By the early 1980s, Larry Lavin had everything going for him. He was a bright, charismatic young man who rose from working-class roots to become a dentist with an Ivy League education and a thriving practice, and a beloved father with a well-respected family in one of Philadelphia’s most exclusive suburbs.
But behind the façade of his success was a dark secret: Lavin was also the mastermind behind a cocaine empire that spread from Miami to Boston to New Mexico, catering to lawyers, stockbrokers, and other professionals, and generating an annual income of $60 million for the good doctor.
Now, Mark Bowden, a “master of narrative journalism” (The New York Times Book Review) tells the harrowing saga of Lavin’s rise and fall in “a shocking American tragedy . . . [that] shoots straight from the hip” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
“An engrossing crime story and a compelling morality tale.” —The Arizona Republic
“Has all the elements of a chilling suspense thriller . . . A smoothly crafted, exciting, can’t-put-it-down book.” —The New Voice (Louisville)
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Strike One ... Strike Two ...
Fall 1972, on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Upperclassman John Sidoli was studying in his third-floor room in Langdell Hall when in jumped his friend Jeff Giancola with a plastic bag full of white powder. Jeff looked around frantically, his eyes coming to rest on Sidoli's closet. He blurted, "John, let me stash this in there. Just for a little while. If Larry finds it he'll kill me!" Before Sidoli had a chance to sacrifice good judgment to fellowship, Giancola stashed the bag in his closet and fled.
Sidoli listened to the footsteps retreat down the corridor. Setting aside his book, he stood and walked to his window in time to see Giancola fly out the front door and sprint into the Commons. Behind the girls' dorm across the way the sky had the warm glow of dusk. Shadow covered half of the green between the tall redbrick Georgian dormitories. Two broad white elms in full autumn display were enclosed in this space. Sidoli had lived in the same corner of Langdell for more than a year, across the hall from Giancola and Larry Lavin. Sidoli was closer to Giancola, who had confided several weeks ago that he was involved in a drug deal with Lavin, which came as no surprise. Even though Sidoli had known and liked Lavin since the middle of their year as "Lowers," as sophomores at Exeter are called, he had never really felt close to him. There was something outrageous about Larry, something that made Sidoli believe Giancola's story. Of all the hundreds of students he knew at Exeter, Larry Lavin was the one most likely to get involved in something like that.
Giancola had said that Larry was working a heroin deal with the Boston Mafia. He said that whenever the drug connection called at Langdell Hall, a message was left for Larry to call his mother. Sidoli knew there were messages on the board nearly every day for Lavin to call his mother. Ever since, whenever he saw the note on the board, "Lavin, call Mom," it lent credence to the tale.
Looking down now through the magnificent elms, he saw Giancola stop midway across the Commons. Just inside the shadow stood a tall, thin figure Sidoli recognized as Lavin and some big guy with a hat and overcoat. The two strode up to Giancola, who appeared to be pleading. They knocked him down. Giancola jumped up swinging, and was knocked down again. He was kicked by the man in the overcoat. Then he was pulled to his feet and dragged toward the front door.
Sidoli panicked. He ran from his room and down the hall to the lavatory, where he opened one of the toilet stalls and closed the door behind him.
All was silent for long minutes. Then he heard Giancola call for him in the hall. He didn't answer. The calls got closer until Giancola burst into the bathroom and discovered him hiding in the stall. Jeff looked desperate. He begged Sidoli to cover for him. Somehow, he said, Lavin suspected that the bag of white powder was stashed in Sidoli's room. Jeff needed his friend to swear that it wasn't.
Reluctantly, Sidoli agreed, but as they entered the room, Lavin was already holding the plastic bag in his hand.
"You were holding out on us," he sneered. "You stole an ounce. We'll show you what we do to people who steal from us."
And the big man lunged at Giancola with a Coke bottle, shattering it against the side of the door. Sidoli leapt back horrified as Lavin and the other man wrestled Giancola to the floor. Straddling Jeff, Lavin opened the baggie and held the white powder over Giancola's face.
"Kill him," said the big man. "Shove the whole ounce down his throat."
Just then, Sidoli's voice interrupted, quavering, shouting a plea he would be embarrassed about for the next twenty years. "No, don't! Don't kill him here! Please, kill him somewhere else!"
Then Lavin and Giancola and the other fellow were on the floor, laughing. Sidoli suddenly recognized the big man as a football player who lived two floors down. It was a joke! It was all a joke! Larry, laughing so hard he could barely speak, showed Sidoli the baggie, and sputtered, "Confectioners' sugar!"
Larry laughed and laughed, and, after a while, Sidoli laughed, too.
Larry Lavin had entered Phillips Exeter Academy in January of 1971 as an awkward "townie," a tall, skinny fifteen-year-old with a ludicrous retainer on his teeth. He had an especially hard time pronouncing the letter L, which was unfortunate, because every time he introduced himself it came out, "Hi, I'm 'arry 'avin," with the Ls coming out as slippery Ws. But Larry didn't seem to mind. He talked and talked and talked. Even without the retainer his Haverhill accent was so bad that his classmates found him hard to understand. Still, people liked Lavin. He had charm. He was black Irish and full of the devil. His pale green eyes would fix you with a gaze like a dare. His black hair was thick and long, framing his head like a helmet and falling down across his forehead to the eyebrows — which was a thing that preppies didn't do. He affected gaudy plaid pants and pastel polo shirts and had a closet full of three-piece suits. Larry's mom had worried about her son fitting in with his upper-class schoolmates, so she had spent months shopping in secondhand stores to find bargains on conservative suits and altering them to fit her youngest son's gangly, uneven frame. Like his father, everything about Larry was long — a long thin face and nose, long torso, long arms and legs. His left leg was longer than his right, which set his left shoulder slightly higher, which made him always seem off-balance, thrown together loosely, an impression enhanced by the way his thick mop of black hair made his head seem to teeter atop such a pole of a neck.
His mother's efforts to help her son fit in with his wealthy classmates had precisely the opposite effect. At Exeter the despised coat-and-tie rule was mocked. Students wore the rattiest sport coats and most ridiculous ties they could find to top their rumpled, faded jeans. Tennis shoes were not permitted, so students wore battered penny loafers held together with electrical tape. These were the Vietnam years, when the normal conflict between administration and students bordered on war. On most college campuses students had plenty of avenues to vent their outrage against the war and act out their fashionable disdain for social convention, but Exeter was just a high school, with curfews, a dress code, and other strict regulations against nonconformity. The same generation gap that troubled so many American homes during the sixties and early seventies was magnified a hundred times on a campus like Exeter's. There were dozens of expulsions every year. Hardly a weekend went by that someone was not caught in violation of one or more of the school's cardinal rules. This tension had left many in the student body with open contempt for the prep school's proud 190-year-old traditions.
Enter Larry, a full year and a half behind the rest of the students in his class of '73, wearing his tacky suburban wardrobe, talking nonstop through his braces in a Massachusetts accent few could readily understand. His politics, such as they were, were just a reflection of those of his father, who felt America had lost its last best hope when it rejected Barry Goldwater. It isn't enough to simply say that this gangly local boy didn't fit in with the tight teenage dormitory society of Langdell Hall — he stood flamboyantly apart.
But he seemed oblivious to this. If anything, the young eccentric seemed more sure of himself than any of his classmates. He reveled in being different, but not with the underlying anger of many singular adolescents. He liked people and wanted to be liked back. Moreover, Larry seemed to like himself. He enjoyed nothing more than telling people all about himself.
His mother, Pauline, and his father, Justin, had grown up in Haverhill, a nearby Massachusetts town that was one of the oldest in America and which billed itself as "The Shoe Capital of the World." Both were from Irish Catholic families who had settled in Haverhill to work in the town's famous four-story brick shoe factories, and who had gone on to better themselves. Pauline, a short bosomy woman with artistic leanings, had been raised as an only child, a rare upbringing among the big-familied Irish. Although her parents sent her to college, Pauline's chief ambition was to build the family she had missed as a child. She had a daughter and three sons, of whom Larry was the youngest.
