Armani Nicole Davenport struts toward the stripper pole. A Wonder Woman-themed cape, bedazzled in shiny stars and stripes, drapes over her back as she swaggers to center stage. She halts to glare at the DJ. Her song is stalled.
The Dallas Southern Pride finale — starring lip-synching drag queens performing R&B ballads, frenetic dance routines and stripteases — is suddenly silent.
Teanna McIntosh, the event's bombastic play-caller and resident $3 Long Island iced tea guzzler, lambastes the sound guy. "C'mon now!" she hounds as he fumbles behind the booth.
It's 2:30 a.m., but Davenport remains unfazed. She's a striking presence at more than 6 feet tall (if you count her buoyant black wig and ruby-red heels) and 200-plus pounds. For 15 years, she's dominated Southern drag pageants (she's the current title holder of "Miss Duval Plus," a pageant system catering to the African-American community), and even as Beyonce's "Superpower" skips a few seconds in to the song, Davenport doesn't miss a beat, mouthing the lyrics expertly, sashaying to the main dance floor to perform under a disco ball. She comes off as a seasoned actress with a knack for theater.
The late crowd at The Brick & Joe's, a small gay bar in a strip mall on the outskirts of downtown Dallas, bursts into applause. A hail of dollar bills follows.
In Dallas, as she was in New Orleans, Davenport is a popular entertainer. But in New Orleans, Davenport is known in court papers under her birth name: Larry Tremell Bernard, currently charged with negligent homicide and out of jail on a $100,000 bond. Authorities believe Davenport is responsible for administering a black market silicone injection that killed a transgender person, 25-year-old Brenisha Hall, in Gert Town earlier this year.
Davenport, 33, has continued flashing her assets onstage since Hall's death, winning the international MBU (Miss Black Universe) competition earlier this month. She's due back in New Orleans Criminal Court Section A this week for a hearing before Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White, who likely will set a trial date.
Death and disfigurement from black market silicone injections have led to dozens of convictions elsewhere, some with severe penalties. In September, Tracey Lynn Garner, 54, of Jackson, Mississippi, was convicted and given a life sentence for "depraved heart murder" (a legal term representing a disregard for human life) after injecting black market silicone into the buttocks of Karima Gordon, 37, who died from complications of the injection.
Hall's death and the subsequent charges against Davenport are considered by legal observers to be the first case of its kind in New Orleans. If Davenport is convicted, one of New Orleans' most celebrated drag entertainers could spend five years behind bars.
However, it's possible for a person convicted of negligent homicide to be sentenced only to probation — meaning Davenport could avoid jail altogether.
Born Brad Hall, Brenisha was troubled from a young age. At 5, she was sent to the Wagner School for Special Needs in Avondale. She was a slow learner with a violent temper. Hall broke glass windows and smashed jars of jelly in her mother's kitchen. She got into physical confrontations at school. At 7, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"If you're a transsexual you feel like you were born in the wrong body. You cannot stand to see yourself in the mirror, especially if you look at your full body. You want to be more like your target gender."
— Elizabeth Jenkins, president, Louisiana Trans Advocates
When her family moved to a Garden Drive apartment on the West Bank, her struggles with aggression and her inability to make friends remained. But then Hall started wearing her sister Lashey's dresses and borrowing her fake nails to play dress-up. Hall felt calmer.
Hall continued wearing girls' clothing, wigs and makeup as a teenager. But after junior high was over, she refused to go to high school. Hall wanted to be a woman more than anything else. School got in the way.
"He said he wanted to become a woman completely. His body didn't feel like a man's," his mother, Lessie Hall, 50, says from her home in Spring, Texas. "He desired to be a woman because he never wanted to be a boy — period.
"I used to tell him it's not right. 'You're a boy,' I said. I took him to church ... he got baptized. He finally said, 'You have to deal with it.' I had mixed emotions, but I accepted him. I loved him."
With lipstick, stilettos, dresses and women's hairstyles, Hall felt like her true self, even when others reacted with shock and disdain. "People didn't want him around like that," Lessie Hall says. "People didn't want him dressing that way around their kids, around their husbands. ... They didn't like that."
