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If Looks Could Kill

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Rinaldi found "discarded syringes and medical supplies," including rubber gloves and a stethoscope, along with notes that read, "Breasts $400, Hips $300." Names of other body parts were written on a calendar and circled. The detective next spotted business cards. In a bold red font, they read, "Body Sculpting by Viva."

Detectives arrested Mark and then questioned the couple's roommate, Michael Henson, who explained the two had "been acting as a team" and "had given silicone injections on the night in question."

"It was the strangest case we've ever worked," says Lt. Shea Smith, a Greenville detective who was there for the arrest. "They were certainly putting a lot of people in danger."

A week later, just after lunchtime on April 18, Donnie was taken to Greenville County Jail and locked up with men. She was transported to Florida by jail bus two weeks later. For the first half of the ride, she was allowed to sit in the front of the bus, away from male prisoners. But then she was sent to the back. Many of the men hadn't seen a woman in months. "They were very aggressive," Donnie says. "There were hoots and hollers and 'Hey, baby's.''

After Donnie arrived at the Broward County Jail, authorities permitted her to shower alone. There was no hiding the breasts and long blond hair. Says her lawyer, George Reres: "Everything about her suggested she was female. If you saw this woman at a club, you would certainly want to go out with her... She was essentially walking around waiting for an attack to occur."

About a month later, Donnie told guards that another inmate — a former crack addict who had been sentenced to life after being convicted of aggravated battery, robbery, and other crimes — had exposed himself and demanded oral sex. Donnie refused and he threatened to kill her with a shank, she says.

Guards then moved Donnie to an eight-by-ten-foot solitary room on the eighth floor. It was necessary, they noted in jail records, because she was an "effeminate male."

Two months later, on July 19, the same inmate nearly killed Donnie. An incident report notes he "entered [Donnie's cell] and punched [her] twice in the face" and then "threatened to cause more bodily harm." During the assault, Donnie says, the attacker and three others sodomized her and tore her breast implants. They cracked her ribs and busted her lip. "They came racing in and just had their way with me for 40 minutes... There was a tremendous amount of blood."

Though Broward County records show battery charges were filed against the attacker and then dropped, prison reports confirm "several other inmates corroborated" the story.

In the months that followed, Donnie went on medication for pain and depression. "They had me doped up like a rhino," she says.

After complaining about her torn breast, she was taken to the infirmary and examined by medical staff. There a nurse numbed her chest and put a wall of paper in front of Donnie's face. "They took out a pair of stainless-steel scissors," she says, blinking away tears. "And they just cut."

Adds Attorney Reres, who documented the effects of the surgery with a camera: "It was as if the nurse took a perverse pleasure in disfiguring her. It was absolutely horrific."

Donnie's female body slowly became more male. "You hear your voice change. Your beard comes back. Your penis starts to function again," she says. "All of those things had been asleep for years."

In April 2003, Reres filed a motion "to allow the defendant to dress as a woman and wear makeup." It was necessary so Donnie would "not appear freakish" in a way that would "prejudice [her] in front of a jury," Reres wrote. Broward County Circuit Court Judge Peter Weinstein granted the request.

Donnie and Mark were tried in front of separate juries a month later. Six witnesses — five of whom were transsexual — claimed the couple had injected them with silicone. One was South Carolinian male-to-female Jeremy Middleton, who testified he fell into a two-month coma after the pair shot him in the buttocks. "I thought [Donnie] was a real nurse," she said. "I thought [she] was legit."

(Adds Mark's attorney, Eric Schwartzreich: "It was a circus, and the prosecution was leading the show.)

But Ronald Wright, the bow-tied, bespectacled Broward County chief medical examiner, then poked holes in the state's case. He testified that silicone pumped the night of Vera's death could not have moved quickly enough to her lungs to leave her dead. "It's the cumulative effect of... months or years of injections," he said.

In his closing statement, Attorney Schwartzreich asked an attentive all-female jury: "Do you know who killed Vera Lawrence? Unfortunately, Vera Lawrence killed Vera Lawrence."

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill