Rite Aid stations security guard in store

In aftermath of Rite Aid standoff and death, Camden police investigate gun history

Wed, 09/24/2014 - 8:30am

    CAMDEN — Police are still investigating the mid-September Camden Rite Aid robbery, and one man’s tragic death that ended a standoff. They want to know how the man came by the Sears and Roebuck shotgun he used to kill himself, and are asking residents to check gun cabinets. Police also continue to interview individuals in an attempt to understand what motivated the 34-year-old Camden man to initiate a violent sequence of events.

    “We want to determine where the firearm came from,” said Camden Police Chief Randy Gagne. 

    The robbery by, and suicide of, Robert Beerman Sept. 15 drew more than 50 law enforcement officers to downtown Camden for 10 hours of intense police work, surveillance and hostage negotiation. By the time it was over, around 3 a.m. Sept. 16, the hostage had been released unharmed, a local man was dead and his family was left in sorrow.

    Still, the reverberations continue, as Camden became the unlikely epicenter for tragic violence — and for the fifth time since 2011, emerged as yet another anxious community in the country’s epidemic of armed drugstore robberies. Only this time, the stakes were much higher, as one woman, a Rite Aid pharmacist, was held against her will in a terrifying situation for four hours.

    Hostage-taking is a rarity in Maine. The last such incident in memory was a pharmacy robbery in downtown Portland in 2008, according to Maine Dept. of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland. As state police learned of the situation, shortly after 7:30 p.m. that Monday night, tactical police flew toward Camden from all parts of the state, blue lights and sirens screaming along normally peaceful highways.

    One week later, Rite Aid, whose revenues reached $6 billion this year, said it is ramping up its security measures in its stores.

    “Safety and security is our top priority and we work diligently to prevent and investigate crimes,” said Rite Aid, in a statement issued immediately following the robbery of the Camden store. “Rite Aid is committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure we are providing a safe environment for our associates and customers. As is standard procedure after any incident, we are assessing possible next steps, including adding additional safety measures.”

    The company has declined to disclose what those steps are. McCausland said: “Rite Aid knows what it is doing. Rite Aid has beefed up their security.”

    The Camden Rite Aid store, however, is different from many other 4,000 Rite Aid stores across the country, which have been built on the outskirts of town, with “completely different layouts,” said McCausland. The Camden store is a converted LaVerdiere’s Drugstore, which was established decades ago. It also has a back door, which leaves a number of citizens wondering why that has not been sealed off.

    Maine Pharmacy robberies. How many?

    Maine’s Department of Public Safety started tallying the number of pharmacy robberies across the state in 2010. Prior to that, the state did keep a running count of such crimes.

    So far, in 2014, there have been 17 pharmacy robberies in Maine.

    In 2013, there were 13.

    2012: 56

    2011: 24

    2010: 23

    What explains the precipitous drop in pharmacy robberies from 2012 to 2013? 

    One factor is the price of heroin, which also dropped during that time period.

    This year, the price of heroin remains lower; yet, there has been an increase in robberies, many of them in the Augusta area, said McCausland.

    Rite Aid, with corporate headquarters in Camp Hill, Penn., has approximately 4,600 stores in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

    In Maine, there are approximately 84 Rite Aid stores. These stores have pharmacies, personal care goods, wine and beer, and some household items.

    Rite Aid is the third largest drugstore chain in the U.S., behind Walgreens and CVS.

    On Sept. 18, the publicly-held company said it anticipated sales this year to be between $26 billion and $26.3 billion.

    Revenue increased 3.9 percent to $6.52 billion, itself, largely driven by an improvement in pharmacy same-store sales.

    Prescription sales accounted for 68.8 percent of total drugstore sales.

    Being in downtown Camden, robbers more easily blend into the local foot traffic, said McCausland.

    “We’ve invested millions of dollars in technology and safety measures to keep our stores and those inside them safe, and are always exploring new measures,” said Rite Aid, in its statement. “We do not comment on specific tactics we use to deter pharmacy robberies, since doing so decreases their effectiveness. We will continue to work closely with all levels of law enforcement, other retailers and industry groups to share information and tactics in an effort to deter and prevent robberies.”

