Worker Benefits?

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

His affidavit said she'd rung in the New Year in January by blasting away in his direction with a shotgun, and punched him in the lip in April. The worst event of all occurred during a family gathering in Corpus Christi on the Fourth of July:

"While with friends, [Elease] purposely threw drinking alcohol on me and then set my soaked shirt on fire with a cigarette lighter," his affidavit stated. "As a result the shirt caught on fire and I suffered third-degree burns on my stomach and part of my right foot…I never pressed charges against her for fear of retaliation."

In seeking the protective order, Avendano's scarred skin was offered up as a prime exhibit. He raised his shirt in court to show the carnage.

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

Love was aghast at the allegations -- yes, they'd argued and verbally fought. She'd never physically attacked him or shot at him, she swore. "Fabio has continued to fabricate lie upon lie, in an attempt to manipulate and con me out of my home," her affidavit stated. And she'd never been investigated or charged with anything.

But she says there is truth in some of Fabio's statements: During a holiday trip to Corpus, he was badly burned -- not by an arrogant spouse, but by himself, during a bizarre healing ritual that went terribly awry.

Love's brother Arthur had worked for the Coast Guard in Corpus until he contracted severe emphysema. He was on oxygen and was in chronic pain, and Love says she was trying to help him.

Avendano told her that he had restorative powers, that he'd once used a muddy concoction to cure a Waco man of blindness. Friends told her she was silly for buying into Avendano's claims, but "when you are desperate," Love says, "you kind of believe things."

Following his instructions, they bought an exotic herb at a shop off Airline, then he carefully mixed it with two large bottles of rubbing alcohol. "I'll need to bury it in the earth for two weeks," she quoted him as saying. "When it comes up out of the earth it is going to be time to go to Corpus."

They -- aided by their dog -- dug a hole and buried a big bottle containing the solution, then extracted it in time for Memorial Day, 2003. Once in Corpus Christi, Avendano kept applying the solution to Arthur's chest. On the last day of the trip, Avendano used candles and a prayer uttered in Spanish to enhance the treatment. After soaking Arthur's chest in the solution, Avendano passed a spoon of the solution over a candle held above the sick man's chest.

The contents in the spoon ignited, she says, and that liquid spilled on Arthur's alcohol- and herb-covered chest. He burst into flames, which spread to Avendano's body.

Blankets were used to extinguish the flames, but the two men spent two weeks in a hospital burn unit.

And Arthur still has emphysema as well.

Love doesn't ask that her version of events be taken on her word alone. John Luis, a Corpus Christi Fire Department investigator, described the incident in a later investigative report. "[Arthur] states, 'I figured Fabio knew what he was doing,' " his report concludes.

Love still gets demand letters from the hospital, seeking some $30,000 for Avendano's treatment.

Love says her estranged husband used the accidental burning to concoct a story of her intentionally setting him ablaze more than a year later, because he needed a more recent allegation of physical harm to go with his effort to secure the protective order against her.

Had the NAACP investigated that claim, or checked into Avendano's background, the group would have realized the credibility flaws, she says.

Better yet, she adds, the organization could have simply sent him where everyone else -- rich or poor -- goes when alleging criminal offenses: to the district attorney's office or the police.

"If you feel like your life's in danger, you can go to the D.A. and get a protective order," she says. "Why wouldn't they just tell him that 'We have valuable grant money and we have real needs in the community, so we advise you to take this step first'? After all, the D.A. does this kind of stuff for free, for anyone needing it."

Some attorneys involved in legal aid question the wisdom of applying funding resources for a divorce matter that -- despite its serious allegations -- doesn't involve the welfare or endangerment of children or other extraordinary circumstances.

The Houston NAACP's legal aid clinic points out that its assistance is largely limited to clients with incomes of no more that 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines -- roughly $15,000 for an individual. Most of the work targets claims directly associated with discrimination or poverty and governmental agencies: helping a person get benefits from Social Security or Medicare, food stamps, public housing or similar assistance.

The organization says it helps about 1,000 people each year through consultations or follow-up action. Funding is provided through about $90,000 in grants from the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, established by the Texas Supreme Court 20 years ago.

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