September 24, 2017 11:37 PM
As doctors are prescribing fewer painkillers in the middle of a deadly opioid epidemic, pharmacies are now becoming more of a lucrative target in Minnesota.
Robberies and burglaries at pharmacies have doubled in the past two years.
In 2013, just as the epidemic tightened its grip across the country, two gunmen charged into a north Minneapolis pharmacy, terrorized its employees and demanded painkillers.
“You never know what’s going to happen the next time,” said Justin Pacult, who owned Vitalife Pharmacy at the time.
Within minutes of the armed robbery, the thieves ran off with sweatshirts stuffed full of the powerful opioid Percocet.
“All it takes is a slip of the finger and they’ve killed someone,” Pacult said.
Now, four years later, that type of brazen robbery has reached a sort of high of its own.
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 16 such armed robberies in Minnesota in 2015.
Last year, that number leapt to 31 robberies – a 94 percent jump.
“(The robbers are) definitely a danger to the community," said Kenneth Solek Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in Minnesota. "You never know what they’re going to do. They’re unpredictable."
Solek said that while demand for opioids continues to grow, the ability to obtain them becomes more difficult.
“It’s just the nature of the beast," he said. "People want their narcotics. If people can’t go out on the street and find them, then they’re going to go where they know they are at.”
Take Addison Thompson Jr., for example.
Police said Thompson robbed at least four pharmacies in the metro over a two-month stretch late in 2016.
According to DEA investigators, Thompson is suspected of stealing roughly 20,000 pills with a street value of more than $200,000.
Thompson’s crime spree ended after a pharmacist handed over drugs with what's called a “bait bottle” that contained a GPS unit.
Investigators said that technology led them to Thompson.
He had about 200 oxycodone pills on him when officers arrested him, according to the criminal complaint.
“You just can't get this stuff,” said Dr. Mark Willenbring, founder of the Alttyr Clinic, based in St. Paul.
Willenbring previously worked for the National Institutes of Health and now saves lives at his clinic, known as an alternative to rehab.
He believes there’s a simple answer to the uptick in pharmacy robberies.
“We can contribute it primarily to just how difficult it is to obtain (opioids) now. Doctor shopping or just buying them from a friend,” he said.
The days of finding powerful painkillers stashed in your neighbors unlocked medicine cabinet are over, Willenbring says.
“I think it’s reasonable to speculate that most of the medicine cabinets are bare now, or that people are keeping their medicine cabinets locked up, like they very well should be."
Pharmacies are now forced to react – some even added armed security guards.
Back at that pharmacy in north Minneapolis, the owner decided to shut the doors for good in 2014 after two robberies in just four years of operation. What was once Vitalife Pharmacy is now a community market.
This year’s statistics are on pace to meet or surpass those of last year. There have been 19 robberies so far through August, with four months yet to be tallied.
Thompson has plead guilty. He will be sentenced later this fall.
Updated: September 24, 2017 11:37 PM
Created: September 22, 2017 12:49 PM
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