Larry Lavin

by Max Bell

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I Used to be Snow White, But I Drifted
The ’80s. The words alone inspire visions of floating disco balls, neon lights, and small glass mirrors covered in the finest Colombian flake. You hear the slamming of bathroom stalls, snorting, sniffling, and the slapping bass of funk. You think of Al Pacino in Scarface, and the heads of the major cocaine cartels, Pablo Escobar and Griselda Blanco. But few think of the “Yuppie Conspiracy,” the only cocaine enterprise brought down by one funk song.

According to the FBI, between 1978 and 1984 the “Yuppie Conspiracy” distributed up to 110 pounds of cocaine a month in 14 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. The plain looking, polo- and khaki-wearing Larry Lavin, founder and head of the “Yuppie Conspiracy,” might be the most unlikely drug kingpin in the history of narcotics.

Lavin was an Ivy League (University of Pennsylvania) educated dentist who started a sizeable marijuana distribution operation in college before moving on to cocaine. Growing and expanding his cocaine operation while in school, Lavin continued to run the business after he graduated, set up his dental practice, and started a family in one of Philadelphia’s most affluent suburbs. His diverse network included dentists, lawyers, stockbrokers, teachers, accountants, and more young urban professionals (“Yuppies”). Still, few peers outside of his circle had a clue about his illicit activities. Even Lavin’s dental assistant claims she hardly suspected anything until the FBI swarmed his practice in 1984.

After he was arrested, Lavin posted partial bail and fled Pennsylvania with his pregnant wife, Marcia, and their two-year-old son, Chris. They assumed new identities, living in a boating community in Virginia Beach until the FBI finally tracked Lavin down, taking him into custody on May 15, 1986. Lavin was sentenced to a total of 42 years in prison—20 years for tax evasion and 22 years for drug trafficking charges—though his sentence was eventually reduced to 21 years after appeal.

The words printed below are from four recovered journal entries he may or may not have written.1 The last entry is dated May 14, 1986, Lavin’s final day as a free, albeit wanted, man. Footnotes have been added in order to explain, expand upon, and/or clarify some statements, as Lavin makes no explicit reference to any of his illegal dealings. Though the journal entries are dated prior to Lavin’s arrest, the reflective tone suggests he knew his days of freedom were numbered.

April 15, 1986 I haven’t cracked this journal in a while, and I don’t really know why
I bought it in the first place. Maybe it was for times like this, when I can’t open up to anyone. Whatever the reason, now feels like the right time to put pen to pad. It’s been about two years since the trial, two years since I ran.

Some might say it was cowardly, running like that. But I was never afraid of being caught. I knew what I was doing. I knew the consequences. That’s what made it all so much fun, so addicting. And it’s really most of what kept me going. Ultimately, I ran because the thought of leaving my family was, and is, too much. I want to be there for my wife and for my kids, to provide for their happiness and well being in the way my father wasn’t able.2

Without my freedom, I couldn’t do that. I’m not exactly free, but sometimes it feels like I am. There are days, like today—the sun is shining and

I’m drinking a beer out here on the boat waiting for the sun to set before Susan and the kids get back—where I forget everything.3

Still, whenever I reflect on everything leading up to the trial and everything that happened afterward, I always begin with the same question: Who would’ve thought that a multi-million dollar business would fold because of a song called “Double Dutch Bus?”4

It’s a fine song, but it had absolutely nothing to do with my business. The record company was a side investment, nothing more.5 It was one of many Mark got me involved with. Hell, I even supported that awful basketball team for a while. I still can’t believe he tried to burn the place down.6 Then again, maybe I’m only telling myself that I can’t believe it. Mark wasn’t who I’d believed he was in the beginning. I hear little feet running along the dock. It makes me smile. To be continued…

April 22, 1986 It’s been a week and I’ve just read to the end of my last entry. Since I left things off with Mark, I’ve had the opportunity to puzzle over him and the entire situation, to see where I’d screwed up. Truth is that if Mark hadn’t taken the money from the record company, he would’ve taken it from somewhere else.7 Finding honest people in a business that’s inherently dishonest was probably wishful thinking. That was the only real mistake on my part. I trusted someone who couldn’t be trusted. It is just unfortunate Frankie didn’t come directly to me for the money. I would’ve given him double, triple, even quadruple what he claimed we owed him.8

I suppose we had a good run though. We moved a lot of good product and I made a good deal of money, much more than I would’ve seen just filling cavities and capping teeth.9 A solid dental practice is nothing to scoff at…until you know how much money you can make numbing people in other ways. It sounds awful to say it that way, but it’s the closest thing to the truth.

