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.
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.
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 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.
Funding comes from the interest payments generated by trust accounts set up in civil cases, and from fees of $2 to $25 added to the filing costs for lawsuits. This year, that totals about $2.6 million dispensed by the foundation to various organizations.
Richard L. Tate, a Richmond attorney who is board chairman for the state foundation, explains that regular reports from grant recipients and audits are used to ensure that the funds are spent properly.
"We have one of the tightest and most highly regarded audit procedures of any state in the country," Tate says. "We follow those strictly."
Officials of the Houston chapter of the NAACP refused to discuss the Avendano case. "The NAACP believes in fighting for people of all colors," says executive director Yolanda Smith.
Love accuses Avendano's counsel, NAACP staff attorney Allecia Lindsey, of regularly using the organization's name to intimidate police officers, witnesses and others in the case.
As the arguments increased, chapter president Fran Gentry sent a letter on November 11 to its regional headquarters. The executive committee decided to end its involvement in the case, and to find other free -- pro bono -- counsel for Avendano.
"It was further determined that providing legal representation to disenfranchised minority citizens is a civil rights issue and follows the mandate of the Association's purpose, and we must comply with the requirements of the funding agencies of our legal program," the letter stated. "However, we understand that extreme extenuating circumstances require substitute legal counsel be identified." Gentry would not clarify those remarks.
What troubles Love the most, she says, is that this wasn't merely a stranger showing up at the clinic's door, begging for aid. She says Avendano has worked on various NAACP projects: improvements to its headquarters and the establishment of a tech center in a parking lot across from the Sears store on Main. "I know that, because I'd drop him off there during his work on those projects," she says. And Love insists that he's also a popular handyman and carpenter for various employees of the organization.
She argues that the group was tapping into its legal aid services as more of a work benefit for its contractors, a sort of legal insurance perk. Gentry and several board members denied employing or even knowing Avendano.
Hearing that, Love produced a copy of an invoice that indicates Avendano performed work at one employee's home. When the Houston Press phoned the NAACP office to ask that employee about the invoice, the call was routed instead to an angry Lindsey, who refused to even confirm the worker's position.
"His relationship with the NAACP was so tight," Love says. "After he was burned last year, they sent him a note and flowers."
In responding to a grievance filed by Love, Lindsey told the State Bar of Texas she's not aware of her client doing NAACP work, and that the case was handled in an appropriate manner for an eligible client. "I believed my client to be in fear of his life, as he represented," she wrote.
Love finally gained an order returning her house to her in late September. More time was spent in state District Judge Doug Warne's family court in an effort to order Avendano to sign over the check to the home repair company and stop impeding the repairs.
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In the rival divorce petitions, each side seeks to have the other pay for attorney costs. As for Love, she's already paid several thousand dollars for a lawyer, private investigator and other expenses to respond to legal actions brought by the NAACP attorney. She points to her still unpainted walls and blackened crevices in the hardwood floors from the fire.
Her desktop publishing business crashed when her computer was damaged by the blaze, and she's also waiting on repairs before restarting her meat-distribution business.
"That man didn't lose anything from his carpentry business," she says. "I lost my entire business, but they made the decision to give him the financial help.
"The NAACP has really stretched me out," Love concludes. "With that unlimited resource, he can just keep pounding me and pounding me."