Two armed robberies were enough for Chester Hibbard.

In the summer of 2010, a man wearing a hood and ski goggles entered E.W. Moore & Son, Hibbard’s community pharmacy on Main Street in Bingham. He thrust a knife across the counter at Hibbard and two employees and demanded OxyContin.

It had been several years since a robber carrying a gun demanded the same painkiller, and Hibbard wanted the second time to be the last.

So he stopped stocking the drug. And he posted signs to tell everyone — especially desperate addicts — “We don’t carry OxyContin!”

Hibbard thought the signs were helping — until last month, when a man wearing a mask entered the pharmacy with a sawed-off shotgun.

He jumped over the counter, told Hibbard, three employees and a customer to get on the floor, and tied their hands. Then he left with money and more than $12,000 worth of prescription drugs, including other narcotic painkillers.

The latest holdup in Bingham was one of the most brazen yet in Maine, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Michael Wardrop told a group of southern Maine police chiefs last month. But, Wardrop said, it’s clear that Maine’s painkiller addiction is fueling much of the state’s crime.

“It’s out of control. It’s rampant. It’s our No. 1 problem,” he said.

Pharmacy robberies, unheard-of 15 years ago, have become a regular occurrence around the state.

The federal DEA has counted 41 pharmacy robberies in Maine since Jan. 1, 2009, although the list may not be complete. Local police departments officially record the crimes as standard robberies. The DEA compiles its list from voluntary police reports and news reports.

Of the pharmacy robberies counted by the federal agency, four took place in 2009, 21 in 2010 and 16 so far this year.

The robbery of Hibbard’s store was one of at least seven drugstore holdups to take place in Maine in the month that began Aug. 29. Five of those crimes occurred in Portland and South Portland, including two robberies of the CVS on Brighton Avenue in Portland. Another took place in Millinocket.

Maine is not the only state to see the increase.

Nationwide, armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to the DEA. A total of 1.3 million pills, worth as much as $80 each on the street, were stolen in 686 robberies last year. OxyContin and other oxycodone pills are the most common target.

The addiction epidemic also has fueled another now-familiar crime in Maine: home invasions.

While not counted and tracked as a separate category, home invasions also are helping to fuel an overall increase in robberies. Police say in most robberies, as well as burglaries, the criminals are looking for money to buy pills and other drugs, or for pills themselves.

“The crimes of burglary, robbery and theft all went up in 2010 in Maine,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, it’s all driven by drug abuse.”

In Cumberland County, the number of burglaries in which prescription pills were among the items stolen doubled from 14 in 2008 to 28 in 2009. “With so much out there, you can almost find prescription drugs in every house,” Sheriff Kevin Joyce said.

In Washington County, Sheriff Donnie Smith said he warns seniors to keep pill bottles away from windows so their homes don’t become robbery or burglary targets. Addicts even watch the obituaries to see where they might find unused cancer-pain medications, he said.

Most drug-related crime is low-profile and nonviolent, such as forged checks, burglaries and thefts from family members.

The people arrested on prescription drug possession and trafficking charges don’t always look like the usual drug-crime suspects.

Smith, the Washington County sheriff, said it’s not unusual for the elderly to sell some of their pain medications for extra income.

A 55-year-old Topsham woman was sentenced to jail on trafficking charges in late September for stealing blank prescription slips from the doctor’s office in Bath where she worked as an office manager, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. She forged oxycodone prescriptions for her son, who was sentenced to jail for selling the pills.

But some of the drug-fueled crimes are also becoming increasingly dangerous, police say. Home invasions, whether driven by drug addiction or something else, can be especially violent.

Eighty-one-year-old Grace Burton was stabbed to death during an apparent home invasion at her Farmington apartment in June. Less than a week later, a middle-aged woman was pistol-whipped by a masked intruder during a home invasion in Livermore Falls, police said.

Both cases are still under investigation and are not believed to be related to each other. Police would not say whether they believe painkillers or other drugs played a role in the crimes.

But that’s certainly one of the possibilities on the mind of Burton’s son, Robert Butterfield. Butterfield said his mother had bone cancer and kept a lot of medications in her bedroom.

“People stand around the pharmacies and watch these old ladies come in by themselves and follow them home and see where they live,” he said. “If somebody looked in her bedroom window and saw all those prescription pills, they might have presumed there was something they could have got high on. … I just don’t really know.”

