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Cover Story

Lips to Die For

They went to him for lips like Angelina Jolie’s. But what they didn’t know was the good "doctor" was no doctor at all. Worse, he was injecting his patients with industrial-grade silicone. This is the exclusive story about how on
By Carlton Stowers |

RETROSPECT: One of Luis Sanchez’s patients said he didn’t even look like a doctor, with his gold chains and diamond stud earring.

DEE
MYERS—36 YEARS OLD, divorced, blond hair, hazel eyes—was having dinner
with a friend two years ago when she noticed the lips. Her friend’s
lips were fuller than Myers remembered them. Bee-sting full. Pouty,
Angelina Jolie full. Myers’ friend said she’d had them done by a
Miami-based doctor who’d been making regular trips to two Dallas facial
salons for the past six years. Everybody knew about him. Dr. Luis
Sanchez was from Cuba, and he had a supply of a hard-to-find substance
called New-Fill. Myers’ friend explained that New-Fill hadn’t yet been
approved by the Food & Drug Administration, but it had been used in
Europe for two decades. All Myers needed was a referral from her friend
and $300.

Myers admits she’s a “huge fan” of anything that will
make her look younger. She’s had Botox, collagen, and Restylane
injections. Before she married her ex, she told him, “Be prepared. I’m
going to do whatever it takes to stay young.”

After dinner with
her friend, Myers returned home and logged onto the Internet to
research New-Fill. Since coming to Texas from Georgia, she’d worked as
a nurse for two cosmetic surgeons, so Myers knew what to look for. She
learned that New-Fill is a synthetic polylactic hydrogel. It’s
biocompatible, biodegradable, immunologically inert, and, just as her
friend had told her, safely used for 20 years by European orthopedic
and reconstruction surgeons. New-Fill, she discovered, was intended for
the treatment of wrinkles and scars and the augmentation of tissue in
the chin, cheek bones, and lips. Even the plastic surgeon she worked
for said that he’d heard great things about New-Fill, though it had yet
to be approved for use in the United States.

Myers had all the
proof she needed and asked her friend how she could get in to see
Sanchez. Phoning a woman named Jheri McMillian, whose business card
identifies her as a skin practitioner at a spa called Essence of Well
Being, Myers made her appointment—and began spreading the word. She let
a friend in on the secret of Sanchez and his New-Fill injection
treatments. That friend passed the word along to dozens of clients.
Those clients told friends. The drumbeat of Myers and other Sanchez
patients would eventually spread to as far away as Wichita Falls and
Louisiana. One woman, who made an appointment after hearing about the
Miami miracle maker, scheduled a visit for her mother as well.

Myers
remembers the day of her treatment. She arrived at the small upstairs
office in a gray brick building in North Dallas that was “old and
shabby-looking.” In the hallway, several women sat in folding chairs,
their lips covered with a thick, white cream that was used to deaden
the injection sites.

When Myers was told she’d have to pay cash
for her treatment, she rushed to an ATM. “It did seem a little strange,
a little hush-hush, everything but a secret handshake,” she says. “But
I felt it was all related to the fact that New-Fill was not FDA
approved.”

In Sanchez’s mirrored procedure room, a syringe
filled with clear liquid lay on a table. The series of injections and
the gentle massaging of her lips took only a few minutes. She was given
an ice pack to reduce what she was told would be slight and temporary
swelling.

“It was a few days later when I became concerned at
the unevenness of my lips and the fact that they remained more swollen
than I’d expected,” Myers says. When her lips became chapped and
blisters broke out, she tried to contact McMillian to schedule another
appointment.

And the runaround began. Several calls to McMillian
went unreturned. So Myers called Gail Burch, owner of the Laser &
Aesthetic Center, where Sanchez saw patients. Burch told her it would
be some time before the doctor would return to Dallas.

“By
then,” Myers says, “I was getting pretty fed up with the whole mess and
decided I needed to see a doctor who could help me with my problems
immediately.” She again turned to the Internet, typing the words
“New-Fill Dallas” into a search engine one evening, hoping to find a
doctor familiar with the product. Instead, she found a site that
included a diary written by a young Dallas woman.

Recounting a
visit to “a Miami doctor I’d heard about,” the writer described the
same rundown building Myers had gone to, an unnamed doctor whose
physical description sounded familiar, and “hot Dallas women in their
30s and 40s lined up in the hall like they were visiting a back-alley
abortionist.” The diarist told of sitting in the treatment room,
awaiting her injections, and noticing a bottle on a table. The label
indicated it was not New-Fill but, instead, Silicex, “which sounded too
much like silicone to me. … The whole thing suddenly felt wrong.”