Larry's father, Justin, was a lanky, dark-haired, contentious man who enjoyed commanding center stage. His father, William S. Lavin, was a successful real estate speculator who had laid the foundations for great wealth by borrowing to buy up acres of land in Bradford, a growing residential community across the Merrimack River south of Haverhill proper, and around Chadwick Pond and Kenoza Lake, where the expanding town's most successful citizens were beginning to build summer cottages. The twenties were a boom time for the shoe and leather industries along the river. Justin was raised as one of Haverhill's elite. He excelled at high school sports, winning a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame to play football. When his athletic career was stalled by a broken leg in freshman year, he transferred to M.I.T., where he was graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 1939.
But during the Depression, while Justin was away at school, his father was forced to sell most of his real estate holdings at a loss. The Lavin family retained a measure of social prominence in Bradford, but lost most of its wealth. When World War II started, Justin enlisted as a naval aviation cadet. For more than three years he flew dangerous combat missions in Wildcat and Hellcat fighter-bombers in the Pacific. Twice he was shot down and survived, once after drifting for four hours in the ocean aboard a rubber raft. He returned from the war a local hero, decorated with two Navy Cross medals, the Air Medal, a Presidential unit citation, and the Purple Heart, but a man whose life had been permanently changed by the war. Larry remembers that many years later his father could be startled out of his chair by a fork accidently falling to the kitchen floor. His experience as an officer in a navy ruled by a tight coterie of predominantly WASP Naval Academy graduates left him with bitter feelings toward the U.S. government. Despite his acknowledged heroism and skill, Justin felt shut out of paths toward more power and responsibility. Long after the war had begun to fade in people's memories, Justin could invest his harrowing war stories, stories of life and death, danger and triumph, with enough detail and enthusiasm to make them seem as though they had happened only yesterday. He seemed to pine for those days of daring and adventure.
Back in Haverhill, Justin found a different life from the one he had known as a child. During the fifties he became president and treasurer of the Keeler-Cochran Heel Co., Inc., one of the town's oldest and most durable manufacturers. His executive position for a time afforded Justin the income and social status he was raised to expect. He and Pauline joined the Bradford Country Club, and Justin sat on the board of trustees for Bradford Junior College. In 1960 they bought a handsome two-story house on Highland Street with gray shingles and a brick front walk and a detached two-car garage in back. Justin added black shutters cut with the silhouette of a sailboat on the top, and would build on a redbrick patio with a small pool decorated with porcelain dolphins at either end that spouted water from their blowholes. Then came decline. Competition from foreign shoemakers, whose postwar economies had been subsidized by the United States, crushed Haverhill's three-hundred-year-old shoe industry. Justin's heel factory closed. He found work at an employment office in Boston, an hour's commute south, and spent the next decade trying to find work for other displaced executives, earning commissions only when he was successful. Pauline found work as a medical secretary, and the Lavins often lived for months on her salary alone.
Larry, who had been born March 14, 1955, had no memory of the heel factory. He grew up in a family determined to live beyond its means, maintaining an active social schedule, planning ski trips all the while fending off creditors. He remembers being told to stand beside his desk at Sacred Heart School with the other children whose parents had fallen behind in tuition payments, or being turned away at the Bradford Swim Club because dues were unpaid, or taking an excited trip with his father to the department store to buy a color TV, only to be disappointed when Justin's credit card was rejected. Justin would explode with anger. His children would feel ashamed for him, and somehow betrayed. Larry was a teenager when the family moved from its Bradford home into a small townhouse in a new development called Colonial Village across the river in Methuen. His mother supplemented family earnings by selling floral arrangements to local restaurants and eventually by teaching this skill to other women.
