By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Craig Malisow
Switch, though, didn't whisper. Its sign glowed in red neon; a beat-heavy dance mix, the stuff of nightclubs, pulsated from its speakers; a sign facing the mall atrium trumpeted low prices. If Switch belonged in Town & Country Mall at all, you figured, it was down at the livelier JCPenney end, where the promises are shouted rather than whispered, and those promises are not just of transformation, but of transformation at a bargain price.
On the morning of Tuesday, October 5, Liz Mihalco kept her appointment at Switch -- an appointment not for transformation itself, but to discuss transformation. Like many of Switch's customers, she greeted the receptionist in Spanish. She was directed past the stylists to the back of the salon, to the back rooms used for massages and facials and other, more private, services.
Back there, Mihalco talked with salon worker Nellie Eleftherton. Like the shoppers who glide past Switch, Eleftherton had obviously put thought into her appearance, but her style was less W than Low Rider. She wore a minidress and sandals; her hair was big and showy, permed and blond-streaked; her unnaturally full lips formed a pillowy bowtie worthy of a cartoon character or porn star.
In Spanish, Eleftherton asked Mihalco who'd referred her, and what procedure that person had undergone; Mihalco's answer must have been good enough, because she was then introduced to "the doctor." And 40-year-old Carlos Chaves looked the part: His salt-and-pepper hair was cut well, and he wore his green scrubs with the authority of a surgeon.
Surgery was what Mihalco had come to discuss. Chaves showed her a book of before-and-after photos of previous clients: eyelids, implants, lipo. Mihalco told him that she'd had four children, and asked him to look at her waist. He recommended "liposculpture," a procedure he said would take an hour, could be done there in the salon with local anesthetic and drugs for her nerves, and would cost $2,000, payable in cash. They set up an appointment for 4 p.m. the following Tuesday -- not earlier, he said, because he'd be performing lipo on another patient, one who was more seriously obese, and he expected that procedure to take three hours.
As you might expect, Chaves isn't exactly a doctor -- at least, not a doctor licensed to practice in Texas or anywhere else in the U.S. But likewise, Mihalco wasn't really a would-be liposuction client: She's an undercover officer with the Houston Police Department.
At the appointed time, Mihalco returned to Switch, this time with hidden police backup. She was given pills, and after she handed over $2,000 in unmarked bills, she signaled for the raid to begin. About a dozen officers rushed into Switch, herding its stylists and customers, some with suds or chemicals in their hair, to the front of the salon.
The spectacle proved irresistible. Local TV news stations dispatched camera crews; mall employees poured out of their stores, hanging over the upstairs balcony railing to watch the minidrama. Police handcuffed Chaves and the salon's bald owner, Victor Rodriguez. The pair hid their faces as officers led them through the mall promenade, and later that night the TV screen was dominated by Rodriguez's smooth scalp. But Rodriguez was not arrested, only taken in for questioning. Eleftherton and Chaves, though, were both arrested. Eleftherton was charged with improper disposal of biohazardous waste; Chaves, with practicing medicine without a license and distributing a controlled substance.
In back of the salon, police found Chaves's previous lipo client, and paramedics hustled her into an ambulance, to be checked out at Ben Taub. (Emergency-room doctors said she was fine and released her.) The room where the woman had been also contained syringes, bloody cloths and the piece of evidence that disgusted even the most hardened cops: two plastic bags of human fat, between seven and eight pounds of it.
Sergeant Doug Osterberg, the lead investigator on the case, had seen some strange cases in his 24 years as a Houston cop. But this -- this, he says, was special.
Special, yes; it's not every day you hear about lipo in the mall. But perhaps the strangest thing about the case of Carlos Chaves is that it isn't an isolated News of the Weird incident, a blip on the screen, an investigation of a lone wacko. What's strangest of all is that Carlos Chaves may simply be ahead of the curve -- on the cutting edge, so to speak, of cosmetic surgery. Like Switch in Town & Country Mall, he seems only a little out of place, only a little more dangerous and shameless than some legitimate cosmetic surgeons.