Pharmacy robberies on rise as addicts turn to guns
The latest holdup in Bingham, Maine was one of the most brazen yet in the state
By John Richardson
BINGHAM, Maine — Two armed robberies were enough for Chester Hibbard.
In the summer of 2010, a man wearing a hood and ski goggles entered E.W. Moore & Sons, Hibbard's community pharmacy on Main Street in Bingham. He thrust a knife across the counter at Hibbard and two employees and demanded OxyContin.
Several years earlier, a robber carrying a gun had demanded the same painkiller. Hibbard wanted the second time to be the last.
So he stopped stocking OxyContin. And he posted signs to tell everyone — especially desperate addicts: "We don't carry OxyContin!"
Hibbard thought the signs were helping — until last month, when a man wearing a mask entered the pharmacy with a sawed-off shotgun.
He jumped over the counter, told Hibbard, three employees and a customer to get on the floor, and tied their hands. Then he left with money and more than $12,000 worth of prescription drugs, including other narcotic painkillers.
The latest holdup in Bingham was one of the most brazen yet in Maine, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Michael Wardrop told a group of police chiefs in southern Maine last month. He said it's clear that Maine's addiction to painkillers is fueling much of the state's crime.
"It's out of control. It's rampant. It's our number-one problem," he said.
Pharmacy robberies, unheard of 15 years ago, have become regular occurrences around the state.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has counted 41 pharmacy robberies in Maine since Jan. 1, 2009, although the list may not be complete. Local police departments officially record the crimes as standard robberies. The DEA compiles its list from voluntary police reports and news reports.
Of the pharmacy robberies counted by the federal agency, four occurred in 2009, 21 happened in 2010, and 16 have occurred so far this year.
The robbery of Hibbard's store was one of at least seven holdups at drugstores in Maine in the month that began Aug. 29. Five occurred in Portland and South Portland, including two robberies of the CVS on Brighton Avenue in Portland. Another took place in Millinocket.
Maine isn't the only state where the robberies have increased.
Nationwide, armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to the DEA. A total of 1.3 million pills, worth as much as $80 each on the street, were stolen in 686 robberies last year. OxyContin and other oxycodone pills are the most common target.
The addiction epidemic has fueled another now-familiar crime in Maine: home invasions.
While not counted and tracked as a distinct crime, home invasions are helping to fuel an overall increase in robberies. Police say that in most robberies, as well as burglaries, the criminals are looking for money to buy pills and other drugs, or for pills themselves.
"The crimes of burglary, robbery and theft all went up in 2010 in Maine," said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. "Nine and a half times out of ten, it's all driven by drug abuse."
In Cumberland County, the number of burglaries in which prescription pills were among the items stolen doubled, from 14 in 2008 to 28 in 2009.
"With so much out there, you can almost find prescription drugs in every house," said Sheriff Kevin Joyce.
In Washington County, Sheriff Donnie Smith said he warns elderly residents to keep pill bottles away from their windows so they don't become robbery or burglary targets. Addicts even watch the obituaries to see where they might find unused cancer-pain medications, he said.
Most drug-related crime is low-profile and nonviolent, such as forged checks, burglaries and thefts from family members.
The people who get arrested on charges of prescription drug possession and trafficking don't always look like typical drug-crime suspects.
Smith, the Washington County sheriff, said it's not unusual for the elderly to sell some of their pain medication for extra income.
A 55-year-old Topsham woman was sentenced to jail in late September for stealing prescription sheets from the doctor's office in Bath where she was an office manager, according to the Maine Attorney General's Office. She forged oxycodone prescriptions for her son, who was sent to jail for selling the pills.
Some of the drug-fueled crimes are becoming increasingly dangerous, police say. Home invasions, whether driven by drug addiction or something else, are especially violent.
Eighty-one-year-old Grace Burton was stabbed to death during an apparent home invasion at her apartment in Farmington in June. Less than a week later, a middle-age woman was pistol-whipped by a masked intruder during a home invasion in Livermore Falls, police said.
The cases are still under investigation and are not believed to be related. Police would not say whether they believe painkillers or other drugs played a role in the crimes.
That's certainly one of the possibilities on the mind of Burton's son, Robert Butterfield. He said his mother had bone cancer and kept a lot of medication in her bedroom.