The
woman wrote that she had asked the doctor if he was planning to inject
her with silicone, and he’d assured her he wasn’t. Still, she’d become
uneasy and left without receiving her treatment. Once home, she had
looked up Silicex. “It was silicone,” she wrote.

Reading the journal, Myers says she felt she might become ill.

Her
eyes opened, she saw all the warning signs that she’d missed—or
ignored—on the day she’d been injected. There had been, for instance,
the secretive manner in which the doctor had conducted business, the
cash-only demand. Then there was the downscale building where his
treatments were done. She was never asked about her medical history or
required to sign a consent form. And where was the framed medical
diploma that is standard decoration in any doctor’s office?

In
retrospect, even though he had worn scrubs when he’d greeted Myers and
had conversed in all the proper medical jargon, Sanchez hadn’t even
looked like a doctor, with his gold chains, diamond stud earring, and
Caesar-style haircut.

“I was an idiot,” she says. She was
worried about her own health and began contacting women to whom she’d
recommended the doctor. Myers says she felt an overwhelming guilt for
having steered  them toward danger. “I went into a three-day
depression,” she says. “All I could think about was if he was injecting
women with silicone and not New-Fill. I wanted him to be stopped.”

TORTURE:
Sandy DeVine’s life has become torturous. Her mouth is so sensitive she
can no longer eat or drink things that are extremely hot or cold.

DEE
MYERS WAS NOT THE ONLY SANCHEZ patient beginning to question
the doctor’s legitimacy. Sandy DeVine, a 56-year-old retired nurse, had
also longed for a fuller upper lip and had made three visits to Sanchez
on the recommendation of several friends. Ultimately, she had
decided  to have New-Fill injections in her lips and in the lines
that had begun to form around her mouth and eyebrows. Total cost:
$1,400.

“In today’s society,” DeVine says, “women are always
wanting to find ways to look a little better. In my case, I’d always
felt my upper lip was too small. So, when I heard about this doctor, I
locked on the blinders.”

Today, as a result of the injections
she received from Sanchez, DeVine’s life has become torturous. Her
mouth is so sensitive she can no longer eat or drink things that are
extremely hot or cold. If she does have coffee, she sips it through a
straw. For a while, she was embarrassed to drink from a glass in public
because she drooled when doing so. The areas where she was injected
have hardened so much that she has trouble forming certain sounds. Once
outgoing, she rarely smiles these days because of the swelling and
distortion of her lips. Since Sanchez’s treatments, her immune system
has begun to malfunction, and she suffers from oral herpes.

And, she says, “I feel ugly.”

But
while DeVine suffered in silence, Myers turned detective. Despite
growing reservations, she decided to keep a follow-up appointment she’d
made with Sanchez almost three months after her first visit. This time,
however, she went looking for answers.

As Myers entered
Sanchez’s treatment room, she noticed that a large bottle bearing a
New-Fill label sat on a tray beside several filled syringes. “I
immediately knew what the woman had meant when she’d written that
things felt wrong,” she says. “The label on the bottle was old and
soiled, as if it had been Xeroxed and just pasted on. When I told
Sanchez that I would be more comfortable if I could see him draw up the
New-Fill from a new bottle, he dismissed me, saying that he’d already
made preparations for the day. He told me he would promise to draw from
a new bottle the next time I came in. At which point I walked out,
devastated, knowing what I had to do.” Her new role in life would
become that of whistle-blower.

Finding a sympathetic ear,
however, was not easy. The doctor for whom Myers worked made calls to
the American Medical Association and the Texas Attorney General’s
Office but sensed little interest. Myers says when she contacted the
Dallas Police and Sheriff’s Department, she “got the impression that
their attitude was that I got myself into this mess, and they weren’t
interested in getting involved.”

Help, ironically, would finally
come from Sanchez’s home state. Myers saw an MSNBC exposé on the
back-alley beauty business in Florida. Enrique Torres, head of a
Department of Health Unlicensed Activities Office task force, described
myriad scams and illegal procedures being used by the so-called “beauty
doctors.” Back online, she found an article in the McAllen (Texas) Monitor
that quoted Torres. Reporter Bradley Olson had been investigating the
illegal beauty trade across the border in Mexico. Women visiting
back-alley doctors there have been injected with everything from liquid
silicone to mineral oil—even candle wax and paint thinner. But Olson’s
research had also brought him to Torres, who said such illegal
treatments were “prolific, a national problem.” Torres pointed out that
in the last three years, he and his six-man task force had arrested
more than 150 phony doctors in the Miami area alone.

So Myers
telephoned Torres and told him what was happening in Dallas. Torres
guessed that Sanchez didn’t have a license to practice medicine in
Texas, and he acknowledged the possibility that Sanchez was injecting
women with some form of silicone. Myers’ persistence paid off, and
Torres promised he would contact the proper authorities.

