Some Baltimore pharmacy owners wait for police response to looting

Looting inside pharmacy during riots caught on video.

On the color video from a security camera, two masked women and two men slam a crowbar into a pharmacy safe filled with narcotics in a failed attempt to open it. A woman then smashes a cash register loaded with money. The four, with the help of others, haul what owners say is tens of thousands of dollars in drugs, computers — and an entire ATM — from the Care One on Reisterstown Road amid the rioting that followed Freddie Gray's funeral.

A mile away at the Care One on Pennsylvania Avenue, security cameras recorded more chaos: looters carrying away a 300-pound safe filled with oxycodone, Percocet and other powerful narcotics, owners say.

Now, more than a month after the incidents on April 27, owners of those pharmacies and others in West Baltimore say police have not responded to their numerous requests to report the missing drugs. They're frustrated that police have not reviewed footage from dozens of store security cameras or even examined a cellphone left amid the destruction — evidence that they say could lead to the lawbreakers.

The owner of both Care Ones, Peter Okojie, said about the police: "They say they are too busy. We have not seen or heard from them. We have it all on surveillance video. We have pictures."

Dwayne Weaver, owner of Keystone Pharmacy on West North Avenue, said he got a complaint number from police over the phone after the store was looted, but no officers have followed up to take a report.

The owners' frustration comes as city leaders try to determine what has fueled 39 homicides in May — the city's deadliest month since 1996. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says gangs targeted pharmacies in search of powerful pills to sell, and some City Council members believe stolen drugs are fueling the killings.

Baltimore police are working with federal agents to bring state and local charges against people who looted pharmacies across the city, but such investigations take time, said spokeswoman Lt. Sarah Connolly. The agency, she said, is "committed to thoroughly investigating" each of the thefts.

"We encourage anyone who may have information, videos or photographs regarding individuals who committed crimes that harmed people, businesses and officers to contact the police," Connolly said. "In addition to arrests that were made on scene, investigations into these crimes with community assistance have yielded eight arrests and eight open warrants.

"More charges can be expected. This is a lengthy process; many people were impacted by the actions of a few."

The looting and burning of a CVS on North Avenue symbolized Baltimore's unrest on national television. A survey by the Baltimore Development Corp. found that 27 pharmacies were among the more than 380 businesses damaged during the riots.

Neither the police nor the DEA knows from how many of the pharmacies opiates were stolen.

Councilman Brandon Scott said the drugs stolen from pharmacies are a key component in the homicide spike. "When you have an influx of drugs on the street, you're going to have folks battling for territory and going into neighborhoods they didn't used to be in," Scott said.

He added: "We have to be chasing down all leads to deal with these issues." He invited any pharmacy owners who have not received a response from police to contact him.

Councilman William "Pete" Welch also believes the stolen drugs could be contributing to the increased violence. "I know when they looted the CVS and Rite Aid and other stores, they took an enormous amount of pills. I don't know if that's the only thing driving the increase, but I've heard it from guys on the street."

Todd Edwards, a DEAspokesman, said agents are going from store to store collecting evidence.So far, agents have found 20 pharmacies and two methadone clinics that were looted, he added.

"We have to go through each one, it's going to take some time," he said, adding that he would alert investigators to pharmacy owners who told The Baltimore Sun they had not been visited by law enforcement.

Federal regulations require pharmacies to notify the DEA when drugs are missing. Reconciling what was lost can take time as workers sift through records, he said.

Edwards said the DEA has information indicating that gangs took advantage of the disorder sweeping the city to obtain supplies of prescription opiates, which many drug addicts use alongside heroin. Each typical-sized prescription pill sells on the street for $30, he said.

Not all city drugstores had difficulty getting police to respond.

Chaitanya Chittimalla, a spokesman for Highlandtown Pharmacy on Eastern Avenue, said police and DEA investigators visited almost immediately after the riots ended. Looters could not get to the locked narcotics inside the business, he said.

"Police were there the next morning," Chittimalla said. "They gave us a complaint number, and they said they're going to start investigating."

Edwards said agents are working with police to identify and arrest the looters. Police are reviewing CitiWatch surveillance footage, and the DEA is investigating who might be selling the stolen pills, he said. Once investigators have surveillance images of suspects, they will be distributed to see if anyone can be identified.

Phil Caruso, a spokesman for Walgreens, referred questions about looting to police. He declined to comment on security measures at the stores or the volumes of opiates kept in stock.

Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, said the company is cooperating with law enforcement and declined to comment on security procedures at stores.

Ashley Flower, a Rite Aid spokeswoman, said the company expects to finish tallying its losses from the riot in the next few days. The company is working with law enforcement to investigate the thefts, she said.

Heavy metal shutters kept would-be looters out of the Mount Vernon Pharmacy on Cathedral Street, said pharmacist Stephen Wienner.

But as sirens blared, fires roared and alarms rang across the city, steel doors couldn't protect every pharmacy on the evening of April 27.

Thieves ripped off the rear door frame and deadbolts at the Care One on Reisterstown Road, Okojie said. They also destroyed outside surveillance cameras and tried removing the steel door in front, he said.

The security camera video provided by Okojie shows two men and two women casually looking at products on shelves — as if browsing for canned vegetables in a grocery store. None appears hurried. One man wears white gloves; the other wears blue.

One man then tries pulling the safe from a wall. A woman beats on its door with a crowbar, keeping her hands covered with a shirt. She passes the crowbar to a man, who stops swinging when his pants sag; another man takes eight swings before stopping.

A few seconds later, the crew grabs what Okojie says are less powerful drugs from under a counter. They rifle through red bins that he says were filled with hundreds of bags of drugs destined for patients in nursing homes and assisted-care centers.

The group then turns its attention to the ATM near the front door. They rip it from the wall. Two men carry it toward the rear of the store until both fall — one's pants fell down. After the man lifts his jeans, the ATM disappears out the back door.

At other times, the group carries away cookies, water bottles and sodas. One man carries out three cases of Ensure, a liquid dietary supplement.

After about 30 minutes, 10 additional people rush in. They scavenge through mostly empty drawers and bare shelves. Some fill garbage bags with packages containing drugs, according to the owner.

Moments later, another woman strolls inside, holding a drink as she searches for goods. After all the people leave, a black cat and a rat wander in.

In the days after the incident, the pharmacy owners heard from nearby residents who found bags of drugs in the streets and alleys.

Okojie said he will not know the exact cost of the losses until next week. It takes time to match invoices to products not stolen, he said.

Manager Ora Powers said she has called 911 several times to report the incident and requested an officer to take a report. She said she even asked for a supervisor when encountering a rude call taker.

"They act as if we are the rioters and looters," she said, adding that she submitted online paperwork to the DEA to report the thefts. "They talk about a list we're on. It's been more than a month. How long is the list?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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