RX abuse brings drug crime to the corner store

FILE - In this June 22, 2011 file photo, people gather in front of the Haven Pharmacy in Medford, N.Y., where four people were killed, including two employees and two customers, during a shooting on June 19, 2011, during a holdup for prescription painkillers. It is the nation?s second-most abused medicine, linked to murders, celebrity overdoses and a rising tide of violent pharmacy robberies. But since 1999 federal regulators have put off deciding whether to tighten controls over hydrocodone, the addictive narcotic that is the key ingredient in Vicodin and other medicines. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
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butalbital, pain reliever, fever reducer, pills
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(CBS) - It was a slow day in February when the man with the gun walked into Plantation Pharmacy in Charleston, S.C.

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Pharmacist Kerri Edmonds was on the phone, and when she looked up, she was suddenly staring down the barrel of the gun. 

"The man told everyone to get on the ground," remembers Edmonds. "He was very focused."

But once she got to the store's safe, Edmonds realized that it wasn't money he was focused on, but pills. Oxycodone, to be precise. He filled up a garbage bag with what they had and fled.

Edmonds was lucky. Last weekend in Seaford, New York, two men - including an off-duty federal agent - were shot and killed during a pharmacy robbery. The suspect, James McGoey, was leaving the Charlie's Family Pharmacy with money and painkillers when ATF agent John Capano confronted him. The two fought, and when a former police officer who owned a deli nearby came to try to help, he ended up shooting and killing Capano.

And last year, David Laffer was sentenced to life in prison for killing four people - including a pharmacist and a clerk - in another Long Island pharmacy in what began as an attempt to rob the store of painkillers and other drugs.

Suddenly, being a pharmacist is a dangerous profession.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, armed robberies of pharmacies increased 81 percent between 2006 and 2010, rising from 385 to 698. Just this past week, armed robbers have hit drugstores in Massachusetts, Arizona and North Carolina, to name a few.

"What's usually the reason for drug crime? Addiction and money," says DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne. "There's a lot of money in illicit trafficking of pharmaceuticals and we've seen abuse go through the roof. People do crazy things when they're on drugs."

And a lot of people are on prescription drugs. According to the most recent data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), 7 million Americans, or 2.7 percent of the population, use prescription drugs for reasons other than medical necessity. The NIDA identifies several types of misused prescription drugs, including stimulants and tranquilizers. But the agency's data reveals that, by far, pain relievers account for most cases of prescription drug abuse - 73 percent.

In September 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that prescription drug overdoses have contributed to the startling fact that in 2009, more Americans died due to drugs - over 37,000 people - than died in car accidents. According to the Times, which used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for their analysis, that death toll has doubled in the past decade.

All of this is part of the reason that Dave Shirley, who works at an independent pharmacy in Charleston, has carried a gun to work every day for four years.

"Being a pharmacist these days you have to be very vigilant," says Shirley. "Your life is in danger."

Shirley's boss, Deborah Dapore, owns two pharmacies in Charleston - including the one where Kerri Edmonds was robbed - and says that since last year's hold-up, they've made major changes to their store security, including installing cameras outside the store and added more silent alarm buttons. And they also no longer give out information about painkillers over the phone.

"It used to be that someone would call and ask if we have their medication and we'd say, 'Oh sure, we've got plenty of that,'" she says. "Not anymore."

According to Valerie Briggs of the National Community Pharmacies Association, the industry has been providing training and guidance to pharmacists and their employees on this issue for close to a decade, but stepped up efforts in 2008 when they launched the Protect Your Pharmacy initiative. The group partnered with the RxPATROL, a group that brings law enforcement and pharmaceutical industry players together, to create tips for pharmacies to keep themselves safe, including installing a measuring tape in the doorway, so cameras can capture the exact height of a robber once he's escaped, and encouraging store owners to keep illicit drugs like oxycodone in a safe.

Dapore has taken this advice seriously. After the February robbery, she rearranged the interior of the store so that the pharmacists have a clear view of the entrance and there is now a bell that rings every time a customer enters. Employees have been trained to look up and take notice of everyone who comes in.

And Dapore says that local police have also stepped up their presence, dropping by the store and getting to know the employees, and sitting in their cruisers in the parking lot to fill out paperwork.

Edmonds says she wishes she'd been paying more attention when the man that robbed her came in last year.

"It wasn't cold out, but he was wearing his hood up and had sunglasses on," she remembers. "If I'd looked up, I would have been immediately suspicious."

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  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for