Walgreens becoming an easy target for pharmacy holdups

Scott Michael Sobota, a.k.a. "The Unibrow Robber," was one of many drug fiends to target Walgreens
courtesy Mpls. Police Department

On October 19, an ordinary-looking man in jean shorts walked down the apparel aisle at Walgreens on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown. He swiped a maroon-and-white U of M ball cap from the shelf and put it in his head. Then he hopped over the pharmacy counter and brandished a four-inch blade.

"Give me the shit," he said. "You know what I want. Give me the oxycodone—I want the 80s."

The pharmacist, who was alone, handed over 10 bottles of pills, worth $2,300. The thief put them in a brown bag and dashed off, shoving past a row of shopping carts on his way out the front door. He rode away on a bicycle.

A witness identified the robber as 39-year-old Laurence John Charette, a guy with a long rap sheet including drug and theft charges. A few weeks later, Charette allegedly robbed the Fairview Smiley Pharmacy at 2020 E. 28th St. A warrant is out for his arrest.

Charette is the latest in a string of pharmacy thieves Minneapolis police have chased this year. In January, So-Sah Turney was charged with stealing drugs from the Uptown Walgreens and another on Hiawatha. In February, Turney's buddy Scott Michael Sobota—dubbed the Unibrow Robber for his Frida Kahlo-like eyebrows—swiped prescription drugs from the Walgreens on West Lake Street.

Pharmacy robberies have been rising steadily over the past several years, in the Twin Cities and across the nation. But the pain is not shared equally across all the various drugstore chains. In the past five years, two-thirds of the robberies have taken place at Walgreens.

This year, 16 of the 19 pharmacy robberies in Minneapolis have been at Walgreens. The Uptown, Northeast, and Midtown Lake Street Walgreens have been robbed four times each, the Walgreens on Hiawatha three times.

"It's scary," said a Walgreens pharmacist at the store in Calhoun Village, who didn't want her name used, since Walgreens does not allow its employees to talk to the press.

The string of robberies concerns Lt. Mike Fossum of the Minneapolis Police Department.

"Sobota ended up cooperating with us and told the reason they prefer Walgreens: 'They give you everything you ask for and more,'" recalls Fossum, who interviewed the Unibrow Robber after his arrest. "And they feel like they get cheated at CVS because they give them less."

For several years, Fossum has been pushing the retail chain to improve its safety measures. He wants tracking devices in pill bottles, off-duty cops guarding stores, and no more 80-milligram tablets.

Tablets of that kind that sell for $80 a pop on the street—and $120 at Leech Lake and Red Lake Indian Reservations, where they sell for five to ten times their drugstore price.

Most of all, Fossum wants Walgreens to install bulletproof glass at its counters. But that doesn't look likely to happen.

In May, Fossum met with Ryan Harris, a loss prevention manager for Walgreens, and learned that the retail chain has a corporate policy of keeping pharmacies "open and inviting" to the public.

Fossum pushed the store to make changes, but for months nothing happened.

"You have been placing the safety of your employees and customers behind your national image of being 'open and inviting,'" Fossum wrote in an email to Harris.

The response from Walgreens has been reluctance to compromise the customers' experience.

"We need to have our pharmacists available to consult patients about their medications and provide more health care services like vaccinations and diabetes counseling," says Robert Elfinger, a Walgreens spokesman. "Additional barriers between pharmacists and their patients won't assist us in providing better health care for our patients."

Walgreens did agree to increase the number of security cameras. That may help the cops identify robbers, but isn't likely to prevent thefts.

"All 24 hr stores are properly secured to normal retail standards within the industry," Harris wrote to Fossum two days after Charette robbed the Uptown store. "I am trying to do some things that go beyond but this is an ongoing effort. Do you have information on other RX robberies with Minneapolis other than Walgreens? This could be helpful in my efforts. Thanks again!"

By then, Fossum was fed up.

"No," he replied to Harris. "Your chain is the only one with a problem in Minneapolis."

Other chains have reduced the problem by beefing up their theft prevention efforts. CVS, for example, no longer carries 80-milligram tablets, Fossum says. Fairview put bulletproof glass in locations thieves were targeting.

The strategy worked "beautifully," says Dick Schirber, director of marketing for Fairview Pharmacy Services, and now the chain has decided to do the same at its Fairview Smiley Pharmacy—the location Charette robbed in November.

"That's a decision we made by ourselves—we didn't have any direction by Minneapolis police," Schirber says.

Fossum is pushing the mayor's office to create an ordinance regulating 24-hour pharmacies.

"That idea is in the very early stages of discussion, and it's just one option on the table among many," says John Stiles, the mayor's spokesman.

Meanwhile, Fossum is keeping his fingers crossed for safety.

"It is only a matter of time that a customer or employee is injured during one of these robberies," Fossum wrote recently to Harris. "When this incident does occur, Walgreens will be exposed for their lack of security and their cavalier attitude toward employee and customer safety."

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