Save lots of money and get really skinny. It's a compelling offer that's tempting thousands of people who are told: Weight loss surgery in Mexico is safe.
That wasn't true for Jessica Ballandby. On Tuesday, two years after ABC15 first broke the story, a multi-million dollar, class-action lawsuit was filed. It claims Jessica was deceived by an Arizona woman who recruited patients for doctors in Tijuana.
In the first part of our exclusive investigation (in the player above), we have the terrifying warnings from patients nationwide, including Jessica, who says she was butchered and left for dead. Horror stories.
"I look like Frankenstein in my stomach," one patient claims.
Packed with jaw-dropping details.
Of unimaginable pain and excruciating loss.
All blamed on Dr. Mario Almanza, who touts himself as the leading weight loss surgeon south of the border.
"It's like a pig farm. That's what he's treating human beings over there like. Just like a pig, slaughtering them," says Jessica Ballandby. She wanted to get weight loss surgery to be healthy.
"I was thinking long term effects of being able to support my two kids," she explains.
Jessica admits she didn't think twice about crossing the border for surgery.
"It's over 12-15 grand here in the United States." And that wasn't a possibility for her.
Jessica says the gastric sleeve procedure came highly recommended, "Like 60 people I knew from Show Low had gone down there."
They were all referred by Sandy Brimhall from Snowflake, Arizona, who admitted in a 2015 interview aired on ABC15, she collected $250 for people she sent to surgeons in Tijuana. "I've brought close to 300 people down here," Sandy said.
She raved about Dr. Almanza. When Jessica researched him online, she discovered the Medical Tourism company, Weight Loss Agents. The company's website features hundreds of happy patients who enthusiastically endorse Dr. Almanza. Jessica says she trusted what she thought was an official recommendation.
"I had no reason not to believe them. I had no reason not to believe Sandy either," explains Jessica.
But, the real story is written in the fine print under the "Terms" section. It says Weight Loss Agents is not a medical referral service and does not endorse, recommend or approve any... healthcare provider... listed in this site."
Weight Loss Agents is not named in the class-action suit. But, Sandy is -- for $3 Million. She didn't have a disclaimer.
Jessica scheduled the $4,700 Gastric Sleeve procedure with Alamanza. But, never expected what would happen next.
"I woke up from surgery and I was feeling the most pain I'd ever felt in my life," Jessica says.
But, her complications got even worse.
"You could literally take my hoodie and ring it out & blood was dripping from it. I'm thinking what the heck is going on with me? I'm going to die over here and never see my family again," Jessica remembers.
Somehow, she survived the trip home to Show Low, Arizona, which is where we met her family. They shared the horrifying details from when they knew something was wrong.
"She was falling over, she couldn't walk, she really couldn't even talk or eat or anything," her son Mitch Ballandby says.
Jessica's mom, Becky Leech, says she prepared for the worst.
"It was like she was dead. She wasn't coherent," she explains.
A trip to the emergency room delivered devastating news. "My spleen's been cut," Jessica explains. "He said you're bleeding internally,"
"She had a massive, massive infection inside her body," Jessica's mom remembers.
Surgery after surgery, week after week, doctors tried to fix Jessica, but her stomach had been shredded.
Her mom was distraught. "He ruined her. We have no guarantee of what her life is going to be like.”
Jessica was 31-years-old when she went to Mexico. She weighed 251 pounds. Now, she weighs 102 pounds and she just keeps losing. It's a dangerous reality.
"I feel like I'm 64 years old," says Jessica. "My body hurts every single day."
And, the weight isn't the only thing she's lost. Jessica thumbs through stacks of papers, reading the numbers aloud, " $16,403.40. $19,110. $100,993.91..."
It's close to half a million dollars. "Maybe a little less, maybe a little more," Jessica says.
None of it is covered by insurance because she chose to have surgery in Mexico. Their stance: if you pay for your surgery, you pay for your problems.
"People are putting their whole entire faith into this and it's the end of their lives," Jessica says. "I can't die. My boys need me. They're my world."
We've confirmed: 4 Americans have died after having weight loss surgery with Dr. Almanza.
We called his office in Tijana and they said the unhappy patients featured in this story were bribed by a disgruntled employee who wants to ruin the doctor's reputation.
