Pharmacists ramp up security measures to prevent vandals, thefts of stocks of pills
“Every time it happens, you learn from it and improve it. You spend money to upgrade and make sure it doesn’t happen again. If they go through the wall, what the hell am I supposed to do?” n & T pharmacy owner
After the first two break-ins, N & T Pharmacy ramped up security to protect its coveted inventory of narcotic painkillers. The small business, which sits off Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, has three locks on the door, bars on the windows, surveillance cameras and a state-of-the-art alarm system.
But one night in September, burglars smashed through the building’s cinderblock wall and stole thousands of dollars worth of prescription medication. They even swiped some powdered milk before getting away.
“Every time it happens, you learn from it and improve it. You spend money to upgrade and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said the pharmacy’s owner, who requested his name be withheld. “If they go through the wall, what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Pharmacies across Louisiana are being targeted by thieves seeking to peddle prescription pills and, in many cases, feed their own addictions. East Baton Rouge Parish has seen at least 15 attempted or actual break-ins of pharmacies over the past year, a string of burglaries that highlights a demand for painkillers that is undiminished by tighter regulations.
“It’s literally from every corner of the state,” said Randal Johnson, president of the Louisiana Independent Pharmacies Association. “These folks are actually busting in through brick walls to try to keep from setting off some of the sensors.”
Pharmacies in Louisiana reported at least 81 overnight thefts and 13 armed robberies between January 2010 and May 2013, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Those thefts accounted for a loss of more than 360,000 dosage units.
“There’s an epidemic of people who are buying these pills on the street,” Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps said. “I don’t know what’s happened to cause such an influx, but there’s definitely a major demand for it.”
Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine remain the most commonly abused drugs in the state, but prescription pills have become a drug of choice for some segments of the population, particularly affluent adolescents, said Dr. Rochelle Head-Dunham, medical director for the state’s Office of Behavioral Health.
Pills have become harder to come by in recent years due to Louisiana’s prescription monitoring program, a statewide database that helps to identify patients shopping around for prescriptions. More than 6,000 physicians and pharmacists have signed up for the program, and more than 61 million transactions have been recorded since the program’s inception, Head-Dunham said.
But greater strictures have driven some addicts and criminals to take drastic measures to maintain their supply, authorities said.
“I think the doctors are starting to tighten down on it, and that may be why we’re starting to have burglaries because they can’t get them as easily from the doctors anymore,” said Maj. Johnny Blanchard of the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office. “Prescription pills are such a problem with everybody.”
Thieves have broken into pharmacies by smashing windows and prying open doors. But they are finding increasingly creative ways to circumvent security systems.
Last month, a would-be burglar called Certified Alarms to ask whether the phone lines at the Central Pharmacy on Hooper Road were connected to the alarm. Tyler Latting, 22, 3968 Meadow Ridge Drive, Baton Rouge, hung up when he was asked for the security password, but he called back a few minutes later claiming to be an air-conditioning repair man, according to court filings.
The pharmacy’s manager, Jill Miller, said the business lost phone and Internet access about the time the alarm company reported the suspicious calls.
“All of our Internet lines had been cut, our phone line had been cut and our cable line had been cut,” Miller said, adding the young man used a trash can to get on the roof. “We’re pretty much assuming he was setting us up to come back later and break in through the air-conditioning unit.”
Miller dialed the number Latting had used to call the alarm company and then alerted sheriff’s officials after he gave her his name. Detectives later learned Latting had been named a suspect in a pharmacy burglary in Livingston Parish after his fingerprints and DNA were found at the scene, court records show.
Since the attempted burglary, Miller said, the pharmacy has transferred its alarm system from the phone line to a cell tower.
In 2008, two Denham Springs men went as far as to call in a fake shooting in Geismar to lure an Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputy away from the Dutchtown Pharmacy.
The deputy sped away when the faux shooting was reported and drove several miles to the site the caller said the shooting had occurred, only to learn he had been duped when dispatch reported a burglary at the pharmacy.
He arrived two minutes later to find the burglars already had fled the premises.
“Thieves are going to get in if they want to get in,” said Joe Chaney, chief of detectives with the St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Bret H. McCormick contributed to this report.