May 7, 1986 I almost didn’t respond when someone called me Brian at the grocery store. Sometimes I forget that’s my name now. I’m Brian—plain, friendly, retired, and relatively boring Brian. Everyone thinks I’m either an ex-stockbroker with a degenerative heart disease or a computer programmer who sold his half of the company.10 You think people would cross-reference their stories, but they just take everything for fact around here. There’s something comforting in that. And as time goes on you just kind of forget that you’re on the run. Well, you don’t ever really forget, but you start living this other life, you just become that person.

That said, we’ve never completely given up the old life.11 I made a call to Kenneth that I shouldn’t have made.12 And Susan’s letter to her mother still keeps me up at night.13 Sure, sending the letter stopped her complaining about having lost everyone back there, but I’m not sure if it was worth the risk. Even though the pictures can’t be traced back to us, and my guys took care of the letter, something feels off about it all.14

Most things feel off these days. After the first year, I relaxed and let go. But lately the fear’s been creeping up again. There’s a glance on the docks or at a restaurant that looks accusatory, a knowing smile from a waiter or a neighbor that seems to say they’re waiting for the sirens, the copters, and the cigarette boats to swarm. Somehow, I can’t help but think it’s only a matter of time. Susan is coming. I have to go.

May 14, 1986 I’ve been having dreams, or nightmares really, about the end. Shootouts mostly: me with a semi-automatic, finger glued to the trigger, putting holes into federal agents and the boats of people I now call friends. I’ll run out of ammo and Susan and the kids will be hit. It won’t go down like that. I’ll accept defeat quietly. If only the nightmares would stop…

Maybe I should’ve listened to Willie, gotten out a long time ago.15
I don’t blame him for leaving when he did. A few gallons of that drink he used to take during those hellish drives would be enough to make anyone want out.16 At least I didn’t go the way of David.17 Anyway, I’m rambling, rocking back and forth as the boat I’m on does the same, wasting away the afternoon while Susan has the kids again. What else? What else…

I saw Pat just as I was getting on and waved to him. He gave me a strange look at first, and then smiled as if something suddenly dawned on him. It might be something to worry about. Then again, I’m sure an ex-FBI agent probably always seems a little off depending on how much they’ve seen and heard over the years. Or maybe not. Maybe he knows something. I wouldn’t be surprised. This friendship with Pat will probably be the end somewhere down the line. Still, it’s downright hilarious that I can consider an ex-FBI agent one of my friends for the time being. It really makes me feel like I’ve pulled it off one last time.18

Well, I guess I should end this thing before I say much more. Though I don’t think I’ve said much to begin with. Might as well end by answering the question everyone will want to know the answer to if they ever find this: If I had the chance, would I do it all over again?

Given that I still have my family, some of my fortune, and my freedom, the answer is simple—definitely.19 Notes 1 None of these journal entries are real.

2 Lavin grew up in a poor family. His family’s house was constantly on the brink of foreclosure. Selling marijuana in college was actually how Lavin paid some of his bills.

3 Susan was the assumed name of Lavin’s wife, Marcia Lavin. She was pregnant at the time of their escape. Their daughter, Tara, was born in 1985.

4 “Double Dutch Bus” was a hit funk song released in 1981 by funk musician/soul singer Frankie Smith. The song held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart for four weeks, and eventually crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100.

5 In order to make Lavin’s earnings appear more legitimate, Lavin’s business manager Mark Stewart told Lavin to invest in a number of businesses. One of those businesses was WMOT Records, which had a distribution deal with CBS and released Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus.”

6 In 1980, at the behest of Stewart, Lavin purchased the declining and in disrepair Philadelphia Arena for $100,000, renaming it Martin Luther King, Jr. Arena. Lavin then purchased the CBA’s Lancaster Red Roses, renaming them the Philadelphia Kings. After poor turnouts, Lavin eventually stopped contributing money to the arena and the team. Stewart then attempted to have the arena burned down for insurance money. In the first attempt, Stewart’s accomplice only burned the roof, rendering the building virtually unusable. Though Stewart’s accomplice succeeded the second time around, no insurance money was ever collected.

