Carlos Chaves, Mall Surgeon

Sure, an unlicensed doctor was performing liposuction at a hair salon. Stranger still: Clients kept showing up.

In Florida and California cosmetic surgery is moving toward the hospital, away from the shopping mall. But no such laws are being debated in Texas, and in Houston, the city that invented both the atrium mall and the silicone breast implant, the two still seem destined to converge.

Town & Country Mall was less than thrilled about its position in the movement's vanguard -- backroom surgery doesn't fit well with the mall's upscale image -- and expressed its official disapproval of Switch and Chaves last month after the police raid. According to the mall's general manager, Robert Nguyen, unlicensed cosmetic surgery constitutes a violation of Switch's lease, and the mall asked the salon to leave. Switch hired a lawyer and expressed its desire to stay at Town & Country.

But by early November the salon was gone. The red neon sign had disappeared; the dance music had stopped thumping. Only one trace remained: WALK-INS WELCOME, the window still proclaimed, the ghostly white letters formed by glue that refused to be scraped away.

"The doctor": Even in his mug shot, Carlos Chaves looked the part.
Houston Police Department
"The doctor": Even in his mug shot, Carlos Chaves looked the part.

According to mall scuttlebutt, the salon's owner, Victor Rodriguez, maintained that he had done nothing wrong, that he'd only sublet space to Chaves and didn't know anything about surgeries. That line of argument seems thin: Bald, gruff Rodriguez was a frequent presence at the salon, seen there often by mall employees. Could he really not have known what Chaves was doing? And could he have missed Switch's own ad in Buena Suerte?

Rodriguez declined to explain himself, but in the process, revealed something of his character. "How much money you have for me?" he asked. "How much money you offer?" Told the answer was none, he replied, "Then no story for you." At the mall, everything has its price.

On October 15 Carlos Chaves appeared before Harris County's 248th District Court. He was wearing the orange jumpsuit issued to prisoners of the county jail, but still, he carried himself erect, like a doctor, and his hair looked freshly trimmed. He listened stoically as a woman in a leopard-skin blouse translated into Spanish the charges against him: delivery of a controlled substance, unlawful practice of medicine.

The judge set his bail at $55,000, but Chaves remains in the Harris County Jail. His lawyer Schaffer explains that had Chaves bonded out, he'd immediately have been shipped back to Miami.

Because Chaves is here, the State of Florida has agreed to delay the trial of him and his co-defendants, Alfred and Mayra Vazquez. Both Vazquezes were charged with practicing medicine without a license and grand theft in the third degree; Alfred was additionally charged with petty theft. Both are out on bond.

It's hard to say how the Vazquezes have been occupying their time as they await trial. Alfred's lawyer declines to comment on the case, and the lawyer listed by the court as Mayra's says that the listing was an accident, that he has never even met her. Dial the number that the Vazquezes told police was their home phone, and you reach an answering machine that, in English and Spanish, offers to take messages for "Aesthetic and Beauty Alternative Medical Corporation." Or you get a woman who speaks little English, but enough to say the Vazquezes will be back in the morning. Or you get a man who answers the phone "Aesthetic and Beauty" and claims that the number belongs only to a business, that he has never heard of the Vazquezes.

Chaves, of course, remains in the Harris County Jail. At press time, Ted Wilson, the prosecutor handling Chaves's case, expected to send one charge, practicing medicine without a license, before a grand jury early this week. The other charge, distributing narcotics, will have to wait for a lab analysis of the pills given to the undercover cop.

In the meantime, an HPD freezer holds the case's most unsettling pieces of evidence: the two bags of human fat that cops seized in their raid. Says Sergeant Osterberg, "The guys in the property room are probably not real happy about it."

Of course, nobody ever wants fat; the question is how to get rid of it. Carlos Chaves offered an answer -- at the mall! in an hour! -- that should have seemed obviously too good to be true. But in the mall, and in cosmetic-surgery ads, nothing is ever too good to be true; transformation is just around the corner, and safety isn't something you have to worry about. Instead of asking questions, clients booked appointments and paid in cash. What Chaves did was almost certainly dangerous and illegal, but he obeyed the first rule of mall success: He offered customers something they wanted.

Research assistance in Miami provided by Miami New Times writing fellow Victor Cruz.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisa.gray@houstonpress.com.

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