It would take the FBI a year and a half to find Larry Lavin, who was hiding with his family in an affluent Virginia Beach waterfront development under an assumed identity. The search pitted two patient, determined young FBI agents against a well-educated, affable 31-year-old fugitive in an intellectual game of cat and mouse. It was a game Lavin was confident he could win, but that he ultimately lost because the two agents had small children of their own.
In planning his escape, Lavin and his wife had confided in no one. Not even Marcia's mother could know where they were going and under what name. This was hard. Agnes Osborn had been so thrilled with Marcia and Larry's son Chris. She lived only a mile from the big house where they had lived in Devon and had been Marcia's companion throughout her grandson's first two years.
Marcia Lavin had been pregnant again when she and Lavin left. The baby, a girl they named Tara, was born in April 1985. And Marcia's mother didn't even know.
So in May of 1985, after seven months of successfully living their comfortable new lives, Marcia took out a piece of stationery decorated in the upper left-hand corner with a rose, and in a sweeping girlish script wrote, ''Dear Mom, Hi!" She wrote three pages about the children, mostly about Chris, who had recently turned 3 and whom she knew her mom must miss. Lavin had taken pains to have family snapshots printed privately so that there would be no processing information on the back that might reveal their new location. And to hide even the makeup of the family, he had instructed Marcia to describe the new baby as a boy. Lavin knew the FBI wanted him badly.
"Chris had a great birthday," Marcia wrote. "We took him and his best friend to one of those pizza places like I used to go to at home with video games & rides & the bear brought out his birthday cake & sang him a song - he was thrilled!"
Lavin, who was ever so careful, as always, mailed the letter through a complex commercial mail-drop system, whereby it was passed by participants
from location to location around the country until, a month later, it was delivered with a Phoenix postmark to a friend of Marcia's mom who lived in West Chester.
Lavin's precautions proved appropriate, because some months after reaching Marcia's mom, the letter was seized by the FBI in a court-authorized search of her Devon apartment. It gave case agents Chuck Reed and Sid Perry the opportunity once again to admire Larry Lavin's thoroughness. Reed was especially impressed that Lavin had known enough to have the snapshots printed privately. Of course, his skill at this sort of thing made Lavin so much more interesting than the FBI's typical quarry.
There were no obvious clues in Marcia's letter. But detectives depend on the timeworn truth that not even their most clever prey can cover all their tracks. Reed and Perry found the line about Chris' birthday party intriguing. They both had kids. They both understood the kind of place Marcia described as being much like Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater, a combination pizza parlor, arcade and amusement park. Children loved it. Both agents had taken their kids to Chuck E. Cheese outlets, and it was just as Marcia described it . . . except . . . what was this business about a bear bringing little Chris his cake?
Neither Reed nor Perry remembered seeing a bear at Chuck E. Cheese. They checked with the Chuck E. Cheese folks, and sure enough, the chain did not employ a costumed bear. But they knew of a chain just like theirs that operated primarily in Southern states. Its name was Showbiz Pizza Inc., and it had this short, cuddly mascot with a country accent who wore big red and yellow overalls.
The mascot was named Billy-Bob the Bear.
The search for Lavin had begun two days before Halloween, Oct. 29, 1984. FBI agents descended stealthily on Timber Lane, staking out in locations surrounding the Lavins' handsome, two-story Colonial house.
"They were real polite about it," said a woman whose family owns one of the $200,000-plus homes on the gently curved suburban block in Devon. "They knocked on the door and identified themselves and asked if it would be OK to climb over the hedges into the garden."
She didn't know exactly why, but she could surmise generally whom they had come to watch. Lavin had been indicted the month before on cocaine charges. It was appalling; there were stories in all the newspapers. The wealthy young dentist across the street was described by the FBI as the primary source of cocaine for the Philadelphia area.
Lavin had posted the one-tenth of the $150,000 bail set at his arraignment. He had smiled in court when the magistrate pronounced the amount and was free that very day. The tall, amiable young man with a thick mop of dark hair had been home ever since, puttering around the yard, closing his kidney-shaped backyard swimming pool for the season. He had explained to the aghast chemical-company executive next door, who had had the nerve to confront him, that the charges against him were a big mistake.