Dressed up, though, Hall was more confident and secure. Eventually she met others who had similar gender identity struggles. The cross-dressing also assuaged some of the behavioral and social problems. "He finally was able to have friends, a lot of friends," Lessie Hall says. "It made him feel better."
Hall moved beyond wearing women's clothing. She had "Brenisha" tattooed on her back and assumed the name full time at age 16; friends and family began calling her "Bree." But to obtain a woman's body, Hall needed to go beyond padded clothing; she needed a physical transformation.
Lacking cash for plastic surgery, Brenisha Hall migrated to the medical black market of New Orleans.
The procedure Hall found was administered through a tire inflator, available at hardware stores, which dispenses industrial-grade silicone. This tool has become known on the medical black market to give curves to those seeking thicker hips, firmer breasts and full-figured posteriors — a low-cost alternative to traditional plastic surgery.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned liquid silicone injections in 1992 and they're not approved in America for cosmetic surgeries. Although research on this topic is sparse, a 2006 study by the Radiological Society of North America shed light on dangers posed by illegal liquid silicone surgeries: 11 people died from silicone pulmonary embolism in a 44-person study that spanned 15 years. All reported suffering from respiratory problems.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA do not keep data on deaths caused by illegal cosmetic injections, so it's impossible to know if more cases have occurred, especially since the illicit surgeries are done in the shadows.
American doctors don't perform buttocks injections. But they did perform 3,380 legal butt lifts and implant procedures in 2013, at a cost of more than $15.5 million, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The average fee for a legal butt implant is $4,670.
At 21, Hall began undergoing liquid silicone operations at $200 per injection — a standard rate on the black market. The physical alchemy started with her cheeks, then moved to her breasts. The changes were a rebirth, her mother says, and Brenisha continued seeking out more surgeries to take on a female form.
Davenport, well-known in drag circles for touring Louisiana, Texas and Georgia as a performer, had danced on New Orleans stages for more than a decade. Offstage, Davenport was reputed to plump up hips, breasts and bottoms as a back-alley silicone surgeon, according to those in the transgender community.
Hall heard about Davenport from people in New Orleans' drag community and befriended a "patient" named Troy Smith, who took on the persona "Milan." Hall was convinced Davenport could help firm up her buttocks and hips.
Elizabeth Jenkins is president of Louisiana Trans Advocates (LTA), a 500-member group with six chapters across the state. She says transgender women turn to the medical black market out of heartache and longing.
"If you're a transsexual, you feel like you were born in the wrong body," she says. "You cannot stand to see yourself in the mirror, especially if you look at your full body. You want to be more like your target gender. The female transsexual — from male to female — wants to be softer and to have curves, not only breasts, but the cheeks, thighs and hips."
Jenkins says a full transition takes about seven years. This includes taking hormones and blockers (hormones to quell natural hormones), mental health therapy, "real-time living" as the other gender, constant checkups with doctors and more. Because of the time and money required, some desperate people turn to "pumping parties," which are typically orchestrated by those who are not licensed. Medical-grade silicone is rarely used and sometimes is replaced with Home Depot caulking.
"Not everyone can afford the money it takes to go with the hormonal route of transitioning," Jenkins says. "And if you have the surgery, it's $20,000. ... Nothing covers it. You're out of pocket on that. The idea of coming up with all that money is very difficult. People are looking for shortcuts."
On Oct. 24, 2013, authorities allege, Davenport showed up at Smith's Gert Town apartment to insert black market silicone into Hall's hips and buttocks. Hall, Smith, Davenport and an unnamed "helper" turned Smith's two-story brick flat on South Salcedo Street into a makeshift operating room. The procedure was done around 1:15 a.m. Nothing seemed unusual at first. Smith stayed with Hall for nearly two hours before leaving at 3 a.m.
