AUBURN — It seemed like a bad dream, Benjamin Lukeski told the judge.
"It's almost unfathomable what I did," said Lukeski, 35, shortly before the judge sent him to prison for a year for robbing a Lewiston pharmacy of prescription drugs.
Until Nov. 21, 2010, Lukeski had never been in trouble with the law, Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy said, a note of surprise in her voice.
It wasn't the typical profile of a felony robbery defendant. Lukeski had never been arrested as an adult, nor as a juvenile. Not even a speeding ticket.
After his arrest, Lukeski spent three months in jail, withdrawing from a 15-year drug addiction. When he was freed, he checked himself into a rigorous, month-long drug rehabilitation clinic in Portland, followed by a six-month program aimed at staying clean. Not once did his regular drug tests show a lapse.
Despite his clean rap sheet, Lukeski's longtime addiction to narcotic drugs had finally caught up with him one day when he walked into a Rite Aid pharmacy and handed a terrified clerk a note that referenced "OxyContin" and included the phrase "I know where you live."
Lukeski told her to keep her hands above her waist and said: "Don't test me right now. I have nothing to lose. I will pull this gun out and shoot you."
While Lukeski may be the exception to the rule, authorities say his case isn't necessarily an isolated incident. Prescription drug addiction can lead otherwise nonviolent and law-abiding people to commit desperate criminal acts, they say.
"What makes this case significant is that it is representative of something that is going on in this community," Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Worden told the judge. As little as five years ago, prescription drug crimes were not a major issue. In fact, they were barely an issue at all, he said.
In 2009, only eight pharmacies in Maine were robbed or burglarized. A year later, 20 pharmacies were robbed or broken into, three of them in Lewiston. Last year, Maine saw 23 pharmacy robberies and break-ins for narcotics, the highest number yet. And so far this year, the trend has shown no sign of abating. Within the first three weeks of January, four Maine pharmacies were robbed.
"I don't think you could turn on a news station over the course of a week and not see a story about a pharmacy robbery," Worden said at Lukeski's sentencing hearing. "These folks at Rite Aid and CVS are under constant threat of violence."
"In Maine, pharmacy robberies of drugs ought to carry the type of sentence that recognizes that this is an affliction in this state," Worden said. "It is a serious problem."
A year ago, Maine's U.S. attorney announced a renewed cooperative effort aimed at cracking down on crimes related to the abuse of opiate-based prescription drugs, a scourge in which Maine ranked No. 1 in the country.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II said at a news conference at his Portland office that local, state and federal law enforcement had teamed up to combat an addiction problem that has spurred robberies and burglaries at Maine pharmacies.
Despite the uptick in pharmacy crimes in 2011, new efforts aimed at stemming the tide of robberies and burglaries since that news event have been effective, said Michael Wardrop, resident agent in charge of Maine for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Earlier cooperation between state and federal justice agencies had them working with pharmacies, doctors, organizations and various associations to better monitor prescriptions to identify fraud and abuse, Delahanty said.
Resulting changes included development of electronic prescribing concepts, requiring more positive identification, participation in a prescription-monitoring program and continued collaboration among state and federal law enforcement related to robberies and prescription fraud, he said. Maine's Legislature had passed a state law requiring pharmacies to install surveillance video cameras.
New techniques aimed at prevention and apprehension are constantly being developed, such as the pill bottle equipped with a hidden GPS tracking beacon, like the one that helped police track down Lukeski after his robbery, Wardrop said.
Greater efforts were made by state and federal prosecutors to work together to investigate cases, then take them to one court or the other, depending on which laws would have the greater impact, Wardrop said. By combining resources, he said, prosecutors have had greater success at apprehending suspects and prevailing in court. In some cases that would otherwise be handled by one of the state's district attorneys' offices, the threat of federal prosecution can sometimes function as a deterrent, he said.
Maine Attorney General William Schneider, the state's top prosecutor, said Friday his office had benefited from federal assistance.
"That's been happening and that's been helping," he said. "It's been really great."
But it's not enough.
At the local level, police are hoping to stem the flood of drugs that help feed the addicted by targeting dealers who see a new clientele. That demand has driven up the number of thefts and burglaries, while many other crime categories have trended downward, Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said.
Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said the more pain medications that are dispensed, the more drug diversion there is. Combating prescription drug abuse is complicated by the fact that there is legal use of narcotics and some people become addicted using them legally.
About 5 percent of total drug-related arrests 15 years ago involved prescription drugs, McKinney said. Today, they account for about 43 percent of drug-related arrests.
More changes at the state level are expected, AG Schneider said.
A state-level summit was held to brainstorm ideas around taking the next step in combating prescription-drug-related crime, Schneider said. The group came up with the notion of forming a 17-member task force that would focus on four efforts:
1. Review and strengthen the prescription monitoring program, a system set up and run by an office at the Department of Health and Human Services that tracks all prescriptions issued by Maine pharmacies and is made available to prescribers in an effort to avert pharmacy-shopping or doctor-shopping.
2. Compile a list of all convicted drug offenders to make sure they aren't pharmacy-shopping or doctor-shopping.
3. Develop a medication disposal program. Until this year, the DEA has conducted a yearly prescription take-back event, when all types of prescription medications can be turned in and safely disposed of. That program was not continued due to lack of funding. Uncertainty over a replacement program at the federal level prompted state officials to take action, Schneider said.
4. Educate medication prescribers as well as the public about the potential for narcotics abuse.
Schneider said he expects Gov. Paul LePage to sign an executive order in the next couple of weeks that would create the task force and give it the green light.
"I've got the people all picked and invited," Schneider said. "I just need the governor to sign off on it."
He said Lukeski's case clearly demonstrates the desperation addicts feel to feed their addiction to narcotics.
"He's a guy who may actually pull through," Schneider said.
In Androscoggin County Superior Court on Wednesday, Worden argued that Lukeski should be sentenced to six years in prison and serve 18 months in order to send a message to others mulling robbery to feed their addiction. The felony carries a maximum prison term of 10 years.
"This court . . . has the opportunity to give a signpost to the community that No. 1, we're serious about it. And, No. 2, to a certain extent, to give fair warning to the individuals who might engage in this behavior."
Lukeski's attorney, Richard Charest, was seeking to have his client serve no time behind bars beyond the three months he already spent in jail. Lukeski had admitted his crime by pleading guilty to the robbery and had apologized to the clerk he threatened.
For his part, a tearful Lukeski told the judge he planned to counsel others addicted to prescription drugs that it's possible for them to get their lives back on track.
"I feel like that's my life's work now," he said. "I didn't think there was a chance you could live a normal life again" during his addiction, he said.
Justice Kennedy appeared torn between the elements of Lukeski's crime and his spotless record coupled with exemplary efforts to turn his life around.
"This is an incredibly difficult sentence," she said, retaking the bench after a break to decide that Lukeski's punishment should be five years in prison, with four years suspended.
Kennedy, who presides over the county's so-called drug court, where addicted defendants are often given lesser sentences while they work through their addiction-related crimes, told Lukeski that he, in effect, undertook his own form of drug court and completed it successfully.
"You've done some very good things, sir," she said. "The fact that you never relapsed is quite amazing . . . that's pretty unusual."
But, Kennedy said: "The bottom line is, you know you took the drugs, you know you became addicted . . . and you know that you went into that pharmacy and threatened someone and demanded drugs."
The clerk at the pharmacy wasn't Lukeski's only victim that day, Kennedy said.
"The victim is the community," she said. "It's Androscoggin County. It's the entire state of Maine. I cannot express to you enough the seriousness of that."