The operation has been repeated by countless robbers at gas stations, jewelry stores and banks: A gunman walks to the counter and demands money, goods or both.

But now it’s happening at pharmacies.

Derek Denega walked into a North Park pharmacy in May and demanded the store’s supply of OxyContin, a powerful pain killer. He showed a pellet gun, grabbed the pills and left.

Denega, 26, was arrested for that incident, and was accused of holding up the same pharmacy three times. In September he pleaded guilty to two of the three alleged holdups.

Prosecutors say Denega was the first case of someone using armed robbery to get prescription drugs from a San Diego pharmacy. They expect to see more. The crime has sprouted in eastern states this decade when prescription drug abuse increases. Now authorities say the problem is migrating west.

Last week I wrote about the myriad of ways addicts get their hands on OxyContin. But this new trend is especially troubling to police.

“That’s clearly something that we’re concerned about, an increase in armed robberies,” DEA spokeswoman Amy Roderick said. “This starts to become the next phase when the addicts and potentially the dealers … they can make so much money that they look at committing armed robberies.”

The estimated street value of OxyContin can range between $30 and $80 per pill, which can be more expensive than heroin. Authorities have reported at least two incidents of robbers demanding OxyContin at San Diego pharmacies since Denega’s case, and both incidents are still under investigation. CrimeStoppers is asking for help on the latest incident.

In Denega’s case, court records show he suffered from drug addiction problems in the past, including cocaine. The records make Denega sound more like an addict than a dealer looking to restock the OxyContin inventory.

Two treatment centers filed letters with the court and one said an examination “shows evidence to warrant classifying the client as having a high probability of a severe substance abuse/dependence disorder.” He might have “particular difficulty recognizing the full impact of the substance misuse on his life.”

Denega is scheduled to be sentenced by a judge Dec. 3. He faces up to seven years in prison and a $20,000 fine.


Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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