When Smith returned around 5 a.m., Brenisha Hall was struggling to breathe, police said. Paramedics rushed Hall to Interim LSU Hospital where she fell unconscious. Detectives from the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) visited Hall's hospital room the next day.
NOPD 1st District Det. Leonard Marlborough testified that Dr. Peter DeBlieux, the emergency room director, gave Hall a 20 percent chance of pulling through. The silicone already had been carried into her lungs, hardening and choking off oxygen flow, nearly shutting down her system entirely, the detective was told. Lashey Hall, Brenisha's sister, said doctors later told the family that Hall had actual "steel" in her body and that "it was unbelievable for [Hall] to be living with it."
Nearly a week after the injections, Smith pointed out Davenport in two separate six-person lineups at NOPD's 6th District precinct — one all-male group, the other all-female. On Oct. 31, Smith wrote she was "100 percent sure this is Armani." NOPD Det. Edward Johnson secured a warrant for Davenport's arrest the following day.
Meanwhile, Hall was comatose for weeks, hooked up to a ventilator and nearly motionless. In the following days and weeks, Hall underwent a series of medical procedures, including CAT scans, blood transfusions and dialysis. She never regained consciousness.
On Christmas Eve, knowing Hall was dying, Lessie Hall flew to New Orleans. She wanted somebody to be held accountable. "This is a homicide," she recalls telling NOPD detectives at the time.
Hall died on New Year's Day 2014, due to complications resulting from the botched procedure.
Doctors at the hospital that performed the initial autopsy ruled that Hall died of "natural causes." After poring over thousands of pages of medical records, the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office eventually agreed with Lessie Hall and labeled the death a homicide.
Davenport, who initially was hit with a negligent injury charge, was now suspected of killing Hall.
"He [Davenport] wanted [Hall] to die," Lessie Hall says. "He missed the muscle and shot Brad in the vein. If it would have been an accident, he would have went to the hospital, he would have called, he would have showed remorse, he would have said, 'Sorry.' You do this to a lot of people, and all of a sudden you don't know what you're doing? He killed him. And he's going to kill others."
On Oct. 24, Larry Bernard, aka Armani Nicole Davenport, sat in the third row of New Orleans Criminal Court for a pre-trial hearing. She leaned forward in the pew-like seat as if in silent prayer, her head bowed for several minutes. Beneath a mop of frizzy black hair with reddish tips, a leopard's head stared out from the back of her dress. She was accompanied by her mother Rita, 61.
Det. Johnson told the court he knew of Davenport's role in the late-night operation a year before. Smith had told Johnson that she and Hall had known Davenport, whom they both called "Armani" or "Mani," for several years and that both had received similar injections from Davenport in the past without any complications.
Davenport has no previous criminal record in Louisiana. In Texas, she racked up a couple of misdemeanors in 2013, both related to alleged theft of dresses at a discount retail chain, "1/2 of 1/2 Name Brand Clothing." Both cases are pending.
Gambit attempted to talk with Davenport in the two months prior to her October court appearance, but interview requests were ignored. Two days after her performance at The Brick & Joe's, Gambit attempted to talk with Davenport in person. At a gated community outside Dallas, which Davenport listed in court papers as "T & T Fashion" (a place of employment where she worked in "makeup" for five years, according to those court papers), she answered her door, clad in a white tank top and tight black pants, but refused an interview. "You have the wrong number," she said.
A day later, Davenport's mother also turned down an interview request at her Baton Rouge home, referring Gambit to Gail Horne Ray, Davenport's lawyer. Ray said she was "unable" to discuss details of the case.
A friend who has known Davenport for nearly a dozen years and has performed on the same stages insists on her innocence.
"She's a God-fearing individual. She would never do any wrong to anyone," says Roger Jackson, 27, of Dallas, whose stage name is Kaniyah Ross Davenport (several Dallas drag queens have the last name Davenport). "The New Orleans Police Department is making her out to be a killer. The things they're accusing her of — none of it we understand. She's a good person. She's distraught. At the end of the day, I can't say whatever happened. I just know she's innocent."
