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Investigators: Wash. Rx robbers target big-name stores

Thieves are increasingly targeting drugstores, putting employees and customers at risk.

Video: Wash. Rx robbers target big-name stores

SEATTLE - It's not the place you'd expect to come face-to-face with a dangerous criminal.

But in record numbers in Washington state, pharmacies are being robbed, and robbers are targeting two big-name chain stores.

Mike Donohue runs a small "mom and pop" pharmacy in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Under his upbeat demeanor and lab coat is a lethal determination to stop the assault on his business. He's armed himself with a handgun.

"When someone comes in to rob my pharmacy or put my patients at risk I have something to help protect us," Donohue said.

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His security camera recorded a hooded man earlier this year walking into the pharmacy on the same day Donohue returned from the police station to identify a suspect from an earlier robbery.

"I was in disbelief," Donohue said. "I thought this can't be happening again."

It was, but this time Donohue fought back. When the robber saw Donohue's Glock 19 handgun, he ran out the pharmacy door.

Three times now the pistol-packing pharmacist has drawn his gun on robbers.

"I would use it without hesitation," Donohue said.

Pharmacy robberies grew to a record number, 70, in the state of Washington last year. This year looks even worse. Washington state is on pace to double that record with a projected 132 robberies. National statistics are hard to come by, but research by the KING 5 Investigators shows that could be the highest pharmacy robbery rate of all 50 states.

In many cases the Drug Enforcement Administration has made arrests and recovered stolen pills, which are most often OxyContin, the powerful pain killer that commands up to $8,000 a bottle on the street.

Agent Ruth Carter of the Seattle DEA says the robbery statistics correspond with the fastest growing drug crime -- the abuse of prescription pills.

"The pharmacies are on every street corner and it's a prime target," Carter said.

She says many of the hold-ups are "take-over" style with armed criminals forcing the pharmacy staff to empty out their drug cabinets.

The robbers are keying in on the two largest pharmacy chains in the state.

The KING 5 Investigators researched drug store crimes in Washington dating back to 2003. At that time Rite Aid and Walgreens accounted for only 17 percent of hold-ups. Most were at mom- and- pop shops.

But we discovered an astonishing reversal by 2008, when nearly three quarters of robberies happened at Walgreens and Rite Aid.

Walgreens says one reason for that is growth. It's nearly doubled the number of Washington stores in recent years. But combined, Rite Aid and Walgreens still account for only one fifth of pharmacies statewide.

Washington has become Walgreens' robbery capitol, and the company says it's responded by investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in sweeping security upgrades.

Cameras are the number one tool to identify and convict suspects.

While the DEA wouldn't single out any pharmacy, agent Carter said: "It's more often than not that the video is of no value. In a large corporation it's a lot of expense to upgrade their entire video or surveillance equipment for their entire chain."

When cameras are present they're often pointed at the pharmacy's own employees to guard against internal theft. There isn't much financial incentive to aim those cameras at the robbers.

Pharmacies don't necessarily lose money from robberies of OxyContin, which is the drug stolen in 90 percent of these crimes.

Manufacturer Purdue Pharma, concerned by the refusal of some pharmacies to stock the drug, has a program to pay all insurance deductibles and uninsured OxyContin losses.

Because pharmacies aren't losing money some are slow to upgrade security, exposing employees and customers to the dangers that accompany every desperate robber who walks through the door.

While authorities don't advise taking up arms, it has worked for Donohue.

"This is a list of the individuals who attempted to rob this drug store," he said, looking at the little sign in his front window. "None of them have been successful."

More: to read Walgreens' response to our story. Or to watch surveillence video of a real robbery at a Bellevue Walgreens store.

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