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Death by Silicone

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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."

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Natalie O'Neill

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