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Police cite addictions in uptick in armed robberies

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 04. 2013 8:58PM

MANCHESTER - Drugstores, convenience stores and banks - that's the "trifecta" of city businesses targeted in a recent spike in armed robberies in the city, according to police.

In the first four months of this year, there have been 35 armed robberies in the city. That compares with 29 in the same period in 2012.

The jump is due entirely to a spike in January, when 16 holdups were reported, compared with seven the previous January.

And police believe, based on interviews with robbers who confessed to their crimes, that most of these holdups are being committed by drug addicts, desperate to feed their habit. "The common thread through all of them ... is drug addiction," said Capt. Nick Willard, investigative bureau commander for Manchester police.

These days, their habit likely involves a prescription drug, Willard said. "It certainly seems like that has taken over the underbelly of the criminal element in Manchester."

"In the early '90s, crack cocaine was a driving force behind a lot of the property crimes and personal crimes - street robberies."

Today, he said, "Prescription drug addiction is near epidemic proportion nationwide, and we're certainly seeing it in Manchester.

"People need to have it. They're willing to go to whatever extreme they have to to get it."

There were 74 armed robberies in Manchester in 2012, 73 in 2011 and 58 in 2010, according to police Lt. Maureen Tessier. She noted a robbery is classified as "armed" if the robber threatens someone with a weapon, even if one is not shown.

Police say there seems to be a pattern of escalation when it comes to the targets robbers choose. Holdups at corner stores tend to be more spontaneous, Willard said, and the robber is often on foot. "It may be in close proximity where the person's going to purchase their drugs," he said.

But when that doesn't provide enough money, he said, "what they'll do is they'll go straight to the pharmacy itself and commit robbery for the drug they're looking for."

And from there, some may escalate to robbing a bank, a crime that takes more forethought, Willard said. "It's more planned out, whereas the corner store is more of the spontaneous, desperate addict," he said.

When police interview robbers who have confessed to their crimes, Willard said, they often tell investigators they chose their locations based on the best escape routes. "I know one particular gentleman admitted to doing a bank robbery on Brown Avenue, and he talked specifically about being able to get up on the highway," he said.

Willard recalled a trio of masked men who committed a series of five shotgun robberies in the fall of 2010. Between Sept. 23 and Nov. 14 of that year, one or more of the men hit the TD Bank on Bay Street, Spring Hill Suites, the Super 8 Motel on Brown Avenue, Rite Aid on Hooksett Road and Hess Gas Station on Massabesic Street.

"What was different about them was just how dangerous they were," Willard said. "It was almost like TV. They would jump the counter while one person was holding a person at gunpoint."

Police feared the crime spree would turn deadly, he said. "All it would take is one accidental discharge from one of those criminals, and somebody could have been killed."

Manchester detectives, assisted by agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, managed to track down the men responsible for the robberies. All three confessed to the crimes and were sentenced to spend decades in federal prison.

At the request of the New Hampshire Sunday News, Manchester police produced a list of the top locations that have been held up since the beginning of 2011.

Three convenience stores, two pharmacies and three banks have been robbed three or more times in that period; Cumberland Farms on Webster Street and Walgreens on South Main Street were each hit six times.

Willard said police sometimes find patterns in the days of the week or hours that robberies may occur and set up surveillance to catch the crooks. But he said he wouldn't want city residents to respond by not going to certain businesses.

"What I would never want to do is cause fear in the citizenry," he said. "If we do that, then the criminals are going to change our behavior so much so that that would be just unacceptable to me.

"I think the best thing that a citizen can do if they're worried about robbery is being vigilant.

"If you see something out of the ordinary and you suspect something isn't right, call 911 or talk to the bank manager," Willard said.

"My advice would be basically for everyone to buy into safety for each other."

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