Almanza is not part of this class-action lawsuit. But, Sandy Brimhall is. In part two of our exclusive investigation, we uncover her shocking sales pitch and why an Arizona school district is being sued for $10 Million because of what she did.
PART TWO (in the player above):
Traveling to Mexico for weight loss surgery. Would you consider it? Thousands have done it - hundreds from Arizona - including Jessica Ballandby. She's part of this multi-million dollar lawsuit, filed Tuesday, in Maricopa County. The suit claims she was deceived by an Arizona woman who recruited new patients for doctors in Tijuana.
In the second part of our exclusive investigation, we uncover her shocking sales pitch and why an Arizona school district is being sued for $10 Million because of what she did.
"They're completely gone."
Jessica Ballandby covers her mouth and starts to cry. She has complications from weight loss surgery in Mexico. She throws up frequently and doctors say the acid from her stomach has caused her teeth to fall apart.
"How could I ever even move on and even be with somebody? Like, try to find yourself attractive when you look like that," Jessica says as tears roll down her face.
The emotions are overwhelming. Embarrassment... and anger directed at the woman who convinced her she'd be safe going to Mexico for weight loss surgery. "I was 10 times healthier and prettier when I was bigger. I'd do anything to go back."
But, she can't and that's why she hired Attorney Robert Gregory, who filed this lawsuit on her behalf. It claims Sandy recruited and preyed upon people like Jessica, who were desperate to lose weight, but, either didn't qualify for surgery in the United States or simply couldn't afford it.
Gregory says Sandy made big promises: "It would be a quick in and out. There would be no lasting effects. The surgeries would be done by doctors who are qualified and competent. But, that's not what happened."
We have evidence of her sales pitch because Sandy was a school principal in Show Low and used her district email to recruit new patients for surgeons in Mexico.
A simple open records request got us a rare look inside Sandy's operation.
The Emails reveal: she recruited hundreds of people, escorted them to Mexico, used district resources to transmit HIPPA-protected medical documents, and started a business making professional referrals, allegedly based on her own experience having weight loss surgery in Mexico.
Gregory says Sandy's lack of medical knowledge is highlighted in this 2013 email exchange with a potential patient, who writes, quote, "There are two different options that have 'sleeve' in the description. What is the name of the procedure?"
But, Sandy doesn't know. She responds, "It's the one that they cut your stomach out. Let me look at the site real quick..."
"If you aren't medically trained, then you are not in a position to say this is medically safe," Gregory says.
Of the documents we have access to, Sandy never mentions the risks of weight loss surgery. "Surgeons doing these surgeries should be bariatric surgeons. Not a general surgeon," he says.
On March 8, 2014, Jessica went to Tijuana for gastric sleeve surgery with Dr. Almanza. "I was in a hallway, where you probably shouldn't be, when they put me under," Jessica says.
She says Sandy was with her in Tijuana and witnessed the severity of her complications.
"You could literally take my hoodie and ring it out and blood was dripping from it," she remembers.
Yet, just weeks later, according to the suit, Sandy was already recruiting new patients for the doctor. This April 15 email never mentions Jessica or her complications.
"And that forms the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation.
That you're going to get one thing, but, in fact, they got something very different," Gregory says.
Video from a 2015 interview aired by ABC15 confirms, Sandy knew Almanza was responsible for Jessica's injuries. "When she crossed the border, she was having significant problems.
So, she went to another bariatric center in Scottsdale and they told her she nicked her intestines. I contacted them [Almanza's staff]. They said there's no way that could have happened, he doesn't make mistakes like that. They [Scottsdale Office Staff] said, it's true, they absolutely do."
Two years after Jessica's surgery, Sandy continued to recruit new patients for surgeons in Mexico, writing, quote, "No one has ever regretted it. That easy - lol."
But, Jessica isn't laughing. When she looks at pre-surgery photos, she sees much more than a physical transformation. "That girl.. she could light up the room. She was the funniest one. I didn't know a stranger in the world. Now, I don't even go out of my house."
Jessica's lawsuit claims the Show Low Unified School District knowingly allowed Sandy's vast operation to occur. But, the superintendent told us the district will not comment on pending litigation.
Sandy Brimhall no longer works there. She's being sued for $3 Million in Jessica's lawsuit and another $3 Million in a class-action suit also filed Tuesday. Sandy ignored our many attempts to get her side of the story.