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Saturday, Aug 23, 2014
Crime & Courts

Attack highlights rise in prescription drug crimes

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2014 at 08:20 AM

TEMPLE TERRACE — Babatunde Akinbo is a cautious businessman, aware of the risks of running an independent pharmacy, his daughter said.

He took steps to protect himself and his business. “He was concerned, but always took precautions,” Tolulope Akinbo said Tuesday, “like making sure the alarm was on when the business closed. And there are bars on the windows.”

Still, his daughter said, he had no reason to be overly worried. Doctors who own the small medical office complex where Akinbo opened Omega Drugs five years ago have practiced there for 40 years and never had an issue with crime, she said.

But on Saturday, as Akinbo prepared to close his small shop just south of Fowler Avenue at 11410 N. 56th Street, a man who had slipped through ceiling tiles at the rear of his store sneaked up on him, beat him and robbed the store of a small quantity of prescription drugs.

Akinbo, 59, of Wesley Chapel, remained at Tampa General Hospital on Tuesday in critical condition.

Nationally, violence against pharmacists is on the rise, according to a 2009 report published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. And people who rob pharmacies typically are desperate and unstable, the report says.

“Across the United States,” the report says, “reports of pharmacy robberies specifically related to the theft of Oxycontin and Vicodin have been reported. These prescription pain killers may be used for the robber's own addiction or sold on the street for a significant amount of money.”

Temple Terrace Police have charged 25-year-old Brandon James Walker of Naples with the attempted murder of Akinbo, armed robbery, occupied armed burglary and three other counts of burglary.

Police released Akinbo's 911 call on Tuesday. Apparently dazed, the pharmacist told the emergency operator he was attacked, was bleeding and needed an ambulance.

Police say Walker broke into Omega Drugs by entering another office in the complex, then traveling through the ceiling to the back of the pharmacy where he dropped down, and sneaked up on Akinbo as the pharmacist prepared to close his shop.

Walker struck Akinbo with a metal commercial hole-punch, and demanded drugs, police reported. Tolulope Akinbo said her father told her he fought back before being knocked unconscious.

The attack in Temple Terrace is another in a string of increasingly common assaults on local pharmacists and their customers:

♦  Last month, Tampa police reported the broad daylight theft of medication from a man who was walking out of the Medicine Shop Pharmacy on North Nebraska Avenue by a robber who shocked the victim with a stun gun. The man made his getaway in a car driven by a young woman. The victim was not seriously injured.

♦  In September, a gunman walked into the Palm Plaza Pharmacy on South Dale Mabry Highway. Armed with a small revolver, the man jumped over a counter. Holding a clerk by the back of the neck and pointing the gun at his head, the robber forced the clerk into a back office. A surveillance camera showed the gunman shoving the clerk toward a safe and forcing him to open it before the victim was pushed to the floor. The robber then removed medications, the clerk's wallet and a cell phone, along with cash.

♦  In July, a man was accused of stealing 1,500 prescription pills from a CVS pharmacy in Clearwater. The man was charged with robbery and trafficking in Oxycontin. (Ten bottles of Oxycontin is worth about $10,000 on the street, police say.) He showed the pharmacist a list of pills he wanted and said she had one minute to hand them over.

♦  In May 2012, St. Petersburg police arrested a man in the armed robbery of a CVS pharmacy in which drugs were stolen. The suspect was arrested and charged with possession of Xanax and another controlled substance.

♦  In November 2010, two men robbed a CVS pharmacy in Tampa Palms as part of a crime spree that included multiple carjackings. The robbers stole pain pills from the pharmacy and later were arrested.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81 percent between 2006 and 2010. The number of pills stolen went from 706,000 to 1.3 million. Thieves overwhelmingly are taking oxycodone painkillers like OxyContin or Roxicodone, or hydrocodone-based painkillers like Vicodin and Norco. The narcotics of choice are highly addictive.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says prescription painkillers now are the second most-abused drugs after marijuana, with 7 million Americans using them illegally. The number of patients treated in emergency rooms for prescription drug overdoses more than doubled between 2004 and 2008, from 144,644 to 305,885.

In the 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reported:

“The trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs continue to constitute a dynamic and challenging threat to the United States. Controlled prescription drug (CPD) abuse continues to be the nation's fastest growing drug problem. Rates of CPD abuse remain high, with individuals abusing CPDs at a higher prevalence rate than any illicit drug except marijuana. Pain relievers are the most common type of CPDs taken illicitly and are the CPDs most commonly involved in overdose incidents.”

Several states, including Florida, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas, recently have enacted legislation to combat the proliferation of pill mills, which are doctors' offices, clinics or health care facilities that prescribe and dispense controlled substances outside the scope of prevailing medical standards or that violate state laws.

Florida cracked down on pill mills three years ago and imposed criminal and administrative penalties for overprescribing narcotics. The law also banned doctors from dispensing narcotics, except for those in medical facilities such as surgical centers and hospices, and required a new permitting process for pharmacies that sell medication such as oxycodone and other controlled substances. It also required pain clinics to register with the state.

Some professional pharmacy groups are addressing the violence and crime issue to better prepare those in the field.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Pharmacy Association, based in Tallahassee, said her office coordinates continuing education classes for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to address controlled substances and things pharmacists can do to protect their shops and employees.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said pharmacy robberies here during the past two to three years have dropped.

“The crimes associated with pill mills — and that includes pharmacy robberies — has dropped,” she said. “We have brought the problem of pill mills under control with local ordinances and the state.”

“We clamped down, our department and the state,” she said. “We, I mean Florida, is not the epicenter of the pill mill industry, like we were a couple of years ago.”

Akinbo's pharmacy is closed for now; a sign on the door apologizes to patrons. Tolulope Akinbo said the family hopes to have the shop open by the end of the week.

Akinbo, the father of four who came to the United States from Nigeria in the mid-1990s, already had his pharmacy degree when he arrived. He was joined here his wife and children in 2001. Tolulope Akinbo now is in pharmacy school, hoping to work in a hospital pharmacy, rather than in retail, she said.

The crime, she said, left her family in shock, including Akinbo's wife of 30 years, who is traveling back from Nigeria to be by his side.

Tolulope Akinbo said her father is lucky to be alive. He was knocked unconscious during the scuffle and was out for about an hour before he was able to crawl to the phone and call 911, she said.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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