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String of robberies over painkillers sweeping pharmacies across U.S.

A wave of pharmacy robberies is sweeping the United States as desperate addicts and ruthless dealers turn to violence to feed the nation's growing hunger for narcotic painkillers.

From Redmond, Wash., to St. Augustine, Fla., criminals are holding pharmacists at gunpoint and escaping with thousands of powerfully addictive pills that can sell for as much as $80 apiece on the street.

In one of the most shocking crimes yet, a robber walked into a neighborhood drugstore last Sunday on Long Island and gunned down the pharmacist, a teenage store clerk and two customers before leaving with a backpack full of pills containing hydrocodone.

"It's an epidemic," said Michael Fox, a pharmacist on Staten Island who has been robbed twice in the last year. "These people are depraved. They'll kill you."

Armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81 percent between 2006 and 2010, from 380 to 686, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says. The number of pills stolen went from 706,000 to 1.3 million. Thieves are overwhelmingly taking oxycodone painkillers like OxyContin or Roxicodone, or hydrocodone-based painkillers like Vicodin and Norco. Both narcotics are highly addictive.

The robberies mirror a national rise in the abuse of narcotic painkillers, DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said.

"Drug addicts are always seeking ways to get their drugs," Carreno said. "Whenever there's an increase in a problem, you'll see it manifested in ways like this."

Prescription painkillers are now the second most-abused drugs after marijuana, with 7 million Americans using them illegally in the past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says. 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.

Drug dealers may be turning to violence as authorities crack down on other ways of getting painkillers, Carreno said. Many states have introduced computer systems designed to prevent "doctor-shopping" by addicts, and federal investigations have shut down several shady Internet pharmacies.

That is believed to have spurred addicts to target small pharmacies like Haven Drugs in Medford, about 60 miles east of New York on Long Island.

Prosecutors say David Laffer, 33, walked into the drugstore on Father's Day and opened fire without warning.

"He did not announce a robbery," Assistant District Attorney John Collins said. "He simply shot first after engaging the pharmacist in conversation."

Laffer shot 45-year-old pharmacist Raymond Ferguson once in the abdomen, then killed 17-year-old store clerk Jennifer Mejia before pumping two more shots into Ferguson, Collins said. Then he started pulling Norco and other hydrocodone drugs, Collins said.

When customers Bryon Sheffield, 71, and Jamie Taccetta, 33, walked into the store, Laffer sneaked up behind them and shot them in the back of the head, Collins said.

Laffer is a former Army private who once worked as an intelligence analyst. He had recently lost his job as a warehouse worker. Both he and his wife, Melinda Brady, were high when they were arrested Wednesday at their home about a mile and a half from the pharmacy, police said. Brady was charged with driving the getaway car; both have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

In posts on a wedding-related website, Brady said she had been taking different painkillers in the year before their January 2009 wedding because of several surgeries on her mouth. She added that it was taking a toll on her relationships.

It's a familiar pattern, said Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, which advocates for more-cautious use of narcotic painkillers. Many patients get addicted while taking a legitimate prescription and turn to crime after they lose their jobs and the insurance coverage that comes with them, he said.

"People with addiction who could be perfectly good people will do all sorts of horrible things to maintain their supply," Kolodny said.