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Summer a season of OxyContin holdups

Mon., Sept. 15, 2008

One suspect may be involved in several robberies

It’s become a familiar scenario this summer: A man walks up to a pharmacy counter and passes a note demanding OxyContin pills, then escapes with a cache of the powerful painkillers.

Police hoped the painkiller robberies would end when suspects were booked into the Kootenai County Jail two weeks ago. Then another Rite Aid was robbed last Monday.

Pharmacy robberies are not uncommon, Spokane police Detective Terry Ferguson said, but this streak seems to be unusually active. The most recent robbery, in Spokane Valley, brings the count for one suspect to five, maybe six.

“If you’re successful with the first couple attempts, you’ll probably keep going,” said Spokane police Officer Jennifer DeRuwe.

Pharmacy robbers aren’t likely to stop until they’re caught, considering the motive is often addiction. The relatively inexpensive OxyContin pills can garner a high street price, but police believe the culprits in the Spokane area are primarily addicts, not dealers.

Like other prescription drugs, statistics show misused OxyContin is usually obtained from people – often family or friends – who have a prescription for the painkiller. But addicts will go to greater lengths to obtain the pills.

Prescription fraud tops the list, but pharmacy robbery has become prevalent enough that Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that produces OxyContin, created a program to combat the problem.

Called RxPATROL – for Pattern Analysis Tracking Robberies and Other Losses – the information clearinghouse works with law enforcement and Crime Stoppers to better monitor pharmacy theft. Data collected by the program since 2003 indicates the vast majority of pharmacy robbers are white males who brazenly enter and exit through the store’s front door. About half carry visible weapons.

Though Rite Aid stores have been hit most often in Spokane, company director of public relations Cheryl Slavinsky said chain doesn’t experience an unusually high number of robberies nationwide. Still, it’s an issue that comes up among groups like the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, she said. Pockets of theft will pop up in some city and then fade out or disappear as the robbers get caught.

“Honestly,” she said, “there’s not a lot we can do.”

Weapons have been implied but not shown in the Spokane-area robberies, and Ferguson said they’re concerned the robber could become more violent as police close in. The robberies have been scattered around the county and across the state line, but law enforcement agencies have been working together.

“Whatever information we get, we share,” said Sgt. Christie Wood, of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department, the agency that caught a couple suspected of two robberies at the same Safeway pharmacy in Coeur d’Alene. Patrick Augerlavoie, 32, and his 29-year-old wife, Carrie Augerlavoie, were arrested Sept. 3 after the owner of Medicine Man Pharmacy in Coeur d’Alene grew suspicious and followed their car.

A picture of the Spokane-area robber gets clearer with each new witness: He’s a white male with darker skin and short dark hair, about 5-foot-10 and very thin, Ferguson said. Some have described his skin and eyes as Eastern European-looking, and he may have acne scars. He often wears sunglasses and a beanie, sometimes with heavy makeup and usually with a hooded sweatshirt. Ferguson said it seems the robber has a vehicle and someone else working with him. It may actually be two men who look similar.

The robber’s face is usually described as gaunt and angular, Ferguson said, “which is not atypical for someone who is abusing any drug, particularly this one.”

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