But now the agents had gotten word that the Lavins were planning to flee.
Agents Reed and Perry crouched expectantly in the chilly morning darkness. They had spent nearly two years unraveling Lavin's alleged illicit business. Now they were poised to foil his escape. But all was quiet across the street in the wide white house with gray shutters. Lavin had made improvements to the house, installing the swimming pool, a hot tub on the back porch and a Jacuzzi inside a greenhouse that overlooked the pool.
After waiting for some time, Reed and Perry had another agent phone Lavin's next-door neighbors and ask them to turn on the floodlights over their garage. That way they could see Lavin's own driveway and garage better. But there was nothing to see.
"It didn't take us long to realize that the house was empty," says Reed. ''We were a full day and a half late."
No denying it; it was embarrassing. Allegedly the biggest drug dealer ever arrested in Philadelphia, and he had gotten clean away.
"A lot of people assume that the FBI has the manpower and resources to keep close tabs on someone like Larry Lavin after he posts bail, but it just isn't true," says Perry, a second-generation FBI man of about 30 who speaks with a mild Tennessee drawl. "We can't watch people 24 hours a day. The truth is, there are many people out on bail awaiting trial and sentencing for very, very serious crimes, but most of them don't run away. It's really a very rare occurrence."
Lavin was that rare exception. Friends who say they worked with Lavin in the drug business and the agents who have come to know him so well over the last four years describe him as a man who thrives not on the drugs that he allegedly sold, nor even on the staggering wealth his business earned, but on the thrill of living on the dark side of society, the thrill of taking huge risks, of outsmarting the experts assigned to capture him. Lavin's sudden flight in 1984 was, in retrospect, very predictable. It was just the next coolly calculated move in a game friends said Lavin had been playing since childhood.
Reared in Haverhill, Mass., Lawrence W. Lavin was the third son of a decorated World War II Navy fighter pilot. Expelled from the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy several weeks before graduating in 1973 for allegedly stealing a tape recorder from the school library and for marijuana use, Lavin was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania without his prep-school diploma. According to the FBI, he began selling marijuana during his undergraduate years at Penn, expanded his business off campus and gradually developed into a big-volume dealer.
His personal style is warm and friendly; those who know Lavin well not only like him, they admire him. Friends describe him as a garrulous, generous, warm and playful man. At Penn he was an above-average student who had no difficulty gaining acceptance to dental school after graduating in 1977. It was during Lavin's undergraduate years that he met his future wife, Marcia, a quietly intelligent and intensely domestic woman with straight brown hair and bright brown eyes behind oversize glasses. Marcia studied to be a physical therapist, and though friends say she disapproved of drug use personally and initially discouraged Lavin's dealing, they say she came to enjoy the fruits of the business equally with her husband.
Investigators believe that Lavin moved from dealing marijuana to cocaine in 1978 and that booming demand for the drug very quickly made this enterprising dental student a multimillionaire. At the business' height after Lavin's graduation from Penn's dental school in 1981, he allegedly coordinated a supply-and-distribution network that included more than a hundred upscale young people - many of them college students and professionals.
Before the FBI's discovery of Lavin in 1982, federal authorities had estimated that about 26 pounds of cocaine made its way into the Philadelphia area each month through conventional organized-crime networks. So Reed was truly shocked when Lavin indicated in a taped 1983 telephone conversation that his organization was handling as much as 44 pounds each week.
Catching Larry Lavin had not been easy. Agent Reed, a certified public accountant, had discovered Lavin's huge, unexplained income in the summer of 1982 during the course of a related investigation. Suspecting that Lavin was a drug dealer, he took advantage of an opportunity to confront the young dentist in February of 1983. Lavin denied the agent's suspicions.
"He knew at that point that we were on to him," Reed says, "but he was arrogant. He gave me the impression that he thought he was smarter than we were, that we would never catch him."
It took more than a year of determined detective work and a few lucky breaks to gather sufficient evidence to indict Lavin on drug charges. Federal prosecutors met with Lavin in April of 1984 and offered a deal that would have limited his prison term to eight years (he might, realistically, have only had to serve a third of that) in return for his cooperation in rounding up and prosecuting his friends, family and associates. But Lavin refused.
