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With the right kind of porcelain, the right shade of pearly translucent white, the thinnest of veneers can dazzle away the realities of the most troubled of teeth. Until the day the feds came to take him away, Gary S. Kimmel’s life gleamed with just such a cosmetic smile’s luster.
Fifty-six floors above the Loop-in Marina City’s “corncob” high-rises-beckoned the elegant dwelling that the dentist had fashioned by combining three apartments, a downtown redoubt with a view vast as a mountain aerie. In Chicago and Detroit, a fleet of luxury cars-his cars-preened like beauty queens. Kimmel’s wife, a woman named Mona Lisa-whom he had met and married on a three-week trip to the Philippines-was preparing to oversee renovations to the already handsome home. There, the couple occasionally entertained lawyers, judges, and other professionals at parties set against the twinkling nighttime skyline.
Backing it all, at a tony Erie Street address just off the Magnificent Mile, stood a bustling dental practice, a place that-with its fully booked days of fillings, root canals, and teeth cleanings-burnished the shine of an already sparkling life.
As for the dentist himself, “Doc,” as most people knew him, seemed to be regarded with goodwill and admiration. Heavyset, with merry blue eyes and a soft baby face, he in some ways embodied the stereotypical jolly big man, a quality that served him well as a dentist brandishing glimmering needles and squealing drills. Indeed, in a city with a phone book fat with the names of other dentists, his chairside manner had earned him an ample, loyal clientele.
Off hours, he enjoyed the good life-flashy cars and Las Vegas trips-but he forswore putting on airs, preferring T-shirts and surgical scrubs to wingtips and designer suits. A devoted husband and doting father of two boys and a girl, he was the longest-serving member on Marina City’s condo board, a vice president overseeing two of the most important committees: security and the screening of potential new buyers.
“He was sort of like a Friar Tuck,” says Martin Flynn, an anesthesiologist who served on the condo board with Kimmel for two years and now lives in California. “In some ways he was flamboyant-very gregarious, everybody’s pal. . . . But he never did anything that seemed odd or suspicious. He never wore jewelry around or anything like that, certainly not any pimp-daddy kind of stuff. Which is why, when it all happened, it was like, Who would have thunk?”
“It” all happened on a cold day last November when FBI agents surprised him in the parking lot of Marina City with a list of mortifying allegations. The dentist wore no smile that day, nor could he manage one when he recounted the moment to me several months later, after agreeing to discuss the case that has turned him from a respected family practitioner into “Dr. Ho,” as some Marina City residents have called him, and “the pimp dentist of Chicago,” as one Web site put it.
“I was getting out of the car in the parking lot at Marina City when two agents approached me and flashed their badges,” he recalls. Within moments, “there were lots of people around watching.” The agents asked if he was Gary Kimmel. “I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘You’re under arrest for human trafficking, for prostitution.’” Neighbors of Kimmel at Marina City stood in the parking lot that day with their mouths hanging open. If Kimmel had been charged with donning a miniskirt and turning tricks himself the moment couldn’t have seemed more absurd. Gary Kimmel? Doc? There must be a terrible mistake. Nevertheless, the FBI car sped away with the dentist handcuffed in the back seat.
Kimmel was being charged with playing a part in an underage prostitution ring that stretched from Detroit to Chicago to Hawaii. He did it, the feds claim, by doing business with three violent, thuggish pimps. One was a man named Jody Spears, 35, who authorities say scoffed at a suggestion that he was exploiting underage teens, reportedly saying, “So what? Some of my best girls were minors.” Another, a Detroit man named Robert Lewis Young, 45, cruised around town in a maroon Mustang tricked out with gleaming rims and emblazoned with the words “Hoe Catcher.” Prosecutors also believe Kimmel fell in with a third pimp, a Detroit man named Mark Luke White, performing dental work on him and some of the young women who turned tricks for him. Of the many alleged prostitutes involved in the case, only one has been charged-a woman named Hae Sun Kim, who authorities allege helped White recruit and train other prostitutes.
The allegations arising from the investigation are ugly. One young woman began selling herself for Spears when she was 16, according to an affidavit accompanying his criminal indictment. Several describe the beatings they took and the 15-hour days they spent having sex for money.
Kimmel’s role included performing after-hours dental work on the prostitutes, often to repair the damage done by the pimps. In addition, authorities allege, Kimmel provided the pimps with rendezvous spots for their johns by renting out his spare Marina City apartments to Spears and Young. One woman posed for pictures on the balcony of a 56th-floor condo Kimmel owned but did not occupy, and the images were used to accompany her profile on an escort Web site called Eros.com, according to the Spears affidavit. In 2004, Chicago police busted another woman for prostitution in a sting carried out in a Kimmel apartment, authorities allege.
