Death by Silicone
Donnie Hendrix was sick of waiting. Dolled-up like a Southern beauty queen, she wore Barbie-blond hair and a pink collagen pout as she sat in the parking lot of a Miramar condo. The five-foot-ten, 32-year-old eyed the clock from the passenger seat of a rented green Chevy van just after 7 p.m. on March 20, 2001. With her pert double-D breasts and slow, saccharine drawl, she could have passed for a South Florida trophy wife — if she hadn't been born with a penis.
Donnie was male by birth but living as a woman thanks to weekly doses of estrogen. She had long ago shed the boyish figure, chin stubble, and deep voice. Her boyfriend, Mark Hawkins, a fit housecleaner with a tidy goatee, fiddled anxiously with his cell phone in the driver's seat. Crickets chirped in the fading evening light. In gold letters, a nearby sign read "The Enclave Luxury Condominiums."
What's taking this queen so long? Donnie thought.
Then Mark's phone rang and an effeminate voice instructed them to go upstairs. So the couple climbed to the third floor of a building with red Spanish-style roofing and a man-made lake vista. They knocked twice on the green door of unit 306, and a curvy transsexual named Corey "Cookie" Williams greeted them in a skin-tight dress. The wand of plastic surgery had morphed her face from that of a young black man into a Jessica Rabbit look-alike.
Soon, three other guests arrived. One was Vera Lawrence, a buxom 53-year-old Carol City secretary and gospel singer. Though the 227-pound grandmother wore thick makeup, three-inch red fingernails, and stylish clothes, she stood out in the younger, mostly gay male crowd.
After some small talk, the guests migrated to a spacious bedroom decorated with Egyptian trinkets. Vera lifted the hem of her short-sleeved, leopard-print dress to uncover clusters of pinprick-sized scars that led from her thighs to her buttocks. Hard, gravel-like bumps peppered her bulging hips. The skin was nearly translucent. Something was wrong.
Donnie flinched at the sight and scribbled the figure $1,000 onto a notebook. Vera let her dress drop back into place, took a deep breath, and lay facedown on the bed. According to investigators, Donnie used a marker to draw points on Vera's left thigh and, with Mark's help, filled a thick syringe with a clear fluid. Then they injected Vera's left buttock and upper thigh. Afterward, Donnie used cotton balls to swab the puncture marks with rubbing alcohol.
The injection wasn't drugs. Vera's vice was silicone. She hoped to round and smooth her aging body. After a few minutes, she excused herself and headed to the bathroom. She returned wheezing and began to mumble incoherently. Blood mixed with a thick, oily liquid oozed from her upper left thigh. Eventually, she lay back down on the bed, gasping for air.
Cookie, the host, nervously called 911. "She's breathing real, real hard, and it's like she's sweating... She's limp."
Miramar Fire Rescue arrived in minutes and rushed her to Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines. It was too late — she stopped breathing before they arrived. Doctors pronounced her dead in the emergency room at 11:30 p.m. due to a massive embolism in a lung. The cause: silicone leakage into the bloodstream.
Twenty-two days later, police arrested Mark Hawkins and charged him with third-degree murder, manslaughter, and practicing medicine without a license. They nabbed Donnie on the same charges.
In 2003, separate juries convicted Donnie of illegal practice of medicine and Mark of third-degree murder. She was given the maximum sentence of five years. Mark was sent up for only six; prosecutors struck a deal after the judge threw out the testimony of a key witness and ordered a retrial.
But the tale didn't end there. Though Donnie was taking prescription female hormones and had been living as a woman for more than ten years, she was sent to a male cellblock — where unconscionable horrors would unfold.
Donnie is now out of jail and living in North Florida. She has given up estrogen and is caught in gender limbo. Her description of the booming world of do-it-yourself cosmetic enhancement and abuse by fellow prisoners shows this: Gender confusion and vanity take lives, bruise psyches, and baffle law enforcement. In South Florida, Vera Lawrence's death hasn't stopped people from taking insane health risks in the name of beauty. Says Donnie: "I still get calls from people wanting to get pumped. It blows my fucking mind."
