Captive at the Counter: When Robbers Take Hostages—Part 1

JANUARY 01, 2007
Cmdr John Burke

News came recently from Stollings, WVa, of a man who held 6 people hostage after announcing a pharmacy holdup, carrying a pistol and a shotgun. He fired several shots inside the pharmacy during the 90- minute standoff. Two of the pharmacy technicians escaped after hearing him proclaim that he wanted to kill himself but did not want to harm anyone else.

He demanded and received hydrocodone and alprazolam during the standoff, and, after consuming a quantity of the pharmaceuticals, eventually became drowsy, almost passing out. This allowed the remaining hostages to overpower him, one of whom used the assailant's own shotgun to hit him on the head while he was being subdued. Fortunately, none of the hostages were injured during the siege, and the robber was seen being removed, heavily bandaged and on a stretcher.

Pharmacy robberies are an extremely dangerous business, as the typical perpetrator is a desperate addict bent on getting his or her next fix at your store. Although taking hostages is rare, when it does happen, the danger level increases tremendously. Hostages may be taken because police have been summoned and are seen by the robber, who feels that the only way out is to grab a human shield.

So what should you do if a robbery turns to a hostage situation, and you are the intended hostage? This is not as easy a question as it might seem at first. In the vast majority of cases, law enforcement will tell you to cooperate with anyone trying to rob your store; money and drugs are nothing compared with the value of your life and the lives of your coworkers and customers. This is excellent advice in the usual robbery scenario where the suspect gets drugs and leaves, but hostage ordeals can be much different.

If the hostage situation is contained inside your store with an armed criminal, and no immediate safe method of escape is available to you, then staying calm and cooperating with the subject are imperative. Many variables exist, however, in these situations, and your personality and the demeanor of the robber will most likely determine how you will act during this potentially perilous time frame.

In the example in West Virginia, I would think that offering some sympathy and careful questioning about the assailant's life's problems may be the best route to take. In other situations where the subject appears to be much more violent and desperate, silence and compliance may be the best path for you and any other hostages present. These moods can change quickly and may require you to think just as fast during the situation. Once again, your personality will dictate how involved you can become in trying to calm this person and keep everyone safe.

The worst-case scenario is that the armed perpetrator is demanding that you leave the building with him. This requires split-second thinking on your part as to whether you succumb to his order or decide to draw the line and refuse to leave the confines and relative safety of the pharmacy. This is obviously your decision, but as a common rule, situations that involve hostages being taken from a public area oftentimes do not have a positive outcome. Once you find yourself out of the sight and hearing of others, your fate is totally in the hands of this criminal, with no chance of help.

It is important that you at least think about "what if" and discuss your thoughts with your coworkers to stimulate conversation, possibly even developing a basic plan, knowing that it will likely require you to remain flexible depending on the situation at hand.

The best way to avoid hostage situations in your pharmacy is to prevent the robbery from being committed in the first place. Next month, we will take a look at some commonsense methods to help in preventing pharmacy robberies.

John Burke, commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 38-year veteran of law enforcement. Cmdr Burke also is the current president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at, via the Web site, or by phone at 513-336-0070.