An outspoken conservative Republican, Justin Lavin blamed U.S. policy under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for these hardships. He could go on and on, working himself into a fine Irish froth, about "The jerks went to work for the government. Have you ever dealt with some of the government boys in Washington? Some of the stupidest sons of bitches I have ever met in my life. ..." Justin became the kind of man with whom people avoided serious conversation. A friendly chat would often explode into argument or serve as an excuse to launch a red-faced diatribe against the ineptitude and corruption of authority. Larry grew up absorbing his father's bitterness for the system that had rewarded his wartime heroism with financial failure.
Still, despite his setbacks, Justin remained a talented and hardworking man. He took up cabinetmaking as a hobby, and over the years developed such skill that he furnished their home with handsome, inexpensive reproductions of delicate antiques. Larry remembers his parents' tireless ingenuity in keeping up with bills and maintaining their ambitious living standard. When the back patio was under construction, there were late-night drives to demolition sites where Larry and his brothers would help his father scavenge valuable red bricks. If his father drove past a pile of mulch dumped for road crews gardening along the interstate, he would pull off the road, open the trunk, and hurriedly fill several plastic bags. If they're stupid enough to leave this lying by the side of the road ... that was how his father saw it. Larry loved and admired his parents, but at the same time, as he grew older, he felt sorry for them. If there was one lesson in their experience, it was that in the pursuit of wealth, talent and hard work weren't enough.
Larry's oldest brother, Justin, Jr. (the family called him Paul), and his sister, Mary (who was known as Jill), were quiet, hardworking, accomplished students. His other brother, Rusty, with his pink face and red hair and fearless personality, had a wild streak. Rusty ended more than a decade of feuding with teachers and school officials by dropping out of high school, the first member of his family who did not attend college. In a family fiercely intent on bettering itself, Rusty seemed defiantly downwardly mobile. He found work off and on as a trucker and moved into an apartment in Haverhill, spending most of what he earned on the ski slopes, where he became expert. Paul and Jill, for all their success in school, were sensitive, withdrawn, and sometimes troubled children. Jill fought with her father so much over politics and style — she was against the Vietnam War, he favored it; he wanted her to wear a dress, Jill preferred blue jeans — that she moved into an apartment with a girlfriend when she was only sixteen. Paul, who was more diplomatic than Jill, nevertheless found himself frequently at odds with his father. He would come home from college with liberal ideas that gave his father apoplexy. In the midst of all these battles with teenage children, young Larry, who looked so much like his father, was a blessing. He seemed to have acquired the best traits of all his older siblings with none of the worst. He was a straight-A student whose grades seemed to come even easier than Paul's or Jill's. If it was true that Larry possessed a touch of Rusty's rambunctious style, he was blessed with a unique counterbalancing charm.
Once, after a teacher took exception when Larry threw a pencil out a classroom window in the middle of a lesson, he assigned the boy a punishment essay. Larry invented a story entitled "My Life as a Pencil," envisioning the plunge through the open classroom window through the pencil's eyes. As it fell earthward its life passed before its eyes, giving Larry a chance to invent a satire of the teacher and classroom as seen through the eyes of a pencil at rest on the sill under the chalkboard. As a final indignity, the pencil crashed to its death on the roof of the teacher's car. The teacher, who had a sense of humor, thought the work so clever that he read it out loud to his advanced composition classes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Doctor Dealer"
Copyright © 1987 Mark Bowden.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue Virginia Beach,
One Strike One ... Strike Two ...,
Two From Nothing to Zoom,
Three Less Risk, More Exposure,
Four Why Carry an Elephant?,
Five Never Carry Cash,
Six Batten Down the Hatches,
Seven Maybe You'll See Smoke,
Eight It'll Just Be a Tax Case,
Nine We'll Be Back,
Ten Let's Get Out of Here,
Eleven Time for a Vacation,
Twelve An Idyll,
Thirteen Does This Have Something to Do with Larry?,
Epilogue Federal Courthouse, Philadelphia,