KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - A county investigator who works drug store robberies in East Tennessee said the brazen stickups are on the rise and the desperation of some addicts is scary.
Many of the robberies happen during daylight or early evening, and the robbers, who rarely wear masks, typically pay little attention to cash registers as they go for the prescription cabinet.
Knox County Sheriff's Office Lt. Bobby Hubbs said "to compare the cost of what these pills are really worth to what people will do to get them is amazing. They're going to the penitentiary for a handful of pills."
Police say violent crimes overall have dropped, from homicides to robberies of banks, stores and homes. Records show pharmacy robberies and attempted robberies in the county increased from 26 in 2009 to 44 in 2010.
Investigators worked 10 of those cases in December, including three in one day. The first three weeks of 2011 have seen five cases - three at the same store.
FBI agent Mike MacLean told The Knoxville News Sentinel "there's been an uptick all around the region, but Knox County's getting the brunt."
Robbers work alone and sometimes in groups. They might flash a knife, pull a gun or calmly lay a note on the counter. Some fire shots at the ceiling.
"For some of them it's a business," said Knox County Lt. Clyde Cowan, commander of the major crimes unit. "They like robbing, and they get a thrill from it. If it's just one or two people, they're not doing it to get pills to sell. They're doing it for their personal needs. It's either a crime of desperation or a crime of greed. We haven't seen them involve any customers, but there's always that possibility somebody might get in their way."
Some drug companies last year started distributing new formulations of painkillers such as Oxycontin, attempting to make the drug more difficult for addicts to abuse by crushing, snorting or injecting.
"They actually have to take the pill to get high," Knoxville police Sgt. Tom Walker said.
Police said the typical drugstore robber tends to be a white man in his 20s or 30s, often with a criminal history. Police say all apparently share the same addiction to opiates, whether from a history of chasing highs or a genuine medical need gone out of control.
"We're one of the top cities in the state for dispensing of Oxycontin," Cowan said. "It's become a recreational drug. But several of these suspects once had it prescribed for a legitimate reason, and the addiction outlasted the ailment.
They took it, they liked it, and now they can't get enough of it."