Behind the Counter, an Acute Anxiety
The New York Times
By N. R. KLEINFIELD
January 8, 2012
Arlo Drug Store, in Massapequa Park, no longer stocks drugs like OxyContin.
Long Island pharmacists talk of the twitchy arrivals who meander around, peering at the ceiling. They talk of the “pharmacy shoppers” who call up, give no name, and wonder if the place has oddly copious quantities of a narcotic painkiller, usually oxycodone. No, we don’t, they will be told. They suspect the caller is a robber, casing a target.
As U.S. Agent Is Mourned, Officials Try to Figure Out Who Shot Him (January 2, 2012)
Intervening After Robbery, an Off-Duty A.T.F. Agent Is Killed (January 1, 2012)
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
At Precision Pharmacy, Frank Stella is adding more video cameras.
For some time now, pharmacists have agitated about the persistent issue of insurance reimbursement for their prescription drug sales. More recently, that distraction has been joined by the prospect of a looter with a gun, a possibility that is warping what it means to work in a drugstore.
“I just want to get out of here alive every day; that’s my new goal,” said Howard Levine, the owner of Belmont Drugs and Surgical in West Babylon, who has experienced two armed robberies in the past 14 months. “I’m numb. This has taken all the fun out of pharmacy.”
Pharmacies throughout the country have been shaken by a rash of bold robberies by gun-wielding criminals hunting for narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs and other controlled medications, either to quench their own addictions or to sell. But nowhere has the face of this epidemic been more frightful than on Long Island, where a pair of pharmacy robberies 30 miles apart resulted in six deaths.
The killings have sharply elevated tensions — some pharmacies now display signs making it clear that they do not carry oxycodone — and set off a scramble for better security, since in the past, injuries of any sort had been rare with these types of crimes.
On June 19, at Haven Drugs in Medford, a pharmacist, a clerk and two customers were killed by David Laffer as he stole thousands of pain pills. He has pleaded guilty to the crimes.
On New Year’s Eve, a federal agent was mistakenly killed by a retired police lieutenant outside Charlie’s Family Pharmacy in Seaford. The agent, who was picking up his father’s cancer medication, tried to foil a cash-and-pill robbery attempt by James McGoey. Mr. McGoey, who was also killed, had only recently been released from prison, where he had served time for prior robbery convictions, some of them involving pharmacies.
Last April, a pharmacist was killed in Trenton, and in 2009 a pharmacy clerk was killed in North Highlands, Calif.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 688 armed pharmacy robberies involving controlled substances in the United States in 2010, a 79 percent increase from 2006. In New York State, these crimes jumped to 30 in 2010 from just 4 in 2006. Pharmacists say there were at least a dozen robberies on Long Island last year.
The crime spree has prompted Long Island pharmacists to strengthen their security precautions, and to wrestle with fear. Some have gone so far as to install bulletproof glass partitions or entry systems where customers must be buzzed in. A few have hired guards, or are considering getting guns.
“I didn’t know when I got my pharmacist’s license I’d put my life on the line like a cop or a soldier,” said Howard Jacobson, who owns two Long Island pharmacies, Rockville Centre Pharmacy and West Hempstead Pharmacy, but has not been robbed. “My own daughter, who works here, said, ‘Dad, I’m scared to come to work.’ I said, ‘You know, I don’t blame you.’ ”
Just the other day, he said, a retired member of the sheriff’s department approached him in his West Hempstead store, told him he understood that his employees were frightened, and asked if he wanted to hire him as a guard. Mr. Jacobson told the man to leave his information.
He said he had also made it clear to his workers that if a robber came in, “We don’t need heroes.”
A number of Long Island pharmacies have recently stopped stocking drugs like OxyContin, a principal target of thieves, and, like Arlo Drug Store in Massapequa Park, have posted signs announcing that they don’t carry it.
