said.

She says he left her to stay in the house, even though it was not considered habitable because it was still being repaired from the fire.

By August, Avendano was claiming that she'd tried to kill him. He'd gone to court to get a protective order barring her from being near him. That move cut her off from access to her own house.

And it wasn't just an estranged husband and a private attorney making the allegations. The court filings showed that his claims were in effect sponsored by an organization with ample clout: the Houston NAACP, through its staff attorney representing Avendano.

In a sworn affidavit by Avendano, he said Love had threatened him. He said he confronted Love in the house after he returned from work on August 2. The locks had been changed, but she broke in, he said, and pulled a .22-caliber pistol from her purse and threatened to shoot him.

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