Joanie, a willowy brunet with a teeny dress and a winning smile, lip-synchs the final line to Kelly Clarkson's "You Thought Wrong." When a new song begins, she hops off the stage and playfully smacks herself on the rear in front of a portly older patron at a packed bar. Her face says, I look good, and I know it.
The postoperative transgender former stripper describes the recipe for her soft, womanly figure during a break at Trixie's drag club on South Dixie Highway in Hollywood. About a year ago, she says, she paid an unlicensed "nurse" $500 to widen her hips with silicone at a North Miami Holiday Inn. She calls it "filling in the boy dents."
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 one of its kind in the United States. The goal: to prevent medical fraud, including cosmetic surgery.
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 that 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 male 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 "worshiped" his mother, Brenda, who "aspired to be a Southern Martha Stewart." Donnie says his father 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.
Donnie didn't like being home, so he would escape on a gold and black 12-speed bike.
Brenda won't talk about Donnie's childhood. Nor will she comment about her son. "[Donnie] ain't got nothin' to do with me" is all she would say when New Times phoned her. Then she hung up.
In fall 1982, while Donnie played football with his cousins in a field next to a gas station, an above-ground gas tank exploded. It scalded about 60 percent of his body — mostly his legs — sending the 13-year-old to the emergency room with third-degree burns.
Not long afterward, he began having the dream more frequently. "I felt like a girl with a birth defect," Donnie says. "Mine just happened to be my penis."
Still, he was popular with girls at Walhalla Middle School. He had bright blue eyes and muscular legs from biking. "Me? Oh, I was a hottie," Donnie remembers with a sassy tilt of the head. "Honey, I would have asked me out."
When Donnie was a high-schooler, he sulked into the kitchen one night as his mom washed dishes. Brenda noticed her son's mood and asked the 16-year-old if he was pining over someone. Donnie replied he had gotten into a fight with his best friend, a handsome fishing buddy. "You're in love with him," she said matter-of-factly. Donnie remained quiet.
By that time, Brenda had married a construction worker named Buddy. His name was tattooed across the outside of his left wrist, and he used the word faggot to describe the guys in town he didn't like.
Donnie didn't yet understand his sexuality. He took an older girl named Kim to the prom, and she seduced him on a friend's living-room floor after a couple of ecstasy pills. She became pregnant and had a baby girl. "I just remember flashes of her on top," Donnie says in a hushed voice. "I was intimidated."
Six months later, Donnie began buying female hormones from a family friend. He persuaded his older sister, Debbie, to shoot one milliliter of estrogen into his arm once a week. When his pecs swelled into small, pointy breasts, Donnie says, he "freaked... because [his] male anatomy fell asleep."
Around that time, Donnie began making regular trips to the Castle, a gay club in Greenville that blasted techno music and featured drag-queen performances. At the bar on a Friday in 1987, he met Mark Hawkins, who had a 5-o'clock shadow, a helmet of thick brown locks, and a knack for arranging flowers. They bonded over a shared interest in gardening and began to date. Mark's parents, unlike Donnie's, accepted that their son liked to date men.
"We were a stylish gay couple," Mark, now out of prison, remembers in a soft Southern accent. "Donnie was a surfer-looking dude, really tan and clean-cut, but he always felt there was something missing."
Soon the couple moved into a brownstone apartment in downtown Greenville. Mark had a cleaning business, and Donnie played the housewife. After befriending transsexuals at the Castle, Donnie finally made the decision: He would become female for good: "I wanted everybody to forget Donnie." So he became "Viva."
After several months of estrogen, Donnie's skin became softer and his features less angular. Body hair thinned, and his Adam's apple shriveled. He grew a long, wavy, blond mane and flipped his hair-sprayed bangs into a wave. The transition made his "brain change," and he felt awkward, so he didn't leave home much.
Mark wasn't thrilled. "Those hormones make you irritable," he remembers. "He went from being rowdy to soft. She'd see a Hallmark commercial and cry her eyes out. Our gay friends didn't get it. They thought, You're gay. Why the hell are you with a girl?"
A few years later, Donnie was out and about as a woman — and getting into a bit of trouble. In August 1993, she was arrested in a Simpsonville, South Carolina, nursery for stealing plants, records show. The charge was shoplifting. A small fine was paid. (Donnie insists she did it to please Mark.)
