Behind robberies, a quest for drug money
By Brent Curtis
and THATCHER MOATS Staff Writers | September 27,2009
Minding the store hasn't been the only thing on Virginia Pierro's mind the last few months.
As the night supervisor of Tenneybrook Market in Rutland, Pierro and some of her employees have wondered whether they could be the next convenience store to get robbed this year.
"It's on my mind quite a bit," said Pierro, whose store sits within feet of the Daly Express convenience store, which was robbed at gunpoint in April. "Times are hard right now. People are doing what they need to get money."
The holdup in April might seem like a long time ago, but there have been more than a few fresh reminders.
In June, a man with a knife tried to rob Beauchamp & O'Rourke Pharmacy on Woodstock Avenue but was chased off.
At the end of August and on the first day of this month, armed robberies were carried out at three convenience stores in Rutland on North Main Street, South Main Street and Woodstock Avenue. Two weeks later on Sept. 14, the Cumberland Farms on South Main Street – which was victimized on the first – was robbed again.
That robbery brings Rutland County's unofficial total armed robbery count for the year to 14 – a number that includes two mugging-style assault and robberies.
That total is high for the county but not exceptionally so.
Last year, there were nine robberies in the county, the year before that there were 13 and the year before that there were 12.
Outside of Rutland County, police said their robbery counts were generally in line with the norm.
Police say there's no reason to think that the impetus behind most armed robberies has changed.
While there's a growing tendency to blame hard economic times for increases in crime, many investigators in the state say armed robberies are mostly driven by drugs not the economy.
"Fraud, embezzlement, bad checks, larceny, forgery, retail thefts – those are the types of crimes you expect to see when people are having hard times," said Bennington Police Chief Richard Gauthier whose community hasn't recorded a single robbery this year. "You don't see people resorting to armed robbery to pay their bills."
The frequency of holdups, particularly during the last month in the Rutland area, has made an impression on store clerks who have plenty of time to wonder if they could be next while working late night shifts.
While stores like Pierro's have multiple employees working at all times, Bea Elliot said she's by herself during the night shift at Rutland's Midway Mobile up the street from Cumberland Farms.
But even though she's been thinking about armed bandits more than usual as of late, Elliot, a former prison guard, said she's not that worried about them.
"I tell all my customers I've worked in the Department of Corrections and I know my stuff so don't mess with me," she said.
Her husband, Kevin Elliot, doesn't have that background. But as a clerk at the 24-hour Sunoco station farther down South Main Street, Kevin Elliot said he's not overly concerned about being robbed either.
"We have a pretty good rapport here with our customers," he said. "And every 30 minutes you see a cruiser go by between (midnight) and (8 a.m.)"
The perception that there have been more robberies than usual this year in Rutland County has been fostered, in part, by their appearance in spurts.
For example, the county kicked off the year with January robberies at the Rite Aid pharmacies in Rutland and West Rutland, the West Street Mobil at the corner of Ripley Road in Rutland and at the Killington resort base lodge. There were also robberies at pharmacies just over the state line in Whitehall, N.Y., and just over the county line in Ludlow during the first month of the year.
The holdups continued in February with a convenience store heist and an alleged mugging carried out by two women at the Rutland Shopping Plaza.
March was a quiet month, but in April the Daly Express was robbed along with the Park Mobil in Rutland. The next few months were quiet with only the Beauchamp & O'Rourke robbery in June before the robbery spree that began on the last day of August.
In central Vermont, relatively few stores have been robbed recently. Two stores in Washington County have been struck and one in Lamoille County in the last few months. There was also one in Barton in Orleans County in which an employee was pepper sprayed.
As recently as Friday, there was an armed robbery at a bank in Richford.
But robberies remain out of the ordinary, several law enforcement officials agreed.
"We don't see many armed robberies," said Joel Page, the Lamoille County State's Attorney who is prosecuting three people for the armed robbery of the Morrisville Mobil in August.
Most investigators and police chiefs agree with Rutland City Police Detective Sgt. Kevin Stevens, who says that most robbers are after either drugs, or money to buy drugs.
"Have you ever seen what heroin does to people? Basically, your whole life is absorbed physically and psychologically," Stevens said. "When you run out of heroin your life is in shambles. All you can think about is your next dose."
State Police Detective Sgt. Albert "Butch" Abdelnour, who believes the pharmacy robberies at the beginning of the year are related to drug store heists from Maine to Virginia, said he has "no doubt" what drives people to commit armed robberies.
"Oh it's drugs absolutely," he said. "Everybody we've been arresting has addictions. The economy hasn't tanked enough for people to be that desperate yet."
His conclusions seem to be supported by available information on robberies around the state.
In the cases that Abdelnour was investigating, for example, the gunman demanded OxyContin and its generic equivalent, oxycodone – powerful painkillers.
In Berlin, police say Joseph Brown of Burlington and Stephanie Coursey of Richmond beat a store clerk at Simon's Gas and Convenience Store in July to steal money for Coursey's addiction to painkillers.
Coursey allegedly burned through the $950 from the robbery leaving no money to pay the rent, so the couple decided to rob another store in Colchester, court papers state. As Brown fled from the second robbery, citizens chased and apprehended him, authorities say.
Stephen T. Adams, the 24-year-old charged with robbing the Park Mobil in Rutland, not only has a drug problem, he sought drug treatment during the month it took investigators to track him down.