Maine’s 58 pharmacy robberies in 2012 were more than double any previous year, and now authorities are striking back with threats of harsher penalties and greater involvement from the federal government.
Law enforcement officers from around the state will be sworn in as special federal agents today as part of the ongoing efforts to amp-up cooperative efforts to prosecute those accused of robbing pharmacies.
The 18 state, county and local law enforcement officers will assist federal agents investigating robberies and burglaries that occur at pharmacies, as well as investigations of prescription drug abuse, said U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty. The deputized officers serve in departments across the state, including the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and Augusta Police, assisting in the response to what the U.S. Attorney’s Office calls a drug crisis.
At the same time, police across the state spent part of this week distributing signs to pharmacies announcing that those who rob the pharmacy or break in after hours for prescription pills can be charged federally.
Delahanty extended the offer of federal prosecution for robberies when he took office in 2010. There were only a few takers until last year, when the number of pharmacy robberies soared to historic levels.
The number of pharmacy robberies spiked to 58 in 2012 after 24 in 2011. Augusta had a statewide high of nine.
There were eight pharmacy robberies statewide in 2009, Delahanty said.
“The FBI approach (to pharmacy robberies) is similar to bank robberies,” Delahanty said. “It’s just a different business. That’s where the idea of stickers came from. They commonly distributed stickers to banks. We like to think it’s somewhat of a deterrent.”
Kevin Holland, owner of Variety Drug in Skowhegan and Mt. Blue Drug in Farmington, said he got the display stickers this week and they’re on the doors of his pharmacies.
“Anything to deter that from happening, I think, is a good idea,” Holland said Wednesday.
The 6-by-9-inch stickers say that robbery, burglary and theft of prescription drugs committed at the pharmacies will be investigated and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office.
For nearly 20 years, the Skowhegan drug store had a sign that said robberies were a federal crime and punishable by up to 20 years in prison, Holland said. The new sign says the effort is part of Project Safe. The FBI, U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Drug Enforcement Agency initials are listed on the signs.
Holland said his stores have good alarms and high-definition camera systems. He said other pharmacies have upgraded to such equipment to help deter robberies and thefts as well.
Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said she has given the U.S. Attorney’s Office permission to proceed on all pharmacy robberies in Kennebec and Somerset because that office “is able to get a stiffer sentence than we are.”
“I can’t think of any reason to be territorial about this,” Maloney said Wednesday. “If they can get a better sentence and they want to proceed — fantastic. If they don’t proceed, then we will.”
There have been six pharmacy robberies in Maine since January, which is well below last year’s pace.
“It’s a lot fewer, but it’s six too many,” Delahanty said. “We’ve been extremely lucky there have been no serious injuries.”
One of those six robberies occurred in Augusta. Two people have pleaded guilty in connection with the January hold up and face up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
There have also been robberies in Sanford, Windham, Yarmouth, Kingfield and Bath. Charges have been brought in all those cases, Delahanty said. In one case, charges were dismissed, and in two others, the state will prosecute. Federal prosecutors have brought charges in the Kingfield robbery and charged two Dresden residents with a June 14 robbery in Bath.
“There’s a number of factors to take into consideration when deciding whether the state is going to prosecute,” Delahanty said. Those factors include whether the individual has a record with the state or whether there are additional charges that federal officials could not prosecute.
Delahanty said a lot of things have contributed to this year’s decline in pharmacy robberies. One major one is that other drugs, particularly heroin, are more available now and are cheaper than prescription drugs, causing the market to shift.
“I think the pharmacy robberies increased as the source of drugs on the street was getting tighter,” Delahanty said.
It’s impossible to know for sure what, if any, impact the potential for federal prosecution has played in reducing robberies.
Delahanty said he’d like to think it has, “but I can’t point to anything specific that would verify that.”
His office conducted a study last year on sentences levied by the state and federal judges and found the state often imposes significant sentences, but large chunks of that sentence are typically suspended with additional years of probation. Federal sentences do not included suspensions.
The 18 officers sworn in today will have statewide authority, but they will typically respond to robberies in their area, Delahanty said. He said additional officers could be sworn in if the need arises.
Delahanty praised the effort of local, county and state law enforcement, who continue to be the first to respond to and investigate the robberies, and who provided officers to be sworn in as federal agents.
“The response from municipal departments, sheriffs and the state police, has been excellent,” he said.
Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said Wednesday that his department met with Delahanty to discuss the offer to help local police departments investigate pharmacy robberies.
“Also, the idea came up of creating these stickers which we, the Waterville Police Department, actually passed out to local pharmacies to post in their lobbies,” Massey said. “We’re kind of hoping the warning with a stronger assertion that they could be prosecuted federally, just like in bank robberies, would have some impact.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642
Amy Calder — 861-9247