Sav Well Drugs in Massapequa installed cameras after the Medford killings. In the wake of the robbery at Charlie’s Family Pharmacy, which is only a few minutes away, three signs on the front door declare that it no longer carries OxyContin.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Arlo Drug Store. In New York State and nationwide, the number of pharmacy robberies has soared since 2006.
Senator Charles E. Schumer called on Wednesday for better drugstore security and promoted longer sentences for pharmacy thefts. In September, a Long Island Pharmacy Crimes Task Force was established among law enforcement agencies and pharmacies to share security ideas. A few years ago, Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, created RxPatrol, a clearinghouse that tracks pharmacy crimes and offers security tips. Purdue also posts rewards for information that helps in the capture of drugstore robbers.
Pharmacy holdups are not a new invention. Numerous robberies occurred during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. “Drugstore Cowboy,” a novel by James Fogle that was shaped into a 1989 film, told of addicted miscreants who preyed on pharmacies in the Pacific Northwest decades ago, based on Mr. Fogle’s own misdeeds. A chronic prison resident, Mr. Fogle was arrested in 2010 for looting a Seattle pharmacy and pleaded guilty last year.
But robberies had appreciably subsided until recent years. Pharmacists and others blame proliferating prescription drug abuse and excessive dispersal of controlled painkillers for setting off this wave.
Pharmacy associations and consultants suggest a checklist of precautions for stores to take that would aid in investigations. They include simple things like affixing height decals on the sides of doors so witnesses can better gauge a robber’s height, and wiping counters and doorknobs multiple times a day to improve the odds that police officers will get fingerprints.
Precision Pharmacy in Bellmore already has a panic button that sets off a silent alarm, and nine cameras, but Frank Stella, the owner, is adding more. A customer told him he ought to put in bulletproof glass. He has counseled his workers to tell all pharmacy shoppers: “We don’t stock it.”
When Island Care Pharmacy opened in a Plainview strip mall two years ago, the owners didn’t think robbery was an issue. It is a specialty pharmacy that does not have walk-in traffic, but instead delivers medications to doctors’ offices, hospitals and patients’ homes.
Then, in August, the place was robbed of oxycodone by a masked thief who vaulted over the counter. The owners installed a bullet-resistant barrier at the service opening. The robber returned in October. When he saw the barrier, he left, then proceeded to rob a Bethpage pharmacy, the police said. He was later arrested.
John Civitello, one of Island Care’s owners, said the business was moving to Melville, in part because of the robberies. The new store will have a barrier, a buzzer on the front door and other safeguards he did not want to list.
Some pharmacies, especially those that have been robbed, have lost employees who are discomfited by the risks.
Peter Goldstein was held up twice, including once in 2000 at a pharmacy he ran in Setauket. That robber was James McGoey, the culprit who was shot to death in Seaford.
“Once it happens, you think about it every day,” Mr. Goldstein said. “You have those 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning nightmares.”
A few years later, he lost his lease. He is glad that he now works as a pharmacy manager at New York University Student Health Services, where he is protected by security guards.
Even with the crime surge, many Long Island pharmacists are leery of excessive, visible security like bullet-resistant partitions. They feel these are off-putting and dampen their relationship with their customers. Security consultants and the police generally advise against pharmacists’ arming themselves.
Joanne Hoffman Beechko, who owns Rx Express Pharmacy in Huntington, has long taken plenty of security precautions. The day after the Medford shootings, though, she added a monitor that customers see when they walk in, reminding them that they are being videotaped.
“We are watching the door much more closely,” she said. “When the little chimes go off, we all know to look at who’s walking in.”
She will go only so far. She does not feel that the answer is to stop carrying painkillers, penalizing those who legitimately need them. “We don’t want to go back to the days when we sawed off legs without anesthesia,” she said.
And she does not want to transform her pharmacy into “a fort.”
“If it gets to the point where I would fear for my life and feel I need bulletproof glass, then I close my door,” she said. “I don’t live in Iraq. I’d move to the middle of the country where there was no one but wolves and bears and take my chances.”
Tim Stelloh contributed reporting.