7 “Between January and September of 1981, Stewart deposited approximately $3,354,000, including $1,440,000 of WMOT funds, into an account at Bank Leumi denominated the Mark Stewart Real Estate Escrow Account (“Escrow Account”). Stewart’s deposits of WMOT funds were made without the knowledge or approval of WMOT’s other officers and directors” (taken from the 1991 appeal case between Lavin and WMOT).

8 As a result of Stewart’s embezzlement, Frankie Smith was owed $30,000 in royalties. When he didn’t receive the money, Smith complained to the IRS. After looking into WMOT, the IRS found Lavin’s money linked to dozens of companies Stewart created. That was the beginning of the FBI’s investigation of the “Yuppie Conspiracy.”

9 During their investigation of Lavin’s enterprise, the FBI confiscated 85 kilograms of 95 percent to 99 percent pure cocaine. The street value was $20 million. And, according to his 1986 plea agreement, Lavin paid cash for the following items between 1979 and 1982: $12,000 for a Volvo, $224,000 for gold and silver ingots, $137,000 to invest in a real estate firm called Lavin Options Inc., $50,000 for a video game room, $23,000 to invest in a silver mine, $53,000 for part ownership of a dental practice, $170,000 in banking and security accounts, $150,000 to purchase a Center City condominium, $132,000 to purchase his home in Devon, $15,000 to install a swimming pool in the back yard, $38,792 for a BMW-733I, $100,000 for three condominiums in Mays Landing, N.J., and $65,000 for a seat on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange (Philadelphia Inquirer June 8, 1986).

10 Brian O’Neil was the name/identity Larry took on once he and his family fled Pennsylvania for Virginia Beach. He told people in the community varied stories of how he’d acquired his wealth.

11 The “old life” refers to Larry’s contacts in Pennsylvania. It may also refer to the fact that he was still a millionaire while in Virginia Beach.

12 Once Lavin felt secure in Virginia Beach, he made a call to his former dental associate and best friend, Kenneth Weidler. Unbeknownst to Lavin, Weidler provided limited cooperation with the FBI in hopes of receiving a lighter prison sentence. He allowed the FBI to listen in and trace the call. The phone Lavin used was from area code 804, which narrowed the FBI search to southeastern Virginia.

13 In May of 1985, (Susan) Marcia Lavin sent a letter to her mother describing her eldest son Chris’ birthday party at a pizza parlor (Showbiz Pizza) with a costumed bear for a mascot. The letter also contained pictures of the Lavin family. Lavin had the pictures taken privately, so they could not be traced.

14 The letter passed by through a complex mail drop system of Lavin’s devising, from one participant and location to the next. It was postmarked from Phoenix and sent to a friend of Marcia’s mother. When the FBI raided Marcia’s mother’s apartment, the letter was confiscated. The mention of the mascot from the pizza parlor, Billy-Bob the Bear, narrowed down the FBI’s search to Lynchburg, Virginia and Maryland, the two Showbiz Pizza outlets inside area code 804. The FBI eventually found out there was a Showbiz Pizza in Virginia Beach, and made that their target area in the hunt for Lavin.

15 Willie Harcourt was Lavin’s primary cocaine courier. A bartender by trade, he took the job after assuming a sizeable cocaine debt of his one-time roommate.

16 Harcourt drove the (roughly) 1200 miles back and forth from Miami to Philadelphia without sleep, transporting money one-way and coke from Colombian suppliers the other. He made the drive often, and in order to stay awake he sipped from a 26-oz cup of Sprite mixed with cocaine. He called the concoction “zoom.”

17 David was the Chief of Operations for Lavin’s coke ring. He became severely addicted to cocaine, sometimes taking it to stay up for days at a time.

18 Pat O’Donnell was one of hundreds of FBI agents, active and retired, living and working in the Virginia Beach area. Once FBI investigators in charge of Lavin’s case had a better idea of his whereabouts, they sent out photos of Larry and Marcia Lavin to every one of said FBI Agents. O’Donnell recognized the photo immediately, having fished with Larry (Brian) on his boat. It was only a short while after O’Donnell confirmed the FBI’s suspicions about Lavin’s whereabouts that he was arrested.

19 Lavin and his wife are now divorced. Marcia and their three children (Chris, Tara, and Kelly) live in Wisconsin. Lavin lost most of his money and his dental license. According to his LinkedIn account, he has been Director of Services for the international sales and marketing company One Touch Direct since 2005. His last known arrest was for a DUI in 2009.

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