It’s become a familiar scene: A desperate and brazen suspect, disguised with sunglasses and a hood or ball cap, threatens a pharmacy employee and demands prescription painkillers.

The same robber shows up at a different drugstore a day or two later, before eventually being caught, or at least identified.

In 26 robberies in the past two years, nobody has been injured. But with robbers armed with guns, and in one case a machete, the risk is high.

The surge in robberies at pharmacies in southern Maine has led the federal government to offer help investigating the crimes and prosecuting suspects.

Whenever a pharmacy is robbed or burglarized, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives will be alerted. Whenever possible, suspects will be prosecuted in the federal system, which could bring more prison time than state charges.

“We are not ‘taking over’ the investigation or prosecution of these cases from state people, but will work with state, county and local law enforcement and prosecutors,” said U.S. Attorney for Maine Thomas Delahanty II.

Most pharmacy robberies can be prosecuted as federal crimes because the value of stolen drugs exceeds $500, he said.

Delahanty announced Wednesday that pharmacy robberies in Maine increased from four in 2009 to 21 last year. The most recent holdup occurred Friday at a Rite Aid in Sanford.

A total of $78,000 worth of drugs, at wholesale prices, was stolen in the 25 robberies in the past two years and one this year. The merchandise taken in five burglaries of pharmacies ranged in value from $109 to a high of $21,500, in Livermore Falls in 2009, according to federal data.

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy is developing a standard protocol for local law enforcement’s response to pharmacy robberies, Delahanty said. It will be presented to sheriffs and police chiefs at a convention in South Portland next week.

Delahanty said the maximum penalty for robbery in the state system is 30 years, but robbers rarely get that much prison time and typically serve just 65 percent to 70 percent of their sentences.

Federal sentencing guidelines are case-specific, but could bring stiffer sentences. Federal prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, regardless of good behavior.

Those sentences are served outside Maine, in prisons with a reputation for few creature comforts, so the prospect of federal charges could deter some would-be robbers, Delahanty said.

Pharmacies welcomed the federal initiative announced Wednesday.

“The federal government should be involved,” said Joe Bruno, president and chief executive officer of Community Pharmacies, a Maine-based chain. “Most of the drugs that are robbed out of the pharmacy are federally controlled drugs. It’s not like they’re robbing pharmacies for blood pressure medication.”

Bruno said pharmacies have done their part, installing sophisticated surveillance equipment and improving communication between stores. Bruno said he won’t be surprised if pharmacies eventually bar customers from entering if their faces are covered by hoods and sunglasses, as many banks now do.

Ashley Flower, a spokeswoman for Rite Aid, said the national chain supports the federal initiative as a way to help keep employees and customers safe.

Maine Attorney General William Schneider said rural areas may be seeing a disproportionate share of robberies because other illegal drugs are easier to get in urban areas.

Evert Fowle, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said the federal government’s help will ease pressure on Maine prosecutors and the state court system. With federal sanctions, dangerous robbers will be imprisoned longer.

“When violent people are in jail or prison, our communities are safer,” he said. 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]