So he was indicted in September of 1984 under the federal "kingpin" statute, which carried penalties of up to life imprisonment. One month later he was gone.
"You hear all the time about two-bit dealers getting busted and rotting in jail," says Reed, a serious, broad-shouldered man of 34 with long brown hair and steel-rimmed glasses. "How often do you catch the number-one man? Well, we caught him, and he got away. It was that, and Larry's attitude toward us, that might have made us a little more determined to catch him."
In the time that Lavin was a fugitive, dozens of his former associates were arrested, tried and convicted. Federal authorities were especially pleased with their successful prosecution of William Motto, a South Philadelphia dealer with alleged ties to the Philadelphia/Atlantic City mob and one of Lavin's biggest customers. The series of prosecutions gained notoriety as the ''yuppie conspiracy" as, one by one, Lavin's former associates made their deals, testified against each other and went to jail. But all the while the suspected top man was missing.
"There wasn't a day when we weren't thinking about Larry Lavin," says Perry.
On the October day the Lavins left Devon, they drove south in a Plymouth they had rented from Budget Rent-a-Car in King of Prussia. In the back seat were little Chris and their golden labrador, Rusty. Lavin had planned this drive for nearly a year, according to the agents and Lavin's friends.
He had begun planning to flee even before he knew the FBI had enough information to charge him with drug dealing, they said. He had anticipated being charged with tax fraud ever since the meeting with Reed in 1983. He knew that he would be pressured to testify against Motto, and Lavin was afraid of Motto. But prison scared him, too.
Worried about being assaulted in prison, Lavin begun working out on exercise equipment Marcia bought him for Christmas and riding a stationary bike to get himself in shape. But Lavin was a slender, gentle sort of guy. He knew he would not fare well behind bars.
So he developed another option. He began quietly collecting debts and pooling his funds. The FBI estimates he collected about $4 million in cash altogether.
From ads in the back of High Times magazine, a publication devoted to the liberalization of drug laws, Lavin obtained an obscure pamphlet titled "New I.D. in America." As advertised in a catalogue put out by "Loompanics Unlimited," a publisher in Washington state specializing in unusual books, the slender paperback volume, authored by "Anonymous," offered "a step-by- step guide to precisely creating a totally new identity." Lavin went to work procuring birth certificates, Social Security cards, drivers licenses and other documentation to manufacture a new identity.
To prepare for his actual departure, Lavin had devised a number of smokescreens to throw off his pursuers. On the day he and Marcia drove away, a number of their friends flew out of Philadelphia to various locations around the country with tickets under the Lavins' names. He also had inquired at embassies about extradition treaties with foreign countries. He knew that word of this would get back to the FBI and leave the impression that he intended to flee the country.
But all along, evidently, Lavin's goal had been to retain the comfortably affluent suburban American lifestyle he had enjoyed in Devon. The identity he chose was in keeping with his Irish Catholic background, Brian James O'Neil. Marcia became Susan O'Neil. His son, Christopher O'Neil. They drove to Virginia Beach, an affluent resort community outside of Norfolk that is popular with retired, high-ranking federal employees.
Within months, the "O'Neils" purchased an expensive new house in Middle Plantation, a waterfront development, that was very similar to the house they had left on Timber Lane. Lavin set about immediately installing a kidney-shaped swimming pool, a hot tub on the back porch and a Jacuzzi in the bedroom upstairs.
Six months passed. Marcia gave birth to a baby girl at a Virginia Beach hospital. She was named Tara O'Neil. The baby was sick with a virus and was in and out of the hospital during the first month.
Lavin bought himself a yacht and took up fishing and scuba diving. He was popular with the neighbors. He told them he had made a small fortune by selling a computer company he had founded. He invested his money in a number of directions, sometimes using one of several identities he had prepared for
himself, and kept track of things on a home computer. He stashed records of his identities and investments in an attache case in a room over his garage.
He was ever so careful, but by April of 1985, without so much as a hint that anyone doubted that he and Marcia and the children really were who they said they were, Lavin decided it was safe to begin making limited contact again with the life they had left behind.