    By Friday, Sept. 19, Rite Aid had contracted with an independent security firm to station a guard inside the Elm Street store. 

    As for their employees and crisis debriefing — especially for the benefit of the detained pharmacist who feared for her life — Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower said the company made “counselors available to our associates (and had been doing so throughout the week).”

    “She was a survivor,” said Camden Detective Curt Andrick, a week after the incident. “She was able to cooperate with the suspect. She remained calm and kept her wits about her in a very trying situation.”

    Camden Rite Aid robbery 

    Beerman walked into the store just before 7:30 p.m. on Monday night, Sept. 15. With a shotgun across his arms, he cleared the store of shoppers and employees, but retained a female pharmacist, according to the police affidavit filed at the Knox County Courthouse in Rockland.

    Beerman’s weapon was a pre-1968 20-gauge single-shot shotgun whose barrel had been sawed down to a length of 25.75 inches. Police said they found evidence in Beerman’s bedroom that he most likely cut the barrel down there.

    He had entered the store waving his gun around, according to the pharmacist, and pointed it at her, demanding drugs.

    Beerman then locked the doors from the inside of the store and placed a soda machine near the back door to block anyone from entering the store.

    He told the pharmacist that he needed her in the store to use her as a bargaining chip, according to the affidavit.

    At 8:20 p.m., Andrick arrived, and after viewing the store’s video camera system, suggested the man inside the store was Beerman. Andrick knew Beerman from previous police contact with him, which included an August burglary at Cuzzy’s bar on Bay View in Camden, for which Beerman was charged.

    Meanwhile, Maine State Police troopers and members of the state’s 20-member tactical team assembled outside the store, and stationed with firearms in various nearby locations. They were joined by four negotiators of the state’s eight-member negotiating team, according to McCausland.

    Camden, Rockland and Rockport police officers were already at the scene, as were Knox County Sheriff’s deputies. They had arrived as soon as word was made by Knox County Regional Communications Center, the region’s dispatch center. Some officers were off-duty but came immediately from their homes; others on duty sped down local roads to Camden’s downtown.

    In total, Gagne estimates more than 50 law enforcement officials were in Camden that night. Route 1 was shut down from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., and Camden Fire Department and assorted citizens assisted with traffic control. The public was advised to remain well away from the scene and sidewalks were cordoned off with tape.

    The arrival and coordination of state, county and local law enforcement was not by accident: Two years ago, following the dramatic increase in armed robberies at pharmacies, the Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Public Safety convened a meeting of stakeholders — police and drugstore corporations — to talk about security and improve communication between agencies and departments.

    “So that the left hand is knowing what the right hand is doing,” said McCausland.

    Initially, Rockport Police Sgt. Travis Ford was talking to Beerman from the pharmacy drive-up intercom system, and reported that Beerman had confirmed his identity.

    For the next three hours, negotiators talked with Beerman over the store’s landline telephone.

    At 11 p.m., he released the pharmacist, who was “met by the tactical officer, who took her to safety,” said Gagne. “There were no signs of injury of any type.”

    No shots were fired by police throughout the night, and Beerman’s hostage was unharmed throughout the ordeal. 

    After he let the pharmacist go, negotiators continued to talk off and on with Beerman via the landline.

    He was observed periodically walking around the store, and then he apparently began to consume “a lot of drugs,” said Gagne.

    After 2 a.m., negotiators lost contact with Beerman and could not see him moving around the store.

    “There was a period of about 40 minutes when no communication was made with Mr. Beerman,” said Gagne, in a statement made early in the morning Sept. 16. “It was decided at that time that the state police would breach the front door. No further negotiations had taken place. State police entered the building to find Mr. Beerman deceased in the back employee’s break area.”

    Police breached the door of the store with an armored vehicle at 3 a.m., and the sound of glass breaking and crunching metal was heard up and down the street.

    Just prior to that, police loudly repeated over and over again through a microphone: “Robby, come out now. This is the state police. You need to come out right now with your hands up. Robby come outside. You are under arrest.”

    Police had obtained an arrest warrant soon after 1 a.m. while in the process of negotiations. The tactical team had requested that Camden police get an arrest warrant.

    Camden police obtained the warrant from Attorney Stephen Hanscom.

