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In the Matter of Avila v. Avila

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"Heartbreaking." "Painful." That is how Anita Avila describes the fight over the restaurant on Maple Avenue she and her husband opened in January 1986. In the end, she says, all she wants is for the restaurant to reopen with her once more running the operation, as she'd done before her son Ricardo took control and became, as Judge Ken Molberg put it, the "face" of the Mexican eatery that gained national attention on the Food Network last year.

"I want to be in there like I was, because I'm capable and I can do it," she told reporters on her way out of the courtroom.

But, at the moment, Avila's is but a shell of its former self: As we noted yesterday, Ricardo gutted the place on Sunday, hauling out every last table and chair and piece of kitchen equipment; he even cut a hole in the sheet rock to remove its myriad accolades and awards, including an autographed photo of Food Network host Guy Fieri. This afternoon, Molberg ordered Ricardo to restore the restaurant to its former state by no later than the open of business on Monday. If the place isn't operational by then, Molberg said, Ricardo would be forced to pay $500 a day.

Today's hearing wasn't really a hearing at all: Molberg ordered Ricardo to appear so he could scold him for violating a temporary restraining order Molberg had signed on February 9, when the judge gave Ricardo full control of the restaurant pending a hearing that was to have taken place yesterday. Repeatedly, Molberg told Ricardo he'd "used the judicial system for his own personal gain." After admonishing him for stripping the place bare, Molberg asked Ricardo, "On your way out, why didn't you just torch the place?"

Avila's may indeed be made whole come Monday, but there's significant work to be done aside from bringing back in the equipment and tables and chairs -- plumbing and electrical, for starters. And by no means is the legal battle over: Molberg ordered Anita and Ricardo begin mediation on Wednesday, in advance of an injunction hearing scheduled for March 2.

On the surface, this is a sad story but not a complicated one: On February 9, Ricardo filed for a temporary restraining order, insisting in legal documents that his family was trying to force him out of the restaurant he's been running for years. And the judge said: Fine, Ricardo's in charge all by his lonesome at least till a February 18 hearing. But on Sunday Ricardo cleaned out the place, and on Monday he dropped his suit against his mother. Bill DeLoney, Anita's attorney, says he wasn't notified by Ricardo's attorney that he'd dropped the suit till mid-week -- at the same time he'd discovered the restaurant had been stripped.

Molberg is, to say the least, furious that Ricardo tossed aside the judge's order: "You pillaged and plundered the business," he told Avila, "effectively ending its existence."

Molberg ordered Ricardo to the stand to ask him why he would do such a thing. Ricardo's answer: Because he didn't see anywhere in the judge's February 9 order language that said he couldn't "take things I felt were my possessions." He said his mother and her attorney had made him an offer to stay "if I paid $10,000 a month in rent, which I couldn't afford." Hence, his decision to take the stuff and run.

Which did nothing to placate the judge.

"You're right," Molberg said. "The order didn't say, 'Don't even think about closing it down, stripping it down and absconding into the night.'"

Ricardo says he did what he did because "I didn't want to see my mother go through the stress and anguish" of a protracted trial. If that's the case, he did not succeed.

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