"People stand around the pharmacies and watch these old ladies come in by themselves and follow them home and see where they live," he said. "If somebody looked in her bedroom window and saw all those prescription pills, they might have presumed there was something they could have got high on. ... I just don't really know."
Whatever the killer's motivation, Butterfield is sure that his mother put up a fight.
"She wasn't a lady that was going to give up anything," he said. "She was probably a lot stronger than they expected her to be."
Burton's family is offering a reward — now over $16,000 — for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who caused her death, he said.
There have been no reports of injuries in pharmacy robberies in Maine, although police fear the potential is increasing.
In June, a robber walked into a community drugstore in Long Island, N.Y., and shot the pharmacist, a teenage employee and two customers to death before leaving with a backpack full of painkillers.
Hibbard, the pharmacist in Bingham, said the most recent robber was "way more threatening" than the two who robbed the store previously.
He said police asked him not to provide details, but he described how the robber leveled the gun at him and ordered him to get the drugs.
"It's not nice having something like that pointed at you," he said. "People don't realize how unnerving that can be."
Last year, a man jumped over the counter of a Rite-Aid pharmacy in Rockland, demanding drugs and threatening employees with a machete. He was still in the store, swallowing the oxycodone pills, when police arrived and arrested him at gunpoint.
Hibbard's store, an independent pharmacy in a rural community, was believed to be the only one in Maine to stop carrying a painkiller because of the crime risk. But pharmacies statewide have installed security equipment that once was reserved for banks and jewelry stores.
"We have turned to all of the cutting-edge suggestions," said Douglas Carr, an attorney who represents Rite-Aid of Maine. "The biggest thing we're concerned about is the well-being of our employees (and our) customers. ... It's a constant struggle, and sometimes you wonder whether you're winning."
The use of surveillance cameras, police tracking dogs and in some cases, electronic tracking devices, have helped police arrest suspects in a high percentage of recent cases. Police say some addicts seem more worried about getting a fix than getting caught.
Zachery Wildman of Westbrook was arrested at his home Sept. 6 on a charge of robbing a Hannaford pharmacy near the Maine Mall in South Portland. Witnesses got his license plate number as he drove away from the store, police said.
Wildman also was charged with the robbery of a Hannaford pharmacy in Portland on Aug. 31. Wildman, who declined an interview request, was being held on $50,000 cash bail in the Cumberland County Jail.
A day after the shotgun robbery at Hibbard's store last month, the Somerset County Sheriff's Office arrested James Stile, 55, of Sangerville and charged him with the crime. The Maine State Police tactical team and an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also were involved in the investigation.
DEA steps in
The DEA is now helping to investigate and prosecute the surging number of pharmacy robberies in Maine. Authorities hope that the prospect of federal charges and stiff sentences in out-of-state prisons might slow the trend.
In Biddeford, also hit by a string of robberies, police have recommended to pharmacies that they prohibit customers from entering stores wearing hoodies and dark glasses.
Biddeford police recently hosted a statewide law enforcement training session that was sponsored by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Purdue Pharma, concerned that more pharmacies might stop carrying OxyContin, also has offered $1,000 rewards for information leading to arrests in Maine pharmacy robberies.
The crime problem is a constantly moving target, police say. And successful crackdowns may cut the supply and make addicts more desperate, said Sgt. Kevin Cashman, a Maine Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor in Portland.
In late August, Cashman and other agents arrested five suspected dealers with more than 200 oxycodone pills from other states and about $21,000 in cash. The string of local pharmacy robberies started soon after the arrests.
"It seems like when there is a larger seizure of oxycodone, there are some pharmacy robberies that follow," Cashman said. "The pharmacy breaks happen in spurts. ... Then they get caught and a few months latter someone else does it."
Hibbard, the pharmacy owner in Bingham, now wonders what else he can do. He said he can't afford an armed guard, although he has heard from people who want the job. And he can't stop carrying all painkillers. Even if he could afford to give up the pain-treatment business, it would mean sending patients 25 miles away to the closest pharmacy.
"I'm going to carry less, but I still have to provide them for people," he said.
Some customers are worried that he might simply close, said Hibbard, who has owned the 100-year-old store for 17 years.
"I'm not planning on leaving, but I don't know, every time this happens, it becomes more of a possibility," he said.
It was encouraging to Hibbard that all of his employees came back to work the day after the latest holdup.
"I was wondering if they would," he said. "It's a very scary, unnerving thing."
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