In 1988, Maria Thornhill invented a nifty gadget called Sheet Suspenders, elastic bands that tuck in bed sheets without having to lift a mattress. By 2008, she'd sold more than $3 million worth of the devices and turned thousands in profits. It was an American success story -- at least until an old flame named Alberto Argomaniz stole the business.
At least that's how Thornhill, who is locked in a lawsuit with Argomaniz, tells it. "His plan was to leave me out in the cold," she says.
Argomaniz denies Thornhill's accusations. "I paid for the business," he says. "I own it clean as a whistle."
The trouble began in 2008, when Thornhill's patent for her quirky invention expired. Bed, Bath & Beyond -- her biggest client -- stopped purchasing from her in favor of cheaper knockoffs. So Thornhill started selling directly to consumers via Amazon.com. "It quickly grew to $30,000 in sales a month," she says.
But Thornhill's personal financial troubles were mounting. Her condo association sued her and won a judgment for $25,500. She also had to pay the association's $100,000 legal bill.
In March 2009, she ran into Argomaniz, an insurance agent she'd briefly dated years earlier. He seemed like a savior: In exchange for a 50 percent stake in Sheet Suspenders, he promised to pay her condo bills, lend her a Lexus, and hand over $1,200 a month in cash, plus two credit cards. He also paid her personal expenses, including two mortgage payments and utility bills.
It appeared to be an ideal partnership for five months, Thornhill says -- until she went to a lawyer's office to finalize the deal. Instead of a 50-50 split, Argomaniz had drawn up an agreement giving him full control, all trademarks, and 3,600 already produced suspenders.
"[His attorney] told me I didn't have a choice," Thornhill says. "The next day, Alberto had already changed the [office] locks."
A few months later, Argomaniz accused Thornhill of stealing the company Lexus, as well as two MacBooks and an iPhone. (Thornhill was not arrested or charged, though a police report was filed.) The following month, Argomaniz sued Thornhill, alleging she infringed on his trademark when she tried to sell 216 suspenders on Amazon. In 2010, a judge granted Argomaniz a temporary injunction barring her from selling the items. Amazon also blocked her.
"At least two different judges have concluded she lacks credibility," Richard Sarafan, Argomaniz's attorney, says.
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Last October, Thornhill sold her condo to settle her debts. She's been renting a small duplex in Little Havana but doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to afford it.
"I've run out of money," she says, "and I don't know what I am going to do."