If Looks Could Kill

Back-alley plastic surgery sent Donnie Hendrix to jail. Finally, she talks.

Afterward, she was sore for two days and had to sleep on her stomach. Joanie has been lucky; she's had no health complications so far. "I'm just trying to make my body correct," she says, shrugging. "But a lot of the girls are addicted. They want to be prettier and prettier."

South Florida is the bargain basement of plastic surgery. For hundreds of local transsexuals — many of whom are low-income and yearn to feminize their features — living at the epicenter of an illicit, real-life Nip/Tuck culture is both convenient and dangerous.

Florida authorities first learned about street silicone shots after the FDA in 1997 approved the synthetic liquid for medical use, according to the state's health department. The next year, the department set up the Unlicensed Activity Office. It was — and still is — the only of its kind in the United States. The goal: to prevent medical fraud, including cosmetic surgery.

Donnie Hendrix after two weeks — and no estrogen — in Greenville County Jail.
Broward Sheriff's Office
Donnie Hendrix after two weeks — and no estrogen — in Greenville County Jail.
Cops found Mark Hawkins had liquid silicone delivered to hotels in Miami.
Broward Sheriff's Office
Cops found Mark Hawkins had liquid silicone delivered to hotels in Miami.

Back then, fake doctors set up makeshift operating rooms in hotels, beauty parlors, and offices. Some had legit medical licenses in Central or South America. Others were entrepreneurial quacks, learning through trial and error. As silicone injections gained popularity, health department reports show increasing numbers of victims reported they'd been mangled. There were claims of nerve damage, cysts, and disfigurement.

An example: In 1999, Miami Beach Police issued an arrest warrant for Reinaldo Silvestre, a 58-year-old phony surgeon who would come to be known as "The Butcher of South Beach." One of his many unhappy clients was a Mexican bodybuilder who requested pectoral implants and awoke with a female boob job. Silvestre eventually pleaded guilty to practicing medicine without a license, aggravated battery, and administering narcotics. He got seven and a half years.

The following year, arrests nearly doubled. Even legitimate Miami surgeons noticed more botched beauty treatments. "People would come in and have no idea what they had been injected with," says University of Miami plastic surgeon Dr. Seth R. Thaller. "It was an epidemic."

Vera Lawrence's death changed that — at least temporarily. As news of the bizarre crime uncoiled, investigators became more aggressive. A week after the tragedy came word of "Operation Dr. Frankenstein," in which detectives arrested 45-year-old David Blanco, a soft-spoken, dark-eyed Venezuelan from Coral Gables, who police say specialized in illegally pumping the liquid into the emaciated faces of transsexuals infected with HIV. He took home as much as $30,000 per surgery. In winter 2002 — before he even entered a plea — he vanished.

"The guys doing this are like cockroaches," then-chief investigator Enrique Torres told London's Observer. "When the light is on them, they scatter and disappear. But when the light goes off again, they always scuttle back."

Indeed, pumping circles have begun resurfacing. Last June 19, Miami-Dade cops busted 22-year-old Anthony Donnell Solomon for injecting silicone into the buttocks of women at a hotel on NW 87th Avenue. A month and a half later, they collared 49-year-old Juan Aguirrechu for shooting clients with Botox in his Coral Gables garage. Since 1998, the Florida Department of Health has nailed more than 600 unlicensed practitioners.

Injections, which run $100 to $5,000 depending on the body part, are generally supplemented with estrogen shots. For transgender women, the idea is to get what nature denied them — to highlight cheekbones, inflate breasts, and curve butt cheeks.

Predatory "doctors" now market gay and transgender clients online, says Coral Gables attorney Spencer Marc Aronfeld, one of the nation's most prominent plastic surgery litigators. Phonies sense the desperation and look at it with dollar-sign eyes. "Florida is a petri dish for these types of Frankensteinian procedures," he says. Aronfeld is representing a Fort Lauderdale man who hired licensed surgeon Jason Frost to help him deal with a disorder that causes him to grow breasts. The patient, Thomas Glasson, is suing for punitive damages after he was left with a sunken, indented chest. "I was hoping that with all of the attention cosmetic crime gets, it would be happening less," Aronfeld explains. "But it seems to have had the opposite effect; my phone rings off the hook."

*****

Donnie remembers it vividly: Just a 13-year-old boy, he was seated in an old-time auditorium across from a strikingly sensuous blond woman onstage. The theater evoked the Lincoln assassination — with balcony seating and long curtains tumbling into folds — but even as a shy young man, he was more interested in the lady. She was petite, but her presence demanded attention.

As she stepped toward him, wisps of fog rose in front of her. The nearer she got, the harder she became to see. And just as she sashayed close enough to touch — whoosh — her figure rippled away.

It was always like that. When the dream concluded, he would sit up in bed, angry. Like a playground bully, his subconscious was taunting him. He didn't want to sleep with the woman; he wanted to be her.

Donnie Hendrix was born February 18, 1969, in the tiny Baptist town of Walhalla, South Carolina. The younger of two kids, he "worshipped" his mother, Brenda, who "aspired to be a Southern Martha Stewart." His father, Edward, was an emotionally distant pavement contractor who wore his brown hair slicked back like a greaser and encouraged Donnie to pursue math. "He would drink," Donnie says. "Honestly, I just remember him fighting with my mom." They divorced when he was 6.

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