What to Know
The I-Team reviewed the cases of more than two dozen recent deaths and serious injuries from silicone injections.
No silicone is FDA approved for body contouring or enhancement.
Hospitals are not required to notify the FDA or any other law enforcement agency when a victim comes in.
An illegal cosmetic procedure is on the rise in the Washington, D.C., metro area and across the U.S., but the News4 I-Team found investigators often don't pick up the trail until after someone dies.
The I-Team reviewed the cases of more than two dozen recent deaths and serious injuries from silicone injections and uncovered a pattern of missed warnings. In many of the cases, other victims had gone to hospitals with serious medical problems, sometimes years earlier.
But doctors who treated those patients were not required to call police, even though all silicone injections for body contouring are illegal.
"I think one of the saddest things is that when someone goes to the hospital to get treatment for something going wrong, medical professionals don't have to report that this is being done," said Taylor Chandler.
She told the I-Team she thought silicone injections were safe when she started getting shots to enhance parts of her body in her late teens.
"I had silicone injected into my hips and buttocks. I had it in my lips, my cheeks, my chin," said Taylor. "I remember being so excited. I just couldn't wait."
She'd been working as a model and said she first heard about the procedure from her close friend Deanna Roberts.
Taylor said Roberts not only got silicone shots but later started buying the oily liquid and injecting it into others, including Taylor.
"The results were amazing, and you couldn't really tell you'd had work done," Taylor said.
But then she started hearing about the problems — botched procedures with serious deformities — or worse, patients showing up at hospitals around the country with silicone that had traveled through their bloodstream to their lungs.
Lateasha Shuntel never made it to the hospital. Shuntel posted on Facebook in November 2015, thanking Deanna Roberts for "filling her completely up." Shuntel was found dead in her home the next day.
"It's a very, very sad, tragic case," said Cathy Hermsen, acting director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations.
"Individuals have been lied to and told that they are getting an approved FDA product and it's being administered by a medical professional, when in fact it is not," added Hermsen.
FDA investigators found Roberts traveled to Shuntel's home in Georgia and injected her buttocks with industrial-grade silicone.
They said Roberts had ordered at least 178 gallons of the product from an Arizona business and injected hundreds of victims over the years.
"It didn't get reported."
"We know there were instances where people were hospitalized and it didn't get reported," said Hermsen. "Sometimes it's not readily attributable to the silicone. Individuals don't realize what's caused their illness."
The FDA acknowledges it doesn't know the total number of deaths or injuries from silicone injections, and representatives from the agency were not aware of any entity that tracks all of the cases.
The News4 I-Team identified at least two dozen cases in recent years, including several in the D.C. metro area, where people died, or nearly died, after getting silicone injections.
Vinnie Taylor is serving 14 years in federal prison after a woman he injected in a Prince George's County hotel room died a few days later. FDA investigators determined that Taylor had purchased 152 gallons of commercial-grade silicone between 2008 and 2014. They calculated his proceeds from more than 3,000 silicone injection sessions at approximately $1.5 million.
"I just passed out and I woke up 15 days later on life support in the hospital," a Virginia man named Jermaine told the NBC station in Raleigh. He did not want to be identified further but said he got his silicone injections from a woman in North Carolina who has since pleaded guilty in the death of a teen she injected in early 2017.
Kendra Westmoreland also pleaded guilty last year, admitting she injected silicone into thousands of clients between 2000 and 2015. Prosecutors say the Maryland woman told clients she was a licensed medical professional and that she was injecting medical-grade silicone that was FDA approved for the procedure.
In fact, no silicone is FDA approved for body contouring or enhancement. The only FDA-approved injectable silicone is silicone oil used for specific treatment of a condition inside the eye.
However, the agency is aware that misuse of silicone is on the rise across the U.S. and recently issued a warning to consumers.
If you are aware of someone injecting silicone for body contouring, report it to the FDA here.
No 'Safe' Silicone
"To admit to doing something so black market was embarrassing to me," said Taylor, who said she knows dozens of people locally who've tried silicone injections, and several have suffered dangerous medical consequences.
Those medical conditions are often reported as "complications," but the FDA said they aren't complications of the procedure; they should be expected.
"There is no 'safe' type of liquid silicone for body contouring," said Dr. Jacqueline Francis, an FDA medical officer. "Any silicone loosely in the body can cause damage and can cause death and serious injury."
The FDA said even medical-grade silicone is dangerous when misused for body enhancement, especially in the buttocks.
"It's really a challenge to inject in that area and miss a blood vessel," said Dr. Francis.
The I-Team found plenty of websites selling industrial grade silicone with no questions asked, and ordered several gallons.
The company Deanna Roberts used to supply her silicone did require a signature on an affidavit swearing the liquid silicone would not be injected into any areas of the human body.
Investigators said Roberts signed that form too, which helped in her prosecution.
"It did, it did. In our case, it showed intent on the part of Deanna Roberts," said Hermsen.
Roberts is serving 11 years in federal prison.
"This could be anybody."
At her sentencing, witnesses testified several of Roberts' clients had gone to the hospital with serious medical consequences years before Lateasha Shuntel's death.
But the I-Team found even though all cosmetic silicone injections are illegal, hospitals are not required to notify the FDA or any other law enforcement agency when a victim comes in.
"It would be very helpful to have the information," said Hermsen, "These individuals that are operating in these criminal operations don't want to be found out about. They're trying to keep things very secretive."
She said often investigators don't get called until someone has already died, which can still happen years after the injections if the silicone travels through the body.
"I really believe that it needs to be looked into it further so if someone does come in the hospital, doctors are required to alert local authorities," said Taylor.
He said the same should be true for plastic surgeons, whose patients want illegal silicone removed.
She's now spent roughly $50,000 on painful surgeries to remove as much of it as she can now that she knows how dangerous it can be.
"This could be anybody -- your sister, your mother, your brother, your uncle," she said. "I just think, 'If only I'd never had it done, I could have saved myself so much time and effort.' But I wanted that perfection that so many women do."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.