A convicted drug dealer who fled to Sweden and hoped to become a Christian missionary had his 25-year sentence reduced yesterday by Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, making him eligible for immediate parole.

Robb's unusual move means that David Thomas McBride, 34, may soon be freed from prison, only six months after the former escapee was snared by a customs agent at New York's Kennedy Airport while transferring planes on a return flight to Stockholm. Robb said he was willing to reduce the sentence to 10 years because "by all accounts, McBride has lead an exemplary life" during the time he was living overseas.

McBride expressed conflicting emotions when contacted by telephone at the Powhatan Correctional Center near Richmond. He said he was "very happy that he Robb has done something," but disappointed that the governor didn't grant him a full pardon.

"My only concern is there's no more time before I'm free," said McBride. "I don't want to sound ungrateful . . . but it's another thing to be still sitting here, going through the torment of prison. I feel I have suffered enough."

McBride's lawyer, John C. Lowe, said he anticipates no difficulties in the former Bedford County resident being released on parole within the next few weeks. "This is a rare case," he said.

McBride's ordeal has been a highly unusual one, said Lowe and others familiar with the case. Thirteen years ago, as a 21-year-old Florida resident on a trip to California, he stopped off to visit his grandmother in central Virginia's Bedford County, where he once lived. A childhood acquaintance sought him out and asked him to sell some LSD--a transaction that netted McBride $200. Shortly thereafter, McBride was arrested and convicted in a trial that became a local sensation.

Three and a half years later, while on a prison furlough to his parent's Lynchburg home, McBride slipped out of the house and fled the country. He spent the next seven years in Sweden where he remarried, founded a boat building firm and became a devout Christian. Earlier this year, McBride was making plans to become a missionary, traveling on a church boat in the Mediterranean Sea that was to stop off in the Middle East and northern Africa to distribute church literature.

McBride had even contacted U.S. authorities in Stockholm to inform him of his past. When a check turned up no evidence that he was still wanted for escape, the American consul granted McBride a passport after being impressed by him as a "decent, law-abiding religious individual."

But McBride's plan for missionary work was dashed last May while returning from a business trip to the Caribbean. When all planes to Sweden were booked, he took a flight that included a stopover in New York, where he was jailed after a customs agent discovered his criminal record through a federal computer check.

Robb acted yesterday after receiving recommendations from the commonwealth's attorney who prosecuted McBride and the judge who sentenced him. The new term of 10 years, Robb noted, was more in line with what a defendant would be likely to receive today in a similar case.

McBride was interviewed yesterday by a three-member panel of the Virginia Parole Board -- the first step in a process that could lead to his release in three to six weeks, a parole official said yesterday. McBride said, however, that he is concerned that even if granted parole he would be unable to pursue his missionary plans if he is required to report to a parole officer in the United States.

"I still have hopes that they will grant me some of kind of unsupervised parole so I can fulfill my work," he said.