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Derek Denega was the first person in San Diego to be prosecuted for walking into a pharmacy with a gun and demanding the store’s stock of OxyContin, a powerful painkiller coveted by drug addicts.
Apart from the novelty of his crime, Denega’s case has received media attention because law enforcement authorities say it signaled a growing problem with prescription drugs in the region. Police have reported at least three other pharmacy robberies since Denega’s arrest and the robbers specifically targeted OxyContin. The latest robbery happened in Hillcrest last week.
So I wanted to meet the man who has become the anecdote of this new trend. Denega was accused of stealing OxyContin from the same Walgreens three times in May. He pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery in September and faces up to seven years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced by a county judge in January.
Denega agreed to use some of his weekly social time and meet me at the George F. Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa. A muffled phone line and a thick pane of glass were the physical barriers of our conversation. Our time was limited like any social visit.
We talked about life in jail, drug abuse and his pending sentence. Denega declined to say much about his robberies, concerned that this article could negatively affect his sentencing.
Denega, 26, was raised in Placerville, California, a small suburban town east of Sacramento. He attended Humboldt State University after high school and played soccer there until he dropped out in 2002. His life became a mess for “personal reasons” and moved to San Diego in 2004 to be with supportive friends.
Three years ago, prosecutors convicted Denega of possessing cocaine. 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 struggled to express his memories at times, but still voiced optimism about his present condition.
How are you?
As good as I can be, I guess. I try to stay as positive as possible.
You obviously have limited options, but do you have any plans for the holidays?
My parents are coming to see me. They’re from Placerville in California.
How have you been treated here by officers and other inmates?
This time around, a lot of respect. They (the inmates) take good care of each other. I was in the hospital for a while (recovering from drug addiction and a surgery). They’re good people to rescue me.
How did you start using drugs? Was it peer pressure or something else?
Not so much peer pressure. Curiosity. Nobody came to me and said, “Yes, you got to try this.” I don’t think anybody knew for a while all through high school.
We all took Vicodin. It was cheaper. (My addiction) progressed, progressed, progressed.
So what motivated you to rob those pharmacies?
I don’t want to say anything incriminating. I haven’t been sentenced yet.
What can you say?
Some people need to make chaos in their life to get in touch with reality. It was a big cry for help, I guess.
What do you mean by reality?
Feeling. You go that long without any feeling, you need to do something drastic to feel, to make you feel.
This question is from one of our readers: Did you plan on robbing the pharmacies or did you act in the moment?
I don’t think people should do that kind of thing without thinking about it for a long time.
You’re facing seven years in prison for the robberies. What do you plan on telling the judge before the decision in January?
I’m confused. I’ve never been through any of this before. I’m looking for counseling. My public defender is doing a great job, but I’d like to get a second opinion about my options. I know what I’m facing, but I need options. I just need somebody to talk to about (my case).
Law enforcement officials here say prescription drug abuse is becoming a bigger problem. Do you think San Diego has a problem with prescription drug abuse?
It’s an epidemic. My generation didn’t learn the consequences of the pill. It’s just part of our lives.
— Interview conducted and edited by KEEGAN KYLE