Danger rising in pharmacy heists: owner

Says prescription narcotics are common targets of would-be thieves

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on August 24, 2013

A pharmacy owner is calling for prescription narcotics commonly targeted by thieves to be moved to central dispensaries to combat drugstore break-ins and armed robberies.

“It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed or severely injured,” said Tom Kennedy, who said he sold Kennedy’s Family Drugs PharmaChoice in Bay Bulls in August 2012 for multiple reasons, including changes the province has made affecting the pharmacy business. But robberies, break-ins and attempted break-ins at the store were the big motivator.

An armed robbery in April 2012 at the pharmacy is still winding its way through the justice system, Kennedy said, adding the incident was terrifying for staff because of the weapons involved which included hypodermic needles and knives. The robbery happened around closing time and three staff were in the store at the time, he said.

Kennedy still owns two PharmaChoice stores in St. John’s, but does not keep narcotics on site, he said. It may mean a few hours’ wait for customers, but he said it’s safer.

That same Bay Bulls drugstore Kennedy used to own was hit again Wednesday.

The RCMP’s Ferryland detachment reported the suspect was riding a black, racing-style motorcycle and fled from the scene, heading towards Witless Bay. Witnesses reported the suspect was brandishing a weapon that appeared to be a handgun. A large quantity of prescription pills was reported stolen. Police seized a motorcycle during a property search in Witless Bay Friday, but no arrests were made as of The Telegram’s deadline.

In another incident, the Villa Nova Pharmacy on the C.B.S. Highway was robbed Thursday evening.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said one male suspect is believed to have had a firearm, the other a hammer. They demanded narcotics, but left empty-handed.

One male in the store suffered minor injuries during the incident.

The first male suspect is described as about 5’8” tall and 170 pounds. At the time of the incident he was described as wearing a hoodie and grey pants. The second male is described as about 5’2” and 130 pounds and was wearing a hoodie and jeans.

Kennedy’s family had owned the Bay Bulls pharmacy since 1986.

“It was probably the toughest decision I ever made in my life,” he said of the sale.

“But I had to sell it just for peace of mind and I just found myself weeks after that (2012 robbery) not being able to sleep properly and always waiting for the next phone call, waiting for the next alarm to go off.”

Government regulatory changes have also hurt in recent years, Kennedy said.

Among the changes announced in the 2013 provincial budget to the Newfoundland and Labrador Prescription Drug Program (NLPDP) was one that forces pharmacies to sell generic drugs at 25 per cent of the cost of brand name or patented drugs at the end of a four-year period.

The changes and crime have devastated independent pharmacies, Kennedy said.

“They took millions of dollars away from the independent pharmacies with the new generic drug (rule). … With so many break-ins and armed robberies, the value of your business is reduced to the point you either sell it now or if you wait for more government cuts, your business is going to be worthless,” he said.

When he heard about the robbery in Bay Bulls this week, Kennedy said, he and his wife contacted the staff to see if they were OK, even though he didn’t own it anymore.

After the 2012 robbery, he said he lost one employee and another took several weeks off.

“They were just terrorized and didn’t want to go back to work anymore and I fully understood,” he said.

Kennedy said there have been break-ins at his Airport Heights store and he’s had to reduce the hours there so it’s not open later in the evening. The other store is on Water Street.

Reducing hours reduces the number of staff, and the robberies are making business harder to do, he said.

“It started off with knives and hypodermic needles. Now we are into handguns. It’s only going to get progressively worse. It’s going to get to the point someone is going to get really hurt before our government and our pharmacy associations start being proactive about it, instead of reactive.”

He said there has to be a movement in the pharmacy industry and with government to address the problem and get the street-desirable narcotics out of the drugstores and to a central location.

“There are only a handful of drugs that these guys are looking for and if they were legislated out of our pharmacies, the break-ins and the armed robberies would stop because they know they can’t get them. … I think pharmacies will actually look at it and say, you know what, with the amount of prescriptions you fill with these dangerous drugs that you would feel more secure if you could get rid of them altogether and say, “I am only going to fill these prescriptions when I need them,’ and say to the customer ‘You need them, but it’s going to be three or four hours before I can get anything.’ Then you only order what you need.”

Kennedy said about five central dispensaries around the province would be needed.

“If (the criminals) know there are no drugs in the stores, they won’t go there.”

Kennedy said when he eliminated narcotics from the Bay Bulls store before selling it, he had no more problems.

Kennedy said rural pharmacies are more vulnerable because the criminals know there is a small police presence.

“They know there are only two or three cars serving 100-square kilometres,” he said.

The Ferryland RCMP is asking anyone with any information about the suspect involved in the Bay Bulls robbery to contact the Ferryland RCMP at 1-800-817-6880 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

And the RNC general investigation unit is also seeking the public’s help in identifying those responsible for the incident at the Villa Nova Pharmacy.

Anyone who may have any information is asked to contact the RNC at 729-8000 or Crime Stoppers.

People can also provide tips anonymously on the NL Crime Stoppers Website at www.nlcrimestoppers.com.