The couple soon moved into a well-kept gray house with a pool in a modest Greenville neighborhood. Neighbors believed they were straight and married.
Donnie had one close friend at the time: Julie, an assertive, middle-aged transsexual who had learned from a doctor/boyfriend to pump "body shots" of silicone. "It was the only way on this planet I could change my body," Donnie says. Soon she got professional breast implants, a lip job, and a nose job.
Donnie nervously paid Julie $500 for the first set of injections after asking "a thousand questions." There was a slight pinch when the three-inch needle entered her hips. "It only goes halfway in," Donnie says. "All the transies did it. It was so fucking stupid."
If you believe South Florida prosecutors, who would later indict Donnie, she learned how to administer the shots in 1997. Once a month, she and Mark would pack up a jar of industrial-grade silicone and syringes and travel to Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, or Homestead. They likely garnered tens of thousands of dollars per trip. Clients lined up at the homes of "handlers" — like Cookie — where the procedure was priced per shot. Hosts would get a percentage.
Miramar police documents contend that the couple "told perspective clients that they had medical training and expertise in this type of cosmetic augmentation." They "wore lab coats" and advised clients to "soak in a warm bath" afterward. (Both Donnie and Mark deny the allegations.)
The couple's last trip to Florida began the morning of March 19, 2001. They drove a rented green van from Greenville to a budget hotel in Hallandale Beach and arrived at Cookie's condo the next day. Once inside, they were introduced to Vera Lawrence.
Cookie knew the grandmother through her late son, who had died of AIDS five years before. Vera agreed to pay the couple $1,000 cash, according to prosecution, to inject her with silicone. When paramedics arrived, none of the party guests offered any information about the shots. Miramar police noted, "It is believed this information could have been useful in treating [Vera]."
At Memorial Hospital West — even hours after Vera's death — the oily liquid continued to seep from dozens of tiny needle holes. Doctors took note of the mysterious fluid and called Miramar police. What medical examiners found next must have floored them: In her body was a half-gallon of medical- and industrial-grade silicone. Some of it had been in her buttocks for years.
On the morning of March 21, the day after the death, a heavyset man with thinning hair and neat dress clothes knocked on Cookie's green apartment door. He introduced himself as Miramar Police Det. Michael Rinaldi, sat Cookie down, and asked what had happened the night before. Then he began to search the cluttered condo.
Two minutes into the search, according to the police report, Rinaldi came upon a syringe and alcohol wipes in a trash can. "You have the right to remain silent," he began. "Anything you say..."
"What the fuck," Cookie responded. "I may as well tell you the truth."
Cookie explained that Donnie and Mark had performed about 90 percent of her many cosmetic treatments. "Once," she said, "they even punctured my lung." She went on to explain that the couple was responsible for Vera's death.
Rinaldi soon learned more about the party. Another guest, Rodney Taylor — a transsexual whom the couple had injected in the chest — gave a sworn statement explaining she had gone to the condo to be pumped with silicone. She "declined to be treated after seeing what had taken place."
A few days later, Rinaldi received a phone call. A woman named Denise Jones explained that she was a former client of Donnie and Mark's and that the couple's treatment caused her to "feel very, very weird" and to "breathe funny."
Rinaldi kept digging and soon learned that Mark was a regular customer of Silicone Inc. in High Point, North Carolina. He sometimes had the chemical delivered to hotels in Miami.
So the detective headed north, and just after 4 p.m. on April 11, with Greenville County cops in tow, he arrived at Mark and Donnie's small gray home and pounded on the door. Donnie was outside by the pool with a friend setting up for a cocktail party. The officers presented a search warrant and began ripping into couches and digging through cardboard boxes in search of evidence.
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 that 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 said.
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 that 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."
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, Mark's attorney, Eric Schwartzreich, asked an attentive, all-female jury: "Do you know who killed Vera Lawrence? Unfortunately, Vera Lawrence killed Vera Lawrence."
The verdicts shocked everybody. Based on the same set of facts, one jury acquitted Donnie of murder, but the other convicted Mark. Donnie mouthed the words thank you to her attorney before Weinstein sentenced her to five years.
Three years later, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned Mark's conviction, ruling that prosecution witness and Broward associate medical examiner Dr. Erston Price gave inadequate testimony. On December 7, 2006, Mark agreed to a plea deal and got six years. Corey "Cookie" Williams, the handler, received four years' probation in exchange for her testimony against the couple.
