'Preppie Connection' recounts student's cocaine bust in 1984
Mar. 23, 2016
MANCHESTER, Conn. (AP) — It was three decades ago that Derek Oatis was busted at a New York airport with South American cocaine he intended to sell to his prep school classmates, a scandal that led to the arrest and expulsion of more than a dozen students at a prestigious Connecticut boarding school.
Now an attorney in the Hartford suburbs, Oatis said it was unnerving to relive the ordeal as he watched "The Preppie Connection," an independent movie inspired by his story.
"Surreal is a good word," Oatis said. "It all came flooding back."
The film, starring Thomas Mann and Lucy Fry, debuted at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October and was released last week on Amazon, iTunes and other online services. The names of the people involved in the real-life drama have been changed.
The film's director, Joseph Castelo, said he was drawn to Oatis' tale because he, like Oatis, attended a prestigious prep school in the 1980s and considered himself an outsider because he came from a working-class family.
"There was so much about it that symbolized the early '80s," said Castelo, who runs Coalition Films in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Oatis, 49, grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, and attended Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford as a day student on a scholarship. He remembers Choate parents arriving in helicopters on the first Parents Day he attended, while his mother and father drove a Dodge Dart.
"I didn't have a lot of friends, and I didn't fit in," Oatis said.
One of his friends was Matt Holmes, whose parents lived in Venezuela. Holmes would bring back small amounts of marijuana for himself when returning from visiting them, Oatis said. Word spread, and soon a dozen or so students were giving Holmes money to buy pot and cocaine for them in Venezuela, Oatis said.
"Everybody knew what was going on," Oatis said.
In 1984, Oatis and his girlfriend, Cathy Cowan, traveled to Venezuela to buy $5,000 worth of cocaine, about three-quarters of a pound, using Holmes' drug contacts and money from classmates. When they got off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport on their return, they were immediately taken into custody. Officials found the cocaine in a talcum powder bottle in Oatis' suitcase and in some baggies in his pockets. On Cowan, authorities found a handwritten list of Choate students who were buying the drugs.
Choate officials had learned about the trip beforehand and called police.
None of the students received prison time. Oatis said he believes it helped the defendants that many came from wealthy families.
Oatis, who had faced up to 15 years in prison, was charged by federal authorities as a youthful offender and was sentenced to five years of probation and 5,000 hours of community service, the same sentence Holmes received. Under a youthful offender prosecution, the charges against Oatis — then 17 — were erased.
Choate, which counts John F. Kennedy among its alumni, said in a statement that the movie is "a highly fictionalized account of a difficult moment in the school's history" and Oatis' case led to the "zero-tolerance, one-strike" policy for student drug use that remains in effect.
Seeing the movie was somewhat cathartic for Oatis.
"I never really had come to grips with it," Oatis said about the cocaine bust. "I had a huge amount of guilt. I still have a huge amount of guilt from what I put my family through."