A dose of prison for 'Doctor Dealer'

Posted: May 19, 2002

Crime paid very well for Larry Lavin. But now, the Ivy League-educated former dentist is the one who's paying dearly.

The man once dubbed "Doctor Dealer" has spent the last 16 years in federal prisons on drug and tax charges. If his attempts to reduce the remainder of his sentence fail, Lavin likely will serve another seven years.

It's a far cry from the early 1980s, when Lavin, who went to Phillips Exeter Academy and the University of Pennsylvania, lived lavishly on the Main Line.

When federal authorities charged in 1984 that his fortune - a million dollars a year - came from running the largest cocaine business ever uncovered in the Philadelphia area, Lavin went into hiding.

So when the long arm of the law grabbed him two years later, in 1986, it wouldn't let go.

While acknowledging and regretting his guilt, Lavin, whose parents and marriage have died since he's been in prison, thinks he's paid enough.

"I know there are a lot of people out there who think some people should do life in jail," Lavin said last week in a telephone interview from the federal prison in Rochester, Minn.

"I'm also realistic about what's politically correct now: You can't let out guys who were the head of drug rings, it just doesn't look good. . . .

"But I lost my family and profession. I've done 16 years, I will probably do 23. . . . Of my 86 codefendants, all are out. . . . I think I've done enough."

Meanwhile, Lavin, 47, does what he can to occupy his time. He has taught everything from algebra to bridge; counseled in antidrug programs, and organized such activities as book clubs. He jogs about 40 miles a week and practices yoga.

Lavin said he and his ex-wife, Marcia, remain friends and that he speaks to his family at least once a week. His son, who was 4 when Lavin was arrested, is a junior in college; his older daughter, born while the family was in hiding, and his younger daughter, born after Lavin was imprisoned, are in high school.

They live in Wisconsin. The children remember little and care little about Lavin's case.

"It always kind of amazes me they don't ask more questions," Lavin said.

Others, however, have considerable interest. Two books and a TV documentary have been done on Lavin's life and times.

Dubbed the "Yuppie Cocaine Conspiracy," Lavin's operation grew from a Penn fraternity marijuana-selling business in the mid-'70s into a nationwide cocaine-distribution cartel.

In 1984, after he was indicted on drug and tax charges, Lavin and his family fled to Virginia Beach, Va., where, under the names "Brian and Susan O'Neil," he and his wife lived in luxury for another two years.

Investigators got on their trail thanks to a letter Marcia Lavin wrote to her mother, which mentioned a birthday party at a pizza emporium whose bear mascot brought out the cake.

When the FBI intercepted the letter, an investigation found that a Southern-based pizza/party chain featured a mascot named "Billy-Bob the Bear." Comparing the location of the chain's pizza parlors with the area codes of tapped phone calls, the bear's tracks helped lead the FBI straight to Lavin.

In 1987, Lavin, who says his first lawyer misinformed him about a plea bargain that would have carried a shorter sentence, was given 22 years on the drug charges and an additional 20 years for tax evasion.

At his sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tina Williams Gabbrielli stressed the seriousness of Lavin's crimes. "We have not caught a small fish, but a kingfish," she said.

Under federal guidelines, Lavin is scheduled to remain in prison until May 2009. Then, he faces years of probation and millions of dollars in fines.

Lavin has no idea what he will do when he gets out. "I'll wait and see what the possibilities are," he said.

He said that he is no probation risk. "I'm not the kind of person to get in trouble again. Obviously, I was a high-risk taker when I was young, but it's different when you're in your 50s."

Selling drugs, he said, "obviously was a stupid thing to do. But at the time, things were just so different. Those days at Penn, drugs were just everywhere. . . . Obviously, we took it to a different level, got carried away. We never should have done that."

Inquirer researchers Denise Boal, Frank Donohue and Ed Voves contributed to this article.

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