Kimmel’s biggest contribution, the feds say, was his fleet of cars-a Plymouth Prowler, a Dodge Viper, a Corvette, a Mercedes SUV, and others, some of them costing $100,000 or more. Like the low-slung, fin-tailed pimpmobiles of yore, the cars represented the ideal status symbol for a pimp and his coterie of women. According to Kimmel’s affidavit, Spears and Young paid cash to Kimmel, who maintained the cars in his own name and used the money to pay off the bank loans taken out to buy the cars. For Kimmel, the arrangement seemed the perfect way to bolster his shaky credit rating. For the pimps, the feds allege, the scheme provided glitzy vehicles that confirmed their “player” bona fides and supplied them with bait to dangle before hooker recruits dazzled by 20-inch rims and hood ornament bling.
Arriving at a downtown office, out on bond while his criminal case moves through the system, Kimmel looks not like a “Dr. Ho” but rather the genial, gentle “Friar Tuck” described by acquaintances. In a blue T-shirt and well worn black work shoes, and with his wife, Mona Lisa, by his side, he comes across as likable, unassuming, humble. A federal grand jury has indicted him on one count of money laundering and one count of interstate transportation of unlawful proceeds, charges that carry up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $500,000 or twice the amount of the alleged criminal proceeds. He has grudgingly accepted the suspension of his dental license and says he currently earns money as a deliveryman for a former patient’s company.
Given that publicly discussing details of a case before trial is fraught with legal risks, he is surprisingly willing to talk about the scandal his Marina City neighbors have taken to calling “Kimmelgate.” His interviews with Chicago mark the first and only time he has spoken publicly about the fix he finds himself in. He insists, to this day, that he was shocked when the FBI arrested him. “I wouldn’t know how to be a pimp if they tried to explain it to me,” he says. “I’ve got a lovely wife who I wouldn’t trade for anything and a little girl of my own. I love my job, I love dentistry, but to get involved in anything illegal-I wasn’t about that.” Authorities do allow that Kimmel did not patronize the hookers. Nor, they say, was Kimmel’s home ever used by escorts or prostitutes. Kimmel was in it, they say, purely for the money.
Still, his pleas of innocence are at odds with the version offered by authorities-and with comments he made to me in interviews. According to an affidavit accompanying Spears’s indictment, Kimmel has already admitted to money laundering and related crimes. Meanwhile, wiretaps have captured Kimmel discussing prostitutes with Young and telling his dental assistant that Young is “the pimp; he works for me.” The assistant, Idalia Merlor, who worked with Kimmel for more than a decade, has described prostitutes showing up for after-hours dental work. And several prostitutes have told authorities that Kimmel treated them without charging. Kimmel himself is cooperating with authorities; both his attorney, Joseph Lopez, and the feds say a plea bargain is highly likely.
In conversations with me, Kimmel acknowledged several of the government’s assertions, including that he rented an apartment to Young and knew that Young ran an escort service. (Kimmel says he knew him by the name Lawrence Benjamin and by the nickname “Diamond.") He admitted that Young paid him for the use of some of his cars. What’s more, Kimmel acknowledged that he performed dental work on some of the “girls” Young brought to him, knowing that they were escorts. Kimmel’s defense is that he didn’t know the young women were prostitutes. “I never made that connection in any way, shape, or form,” he says. “I knew they were escorts. That was never a question. But there is a significant difference. Escorts get hired to accompany a guy and look pretty on his arm and make him feel important. So what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Do these girls do anything more than go out with guys? Not as far as I’m concerned.”
Whether he is really that naïve or just trying to finesse his way out of a legal corner remains for the justice system to decide. The burning question here is one that continues to mystify a public both intrigued and titillated by the tale of the dentist and the pimps: How in the world does someone like Kimmel-a Northwestern University dental school graduate and former instructor, a successful practitioner who owns several apartments in one of Chicago’s best-known buildings, someone dedicated to the healing arts-how does that man get tangled up in a network of “hoe” catchers and hookers, a sordid, violent world so far removed from his own respectable lifestyle?
To find the answer, you have to drill past the surface sparkle of the life Kimmel led before his arrest, to his early years growing up in Hinsdale. Gary Steven Kimmel, now 57, was born in that quiet, affluent suburb, the son of a stay-at-home mother, Doris, and a father, George, who owned a trucking company. Kimmel says he thought he might become a doctor, but chose dentistry at the urging of his father, who Kimmel says admired his own dentist. “[My father] suggested I go to dental school and said if I did, he’d help,” Kimmel says.
