December 06, 2004 12:00 PM

For Hollywood wives of a certain age, “Dr. Dan” seemed like a miracle worker. For one thing, he made house calls—his well-heeled clients would never have to be seen leaving a plastic surgeon’s office. For another, he had his finger on the latest trends in wrinkle camouflage and lip plumpers. Dr. Dan, as his devotees called Daniel Serrano, used injectable fillers that are the latest thing in Europe, and he promised that, unlike Botox or collagen, their results would be permanent. “He’s a very charming guy,” says Ellen Lavinthal, an animal-rights activist who sometimes availed herself of Serrano’s services, “and he had a lot of fabulous endorsements from the women he had been treating.”

But the charm hid a darker reality. On Nov. 15 federal agents arrested Serrano, who may have been licensed as a doctor in Argentina but is only a nurse in the U.S., and charged him with importing and distributing Artecoll, a combination of synthetic collagen and tiny solid beads that is a legal wrinkle filler in Canada, Mexico and Europe but has not been approved by the FDA (see box). His unlikely partner in crime, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles: Diane Richie, 38, who is Lionel’s estranged wife. “He was arrested in a clinic he was using in Beverly Hills,” according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office. “He called [Diane], and she was taken into custody outside the clinic.”

Serrano, considered a flight risk and a danger to the community, is being held without bond at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. Richie spent a night in jail but is now out on $25,000 bond. If convicted of the two current charges, each could face up to six years in prison—a fate Richie’s outraged friends say she doesn’t deserve. “If she’s guilty of anything,” says Lavinthal, “she’s guilty of letting this guy come into her life and wreak havoc. He took advantage of her emotionally. He’s very good at taking advantage of women.”

It’s unclear how Richie and Serrano first met. Serrano is married to Walter Matthau’s niece Michelle Matthau (“He told Diane and me he married her for a green card,” says Lavinthal). But by last year Richie was inviting him to the home she and Lionel, whom she married in 1996, then shared in Beverly Hills to perform Artecoll injections for friends. According to an affidavit given by Richie’s house manager, during the period between July and December 2003 up to 40 people came to the house to see Serrano.

Fabulous endorsements notwithstanding, he didn’t always get good results. Larry King’s wife, Shawn, who had injections to her lips, temples, smile lines and around her eyes, told investigators that her lower lip developed “an aesthetically displeasing bump” which became hard, making it difficult to drink and speak. Lavinthal had several shots to her cheeks and upper lip. Afterward, she said in her affidavit, three holes formed in her face. (The damage, she now says, has been repaired by a doctor.)

At least one of Serrano’s clients became suspicious about his qualifications long before his arrest. “I started getting a bad feeling about him—that he wasn’t on the up-and-up,” says celebrity stylist Vivian Turner. “I started to realize he was scamming people.”

An anonymous tip to the FBI 14 months ago led to an investigation by the Medical Board of California. Following Serrano’s and Richie’s arrests, agents confiscated safety-deposit boxes, one in his name and one in hers, containing nearly $2 million in cash as well as jewelry.

A preliminary hearing on the case is set for Dec. 6. Lavinthal, for one, is convinced that her friend will be cleared of all charges. “She will cooperate with the authorities,” Lavinthal says. “She hasn’t seen Daniel in three months. She doesn’t like the person he is.” As for Serrano, says Turner, “he deserves to be in jail.”

Allison Adato. Lorenzo Benet, Champ Clark and Len Hochberg in Los Angeles

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