Whatever the killer’s motivation, Butterfield is sure his mother put up a fight.

“She wasn’t a lady that was going to give up anything,” he said. “She was probably a lot stronger than they expected her to be.”

Burton’s family is offering a reward — now more than $16,000 — for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who caused the death, he said.

AT DRUGSTORES, HIGH-TECH SECURITY

There have been no reports of injuries during pharmacy robberies in Maine, although police fear the potential is increasing.

In June, a robber walked into a community drugstore on New York’s Long Island and shot the pharmacist, a teenage employee and two customers to death before leaving with a backpack full of painkillers.

Hibbard, the Bingham pharmacist, said the most recent robber he encountered was “way more threatening” than the two who robbed the store previously.

He said police asked him not to provide details, but he described how the robber leveled the gun at him and ordered him to get the drugs.

“It’s not nice having something like that pointed at you,” he said. “People don’t realize how unnerving that can be.”

Last year, a man jumped over the counter of a Rite-Aid pharmacy in Rockland, demanding drugs and threatening employees with a machete. He was still in the store swallowing the oxycodone pills when police arrived and arrested him at gunpoint.

Hibbard’s store, an independent pharmacy in a rural community, is believed to be the only one in Maine to stop carrying a painkiller because of the crime risk. Pharmacies statewide, however, have installed security equipment once reserved for banks and jewelry stores.

“We have turned to all of the cutting-edge suggestions,” said Douglas Carr, an attorney who represents Rite-Aid of Maine. “The biggest thing we’re concerned about is the well-being of our employees (and our) customers. … It’s a constant struggle, and sometimes you wonder whether you’re winning.”

The use of surveillance cameras, police tracking dogs and, in some cases, electronic tracking devices has helped police arrest suspects in a high percentage of recent cases. Police say some addicts seem more worried about getting a fix than getting caught.

Zachery Wildman of Westbrook was arrested at his home Sept. 6 on a charge of robbing a Hannaford pharmacy near the Maine Mall in South Portland. Witnesses got his license plate number as he drove away from the store, police said.

Wildman also was charged with the Aug. 31 robbery of a Hannaford pharmacy in Portland. Wildman, who declined an interview request, was being held on $50,000 cash bail at the Cumberland County Jail.

A day after the shotgun robbery at Hibbard’s store last month, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office arrested James Stile, 55, of Sangerville and charged him with the offense. The Maine State Police tactical team and an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also were involved in the investigation.

The U.S. DEA is now helping to investigate and prosecute the surging number of pharmacy robberies in Maine. Authorities are hoping the prospect of federal charges and stiff sentences at out-of-state prisons might slow the trend.

In Biddeford, also hit by a string of robberies, the police department has recommended to pharmacies that they prohibit customers who are wearing hoodies and dark glasses from entering stores.

Biddeford police recently hosted a statewide law enforcement training session that was sponsored by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Purdue, concerned that more pharmacies might stop carrying OxyContin in their stores, also has offered $1,000 rewards for information leading to arrests in Maine pharmacy robberies.

The crime problem is a constantly moving target, police say. And successful crackdowns may cut the supply and make addicts more desperate, said Sgt. Kevin Cashman, a Maine Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor in Portland.

Cashman and other agents arrested five suspected dealers in late August with more than 200 oxycodone pills from other states and about $21,000 in cash. The string of local pharmacy robberies started soon after.

“It seems like when there is a larger seizure of oxycodone, there are some pharmacy robberies that follow,” Cashman said. “The pharmacy (robberies) happen in spurts. … Then they get caught and a few months later someone else does it.”

Hibbard, the pharmacy owner in Bingham, is now wondering what else he can do. He said he can’t afford an armed guard, although he’s heard from people who want the job. And he can’t stop carrying all painkillers. Even if he could afford to give up the pain-treatment business, it would mean sending those patients 25 miles away to the next-closest pharmacy.

“I’m going to carry less, but I still have to provide them for people,” he said.

Some customers are worried he might simply close, said Hibbard, who has owned the 100-year-old store for 17 years.

“I’m not planning on leaving, but I don’t know, every time this happens, it becomes more of a possibility,” he said.

It was encouraging to Hibbard that all his employees came back to work the day after the latest holdup.

“I was wondering if they would,” he said. “It’s a very scary, unnerving thing.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]