Making use of the mail drop, Lavin wrote an apologetic note to his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom. He described his flight as a "vacation" and
thanked the lawyer for all that he had done. Lavin explained that he had decided that the threat of being away from his wife and children for three of four years had just been unacceptable.
It was about this time that the FBI learned that Lavin's former dental associate and best friend, Kenneth Weidler, was expecting a phone call from Lavin. Weidler was free on bail awaiting sentencing for his role in the cocaine ring. According to Reed and Perry, Weidler had been informed that Lavin would call him at a pay phone booth at a specified time. Weidler told the FBI that Lavin already had phoned Marcia's brother-in-law, Richard Miller, at the lab where he worked, Pitman Moore Inc., in New Jersey. Lavin allegedly had asked Miller to tell both Weidler and Agnes Osborn when and where they could expect phone calls from him and from Marcia.
Weidler, who did not know the Lavins' whereabouts, was offering limited cooperation to Reed and Perry in the hopes of getting a lighter prison sentence (he eventually was sentenced to serve 2 1/2 years at Allenwood Federal Prison Camp). He agreed to let the agents monitor the fugitive couple's call.
Lavin's friend was not happy about helping the FBI, but Weidler had every reason to believe the phone call would not betray the Lavins. One of the preparations Lavin made before fleeing was to study wiretap surveillance technology through a correspondence course.
"Larry thought he knew how long he could talk on the phone safely before the origin of his phone call could be traced," says Perry. "He was wrong."
The pay phone Lavin used was in area-code 804, southeastern Virginia, which gave Reed and Perry a general region of the country in which to start looking. In the conversation with Weidler, according to the FBI, Lavin said that his wife was sending a letter to her mother with some snapshots.
So Reed and Perry waited about two months and then executed a search warrant on Agnes Osborn's Devon apartment. It was then that they seized the letter Marcia had written on the rose-decorated stationery. The letter led them to Billy-Bob the Bear. There were only two Showbiz Pizza outlets inside area-code 804; one was in Lynchburg, and the other was in Virginia Beach.
"We knew from all the interviewing that we had done that Larry really liked the Eastern Shore area," says Perry. "Our first hunch was that he was in Maryland. The phone call to Weidler from area-code 804 suggested that he was, in fact, in that region. When we learned that there was a Showbiz Pizza right in Virginia Beach, that became our primary target area."
With its proximity to Washington, D.C., there were literally hundreds of FBI agents, active and retired, living and working in the Virginia Beach area. Perry and Reed had color photographs of Larry and Marcia Lavin reprinted and enclosed them in letters to every one of them.
Those mailings went out in early May. One of the recipients, a retired FBI agent, recognized Lavin's photograph the instant it came out of the envelope. He lived in the same neighborhood. He had been out fishing with this fellow on his boat. This was the guy who had just volunteered to serve as treasurer of the Middle Plantation Community Association. His name was Brian James O'Neil.
Larry Lavin was arrested at Lynnhaven Harbor in Virginia Beach late Thursday, May 15, as he stepped off a friend's boat after a day of fishing.
"We met the boat at the dock," says Norfolk FBI agent Phil Butler. "We identified ourselves and asked him if he was Larry Lavin. He readily acknowledged that he was. He was surprised but unemotional. He was mostly concerned about not being able to see his wife and kids."
Marcia Lavin was arrested at their home on Royal Oak Close just a few minutes later. She left the children with a next-door neighbor when the agents took her away to book her for assisting her husband's flight. She was released the next morning after Lavin posted her bail by forfeiting all of his possessions, his house and its furnishings, his cars and his boat, and agreeing to help authorities to fully recover the millions he had invested.
Last week, according to Reed and Perry, Marcia Lavin and the children were staying with her mother in Devon, awaiting her arraignment and drawing up a list of her and Lavin's possessions. Lavin, who was pictured leaving Norfolk federal court a week ago Friday wearing handcuffs and leg irons over his blue jeans and docksiders, was en route from Norfolk to Philadelphia.
Authorities predicted that it would be at least 20 years before Lavin was a free man again.