Jackson refers to Armani as "den mother" of the "House of Davenport," a Dallas-based drag collective that practices routines weekly. Its members also take up causes such as AIDS fundraisers. When a mass text message about Hall's death circulated through the House of Davenport group earlier this year, Jackson says Davenport was stunned.
"When I met with Armani and explained what was sent to me about the death, I went to her and showed her and she burst out crying," Jackson says. "It just cost her dignity and respect. She's lost."
"[Davenport]'s a God-fearing individual. She would never do any wrong to anyone. ... At the end of the day, I can't say whatever happened. I just know she's innocent."
— Roger Jackson, aka Kaniyah Ross Davenport
Jackson also has a theory about what she calls "the real murderer." At the time of Hall's death, she says, Davenport had been gearing up for a major pageant, MBU (aka Miss Black Universe), and Jackson argues the real killer (whom she refused to name) tried to stifle Davenport's chances of victory by scapegoating Davenport for Hall's death.
"There's a title [Davenport] was hoping to capture for eight years, and it seemed funny, as soon as she talked about competing in it, this happens," Jackson says. "We believe she was set up by someone. We hope and pray that the real murderer is captured."
A source with knowledge of the case who is active in the New Orleans drag world told Gambit Davenport was determined to win the MBU crown. Despite the homicide investigation, the contest consumed her full attention. When she won Nov. 2, she was ecstatic and seemingly undaunted by the impending homicide case.
"She feels like she's a trained professional and that she's done nothing wrong," says the source, who spoke to Gambit on the condition of anonymity. "She says that all the young performers come up to her asking for the operations and she's not responsible if they go wrong. She's on the top of the world now.
"She's Miss Black Universe. That's all she ever wanted to do."
The homicide rap Davenport faces in New Orleans is a tough one to prosecute, according to legal observers with whom Gambit spoke. A high-ranking source who works at Orleans Criminal District Court, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Louisiana is not quite equipped to handle the specifics of the case.
"She [Davenport] may only have to serve 40 percent of her sentence with good behavior, if she even serves any time at all," says the source, who's followed the case closely. "But it's probatable, so she might not do any time. The state has not accounted for this sort of homicide charge."
Dane Ciolino, a professor at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, says negligent homicide cases in Louisiana typically involve cars and alcohol, not street surgeons and liquid silicone. "It's the first time I've heard of it," he says.
NOPD spokesman Frank Robertson also says this type of case was never a blip on the department's radar before. "It's a first for us," he says.
Nevertheless, deaths from black-market silicone injections to the buttocks have been reported in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada and New York in the past few years.
In the Jackson, Mississippi, conviction in September, the victim's family asked for a maximum sentence so Garner "will not be able to do this to any other person." They also wanted to set a precedent: "Tracey Garner is still alive and should not be allowed to enjoy the things that we or Karima won't, so we ask the court to render the maximum sentence possible, to send a message to everyone out there giving these illegal injections that it is a crime and they can end up right where Tracey Garner is today."
Brenisha Hall's family believes that if Davenport goes free, the result will be more deaths from black-market silicone.
Davenport is "living like nothing ever happened," Lessie Hall says. "He's a monster. He needs to be taken off the street so no more people die. I want him brought to justice so he doesn't hurt others.
"He never stopped being active during the whole thing. He's still going to be doing his pageants. He's still injecting people, and he probably won't even go to jail for it."
Jenkins said the LTA will honor Hall on the Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20), a nationwide event to memorialize transgender people who were murdered and attacked in the last year. She empathizes with Hall and others like her.
"It's just not about sexual orientation, it's 100 percent about gender orientation," Jenkins says. "The whole idea that people die or get murdered for being themselves is something they have no control over. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. We get murdered, we commit suicide, 41 percent of us attempt to kill ourselves.
"The fact that we try to make it work and resort to such things as injecting industrial-grade silicone into our bodies and having it go to our hearts, brains and internal organs is absolutely horrible."
— Henrick Karoliszyn is a New Orleans-based writer. His website is www.henrickkaroliszyn.com.