Soon, a
full-scale investigation was underway. It would take eight months and a
uniquely cooperative effort on the part of the Austin-based FDA, the
Texas Rangers, the Dallas Police Department, the Dallas County
Sheriff’s Department, and the Dallas County District Attorney’s office.
But bringing Sanchez to justice wouldn’t be easy.

LUIS SANCHEZ’S résumé is a Gordian knot of truths, half-truths,
and outright lies. If you believe what he told Sandy DeVine, the
59-year-old is married with a family. Myers’ first impression of him
was that he was single and likely gay. He says he was born in Cuba,
came to the United States in the early 1960s, served in the Army during
the Vietnam conflict, later earned U.S. citizenship, and is the sole
provider for aging parents who live near him in Miami, which
authorities say is true.

His professional history is more
difficult to verify. He says that after he was discharged from the
service, he attended and graduated from medical school in the Dominican
Republic, then returned to Miami and opened his practice. Later, to an
undercover officer, he said he’d actually gone to med school in Spain.
Yet Sanchez had no records to prove that he was, in fact, licensed to
practice medicine anywhere. His explanation: he’d “run out of money”
and thus had applied for board certification but never fulfilled the
routine residency requirements.

But following a nontraditional
career track did not appear to hurt his business. Sanchez had Dallas
women—and a few men—lined up in the halls, waiting to get his
injections. And investigators familiar with the case say they’d bet a
steak dinner that Dallas wasn’t the only city where Sanchez was plying
his trade. They figure Sanchez treated hundreds of women in Dallas and
perhaps thousands across the country.

Yet making a criminal case
against him proved difficult. When Richard Shing, a sergeant with the
Dallas-based Texas Rangers, took Dee Myers’ statement, his immediate
concern was finding a statute Sanchez could be charged with violating.
“One of the things I quickly learned,” Shing says, “is that the laws
that address this kind of criminal activity aren’t what they need to
be. After becoming convinced of the severe nature of the crime, we felt
the sentencing guidelines offered at the federal level—basically
nothing but a fine—wouldn’t be just punishment for what was done to
these women.”

Finally, with the help of William Brannon, a
special agent with the USFDA in Austin, Shing determined that Sanchez
was in violation of the relatively obscure Texas Occupations Code,
which regulates the licensing of everyone from plumbers and
electricians to doctors. The maximum state penalty, they learned, was
10 years in prison.

So the case was delivered to prosecutor
Bridget Eyler in the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division.
Soon, she was interviewing a lengthy procession of women who had been
treated by Sanchez. “What he did,” she says today, “was egregious.”

On
a December afternoon in 2002, a sting operation targeting Sanchez was
finally set in motion. A female Dallas Police Department undercover
agent posed as a prospective client and made an appointment for
Sanchez’s next visit to Dallas. When she showed up for her treatment,
she was wearing a hidden microphone. In the parking lot outside, Shing
and Dallas County sheriff’s deputies listened in, armed with arrest
warrants.

Another patient was already prepped with the numbing
cream when the undercover officer arrived and asked if she might watch
the procedure she was scheduled to receive. Sanchez agreed, and the
officer struck up a casual conversation, ultimately asking how long
he’d been in practice and where he was licensed. Sanchez said he’d
practiced medicine for 20 years and was licensed in Florida—but not in
Texas. Hearing that admission, Shing and the other officers made their
move.

“He was very calm about the whole thing,” Shing says.
“What we saw was the kind of charming, disarming demeanor that you
often see from con men. He was playing his game, right up to the time
we took him off to jail.”

It was during the search of the
Aesthetic Center that the investigation took an even darker turn.
Though arresting officers say that Sanchez had seen several other
patients earlier in the day, searches of a biohazard box and other
trash receptacles revealed no discarded needles. Sanchez, they believe,
was re-using needles.

“He wouldn’t admit it, wouldn’t say that he was using contaminated needles,” Shing says. “But it was pretty obvious.”

Sanchez’s
lawyer, Andrew Chatham, refutes the claim. “The woman he was preparing
to inject when he was arrested was the first patient he was to give a
treatment to that day. So it stands to reason there would be no
discarded needles at the time.” Additionally, he points out that among
the items confiscated from the room that afternoon was Sanchez’s
backpack filled with “hundreds” of unused needles.

Whether he
was re-using needles or not, Sanchez’s syringes definitely did not
contain New-Fill. FDA lab tests revealed that he had been injecting
people with an industrial-strength silicone called dimethylsiloxane.
The substance presented a variety of potential health problems, but
none are as frightening as one possibility that emerged during the
investigation. In looking for patients who had been duped by Sanchez,
Eyler interviewed a young man who confided that he had been diagnosed
with HIV prior to receiving his lip injections.