In 1968, Kimmel put that plan on hold when he volunteered for the army and ended up serving in Vietnam as a squad leader. At one point he suffered what could have been a career-ending injury. Catching shrapnel from a hand grenade, he was wounded in two places critical to a dentist-his hands and his eyes. He recovered, however, and his Vietnam experience, far from daunting him, awakened a taste for adventure. “I got a little crazy and volunteered for a lot of dangerous assignments,” he says. But “I enjoyed it.”
Still, upon returning to the States in October 1969, Kimmel chose the relative safety of his father’s offer. He attended Indiana University, then dental school at Northwestern. (The university’s school of dentistry has since closed.) A whiz in math and science, he was invited to join the Northwestern faculty in 1978, and for three years he taught part-time, a university spokesman confirms.
He traded a professor’s lectern for a dentist’s chair after a stint working in the office of one of his mentors, who showed Kimmel what he could look forward to if he stuck with the career. “He took me to his office,” Kimmel recalls. “I remember thinking, Boy, is this beautiful. It had a courtyard, a brick wall, six operatories. It was clean and beautiful. He asked if I’d be willing to work for him.” Kimmel jumped at the chance, and in 1979, when the mentor moved to another location, Kimmel bought the practice at 5748 North California Avenue and became a full-time dentist. His business grew, he says, “by leaps and bounds.”
Suddenly, he says, “I was a single guy making so much money I couldn’t spend it. I had an airplane, Jaguars.” Now in a top tax bracket, he says, he was advised by his accountant to find tax shelters, so he bought 29 truck cabs and formed a profitable trucking company, K & E Leasing. At the tender age of 30, Kimmel was both a successful dentist and a prospering business owner. “I was doing incredibly well,” he says.
In 1981, he married a woman named Elisabeth Kearney, and the young couple settled into a condominium at 5415 North Sheridan Road. In those heady days, Kimmel says, he anticipated few obstacles on a long, prosperous path paved with wealth and achievement. But in time, potholes appeared. In 1985, as he was driving along the Skyway near 106th Street, he says, a drunken driver hit him. “My right knee, arm, and wrist were broken,” he says. “It was three years before I was able to work [as a dentist] again.” During that time, he says, he was forced to sell his dental practice for far less than its worth. Under the strain of financial and emotional pressure, his marriage soon collapsed. He and Elisabeth Kimmel were divorced in 1987.
In the late 1980s, the company that leased his truck cabs went under, leaving him with an idle fleet. Eventually his truck venture failed. “The IRS shut it down,” he says, leaving him with crushing debts and tax liabilities.
In November 1988, Kimmel re-turned to practicing dentistry at his California Avenue office, now owned by a man named Juanito “Johnny” Robles. As it turned out, Robles was in need of a rainmaker dentist to help build the practice. Kimmel seemed a perfect fit, Robles says. “He is a nice guy and a very shrewd businessman,” Robles told me. “Unfortunately, things didn’t work out.”
The two had a falling-out, principally over billing, and Kimmel resigned after
barely a year on the job. He quickly found employment, in 1989, with Robles’s ex-wife, Rosalina, also a dentist, who worked out of a small storefront practice on West Montrose. This time, Kimmel was a hit. “He got along with everybody,” recalls Idalia Merlor, their assistant. “All the patients loved him.” One of those patients, who later served on the Marina City condominium board with Kimmel, found him to be “quite personable” and professional. “I had no complaints with the work he did,” says Martin Flynn.
“To me, he was a great dentist, a great person,” Rosalina Robles adds. “I loved working with him.”
Kimmel himself was no less delighted. True, there was nothing glamorous about the location: In one corner, a dusty fan pushed around gusts of hot air. The waiting room featured a murky aquarium circled by a few desultory fish. Patients had to be buzzed in. Reception looked like the intake at a free medical clinic. But taking in 40 percent of the fees he generated for Robles’s practice, Kimmel slowly started to stabilize his finances. “It was great,” he says. “I figured a lot of my patients would hear that I’m back and they’ll come back to me, and they did.”
His personal life had also taken a propitious turn. He first saw Mona Lisa on a videotape of a friend’s wedding. The friend, who lived in Chicago, had married a Filipino woman, and Kimmel saw his future wife in background shots. “I asked, ‘Who’s that?’” he recalls. Never having spoken to the petite, strikingly attractive woman, he says, he took a chance and in 1992 traveled to a poor, remote village in the Philippines for an arranged meeting. “I had this affinity for beautiful Asian ladies,” he says. “So I went over there to meet her. People have always known me to be a little bit of a gambler, and I said, I’m going to take a gamble and meet this girl.”