In September 2003, Donnie was transported to Tomoka Correctional Institution, an all-male prison on the outskirts of Daytona Beach with about 1,300 inmates. Guards watched out for her. "I was so well-looked-after," she says. "I wasn't treated like a freaky piece of trash."
Her time there might have been more complex than that. In July 2005, she was caught "attempting to conspire," according to prison disciplinary reports. Investigators found that a fellow inmate had sent a $2,015 check to Donnie's sister in exchange for Donnie "providing protection." (She contends the inmate — who was also transsexual — made up the story so she could be moved to another unit.)
When Donnie was released a couple of days before Thanksgiving 2005, she contemplated living as a woman. She was torn. "That girl that I lived as?" she says. "They killed her."
Dog walkers shuffle past the quaint seaside diners along Flagler Beach, a sleepy town north of Daytona. On a recent blustery afternoon, Donnie sits on a splintery picnic table. At first glance, her face seems to show the lasting effects of cosmetic surgery: plump pink lips and a delicate button nose. Then the midday sun illuminates her jaw, and stubborn bristles become visible.
When Donnie lifts her wide-frame Chanel sunglasses to peer at the ocean, she catches a mustached, middle-aged tourist in a jean jacket staring with his mouth agape. "This guy's breaking his neck trying to look at me," she mumbles. She stares right back and gives him a defiant wave. "Hi there!" she shouts.
Busted, he quickly turns his head and scampers off.
Donnie pulls her sunglasses back down over her eyes, as if to hide, and lights a Marlboro. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm gonna be this crazy freak forever," she says, her shiny blond hair whipping into a spiral. "But I'm not trying to have a pity party."
She speaks in a tender maternal tone, but her voice is too deep to pass for a woman's. Her shoulders are broad, her legs thick.
After being released from Tomoka Prison, Donnie decided to give up hormones. Starting again would be too much emotionally. After the rape, being female made her feel vulnerable. Living as a male, though, was like admitting she was the same species as her attackers. So she exists somewhere in between — in a sort of gender purgatory. "People ask me if I'm a boy or a girl," she says. "And I tell them I'm neither."
During the first days after her release, she quickly realized her family wouldn't return phone calls. "Donnie's mom is very controlled by her husband," Mark explains. "She won't have a relationship with her son until [his stepfather] passes."
Some friends had died of AIDS while she was in prison, and others had labeled her "a murdering fag," Donnie says. Mark had not yet been released. So, alone and broke, she checked into a Christian recovery center in Sanford called Teen Challenge. Soon she landed a job programming computers.
These days, Donnie lives in a two-story, khaki-colored house with a red door and a well-groomed front yard in Palm Coast, outside Daytona Beach. She rarely leaves the house and regularly sees a psychologist. The doctor diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia.
"She's having a hard time trusting people," says neighbor Mary Howard, who alternates between pronouns when describing Donnie. "He comes over and just cries and cries."
Ask Donnie about Mark and the tears roll. Though he left prison a year and a half ago, the two no longer speak. He fell in love with another man in jail, she says.
Mark is now living in Greenville with his 78-year-old mother. "She's my first priority," he says. "We're trying to avoid drama."
Both Donnie and Mark deny they ever gave a single injection. They claim the silicone was used for Mark's cleaning business, and the notes mentioning body parts referred to foam padding for transgender pageant contestants. Donnie insists Vera was simply seeking advice after leaving a pumping session somewhere else.
Vera Lawrence's family still struggles without her. For years after the crime, her daughter, Tangela Sears, spoke often about her belief that the couple was not punished harshly enough: "This isn't justice. I feel like I've been banged against the wall."
Lately, Donnie can't shake the feeling someone is sneaking up behind her. At restaurants, she catches waitstaff pointing. She tenses up when men touch her. This past January 11, MSNBC aired Lethal Beauty, a series about the crime. When Donnie got home from work, her voicemail was full. Some were from transsexual men who had seen the program. "Who's pumping now?" they wanted to know. "How much is it? Do you still do it?"
Donnie later called one of them back. "No," she answered. "Honey, are you crazy?"
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