“Normally, in
the process of interviewing witnesses, you do a lot of the work by
phone,” Eyler says. “But because of the nature of the crime and the
possibility that there might have been those who were infected by
contaminated needles, I felt it my responsibility to talk with each
person face to face.” During those interviews, she urged the women to
be immediately tested for HIV.

To date, she says, all tests have
been negative. But the prosecutor admits she wonders how many women,
for whatever reason, might not have acknowledged that they’d received
treatments from Sanchez and remain unaware of the danger they may be
facing.

“One of the things that puzzled all of us,” Shing says,
“was how angry some of the women we contacted got when we tried to
explain what we’d learned. Many were very happy with their results and
told us how wonderful they thought Sanchez was.”

Despite such endorsements, Sanchez pled guilty to the charge of practicing without a license.

ASKED LAST FEBRUARY TO TESTIFY about her experiences during
Sanchez’s sentencing hearing, Sandy DeVine arrived in District Judge
Mark Nancarrow’s courtroom to find it filled with women. Each had been
a patient of the phony doctor. The hard, wooden benches were occupied
by housewives and corporate executives, even a couple of psychiatrists,
ranging in age from early 20s to 60s. “I was stunned,” DeVine says.

Yet
those present, Eyler says, represented only a small percentage of the
victims she’d found during her investigation. Eyler says she became
more personally involved in the case than with any other she’d
prosecuted. “I’ve never had a case that affected so many people,” she
says. “These women were not only lied to and put in danger, but
ultimately made to feel as if they had done something wrong, that
somehow they were to blame for what had happened.”

The daylong
hearing, at which Sanchez was sentenced to five years in prison,
painted a disturbing picture. Dr. James Thornton, a plastic surgeon and
faculty member at UT Southwestern Medical Center, took the witness
stand to explain the dangers to which the women had been exposed. He
reminded the court that the use of silicone for breast implants had
been banned in the United States after it had been shown to spread to
other parts of the body. The liquid form, he said, does the same and is
virtually impossible to remove once injected. It can cause pain,
scarring, and disfigurement.

Eyler says one woman who was
injected by Sanchez has undergone two surgeries in an attempt to remove
the painful knots that formed in her mouth. Another former patient has
irritating, incurable rashes. And there are other women too embarrassed
to confide even to husbands and friends what they had done. Eyler
worries the most, though, that the results of some woman’s next HIV
test might be bad news.

Still, throughout the hearing, Sanchez
repeatedly insisted he was, in fact, a doctor. “Just not a licensed
doctor,” he said. And he testified that his unnamed Brazilian supplier
had assured him he was purchasing New-Fill, never a silicone-based
product, for his patients. Defense attorney Chatham, who advised
Sanchez not to talk with D Magazine, says that his client
feels bad that women have been hurt yet insists that it was never his
intent to harm anyone. “He got conned,” Chatham says. “What
unfortunately happened was that Sanchez was sold counterfeit New-Fill
by his supplier and unintentionally used the silicone product on his
patients.”

Because Sanchez had no previous felony record and his
sentence was less than 10 years, Chatham says he can apply for “shock
probation” for his client. Were it to be granted, Sanchez could soon be
a free man. Meanwhile, there is also talk that he may soon hire an
appellate lawyer to contest the length of his sentence.

For
prosecutor Eyler, then, the fight is not over. She’s prepared to argue
against a motion for any form of probation or sentence reduction. And,
in late April, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Gail Burch and Jheri
McMillian, the women who arranged appointments with Sanchez, for their
roles in promoting and assisting his nonlicensed practice. The crime
they are charged with carries two to 10 years in prison and fines of up
to $10,000.

Burch, who is now listed along with Sanchez in a
civil lawsuit filed by Dallas attorney Donald Schmidt Jr. on Sandy
DeVine’s behalf, did not return calls. McMillian offers a prepared
statement: “I’m deeply saddened and angered at [Sanchez’s]
misrepresentation.” However, she went on to say that Sanchez had
injected her lips and that she was very pleased with the results. “His
work was impeccable, and I have no fear of any untoward effects,” she
says.

Sanchez would be happy to hear it. Preparing to testify
during his sentencing hearing, he looked out into the galley at bench
after bench filled with women who’d come to seek justice for what he’d
done to their faces. They met him with cold, angry stares. Sanchez took
the stand, and, spreading his arms wide in a gesture to demonstrate
bewilderment at his legal difficulties, said, “You’re all beautiful
women. All I see is beautiful women.”

Carlton Stowers is a two-time winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for the year’s best true-crime book.

Photos: Tadd Myers