    When they breached the door, the tactical team discovered Beerman in the back of the store, where he had shot himself.

    Effects on a community

    The night of robbery, kidnapping, terrorizing and violent death inside a downtown Camden store has left a community in disbelief. Some remember going to school with Beerman. Emotions, mostly expressed as sadness, continue to run high as residents try to understand his struggles.

    Previous Camden Rite Aid robberies

    Last winter, Camden police arrested a young woman for robbing the Camden Rite Aid in December 2011. That robbery was one of four that occurred at the store in 2011 and 2012.

    Hillary Johnson was charged and allegedly left the store with four bottles — each with 100 tablets — of oxycodone acetaminophen, a narcotic.

    Two of the three other Camden Rite Aid robberies have been solved: 

    1) Heather Mansfield was arrested in March 2012 for a robbery at that time.

    2) Sean Higgins was arrested for the Aug. 2, 2011 robbery.

    The March 10, 2011 robbery remains under investigation.

    Beerman carried an extensive record since 2009 of domestic violence, assault, criminal threatening, criminal mischief and burglary, from Waterville to Rockland to Camden.

    Those felonies alone made it illegal for him to have a firearm in his possession.

    His death has also generated many conversations about mental health care and treatment in a state that closed its public mental health hospitals more than 20 years ago in favor of deinstitutionalizing psychiatric hospitals.

    Locally, the Midcoast has a psychiatric department at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, with 18 beds. Sometimes, the beds are all taken, other times, there is room at the hospital.

    The unintended consequences of deinstitutionalizing mental health care include the necessity for law enforcement officers to function as mental health responders, with local jails becoming de facto holding facilities for people who would be better served in psychiatric care.

    And there are the continuing conversations about health insurance, what it covers and who has access to it.

    The incident also raises another set of concerns about the proliferation of pharmaceuticals, access to narcotics at local pharmacies and violent robberies. 

    Two weeks ago, Kennebec Pharmacy, just four miles down Route 1 in Rockport, was the site of a robbery attempt, albeit unsuccessful. The goal there was to obtain narcotics.

    The Camden Rite Aid store has been robbed four times since 2011 (see sidebar). In 2011, employees at the Rockland Rite Aid store were subject to a robber who wielded a machete, and demanded drugs. Most of these robberies were committed by people who live in the Midcoast, people who live in the community.

    “Pharmacy robberies are an industry issue,” said Rite Aid, in its statement. “They are unpredictable, making it difficult to completely prevent them from occurringhowever, there is a great deal we can (and have done) to deter and curtail individuals from attempting to rob one of our locations.”

    Beerman’s crime has been called a robbery and a stand-off, with Beerman using the shotgun as a force and intimidation to acquire drugs, police said.

    If he had lived, he would have been charged with kidnapping, terrorism, possession of firearm by felon and violation of bail conditions.

    But it was also an anomaly in the pattern of pharmaceutical robberies.

    “We believe he entered with the intent of not coming out, either by his own means or in confrontation with law enforcement,” said Gagne.

    In the end, it was tragedy, which Gagne recognized Sept. 23 when he spoke before the Camden Select Board.

    “A family from this community lost a loved one, and we express our condolences to the Beerman family,” he said.

    Camden police said Rite Aid has made some security improvements over the last several years.

    “We will continue to work with Rite Aid,” said Andrick. “We have made some suggestions in the past for improving security.”

    Local residents wonder, however, whether the back door of the store should be sealed.

    On Sept. 23, Gagne convened a debriefing and assessment meeting of some of the law enforcement personnel who responded to the robbery. They included local and state police, and a few of the negotiators. They talked about how and what happened, and they talked about handing future incidents. 

    At the Sept. 24 Camden Select Board meeting, Town Manager Patricia Finnigan told the town that Knox County law enforcement will pool resources and conduct pre-planning mapping for other pharmacies and businesses in the county that have the potential for being targets.

    She likened it to the pre-planning conducted by fire departments, so they know when they roll up that they have details about the buildings, placement of web cams, location of hazardous chemicals, among other details, Finnigan said. 

    “It is a proactive step the chief has suggested,” she said, which could become a template for the rest of the state.

    Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657