Oregon pharmacy forced to close after drug bust

WHEELER — When Dianne Stiger stopped by the Wheeler Pharmacy on Tuesday morning, she came with a tin of freshly baked brownies and left with a hug and a few tears.

For as long as Stiger can remember, the pharmacy has occupied its place in the heart of downtown, and now, with almost no warning, its time to say so long.

"It's like the end of an era," said Stiger, wiping away tears. "It hurts so bad. Everyone here is like family. I've known them forever."

Word that the pharmacy is closing surprised everyone. Operated by pharmacist Jeff Collett since 1973, the pharmacy was an institution in the coastal town south of Manzanita, a place not only to pick up drugs and medical supplies but also chocolates, T-shirts, watches, even wedding albums. It was the place to catch up, commiserate and share a hug when needed.

"I just figured the store would be open until we all decided to leave," said Sue Winegar , a clerk at the store for 10 years.

So did everyone else, until about a month ago when federal drug agents arrested a pharmacy technician, accusing her of illegally dispensing drugs. That cost Collett his license to fill prescriptions for all but the most basic drugs, as well as fines he's still not sure how he will pay.

This week, as Winegar and fellow clerks packed up and Collett explained to one more caller that people would have to go somewhere else, they readied to lock the door one last time.

Collett, a 70-year-old father of five, grandfather of 11 and graduate of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy class of 1961, started at the Wheeler Pharmacy in 1968. He bought the store from the former owner five years later and has operated it ever since.

He said he realized something was amiss this year when he did a quarterly audit of the pharmacy and discovered there were quite a few drugs missing.

"I thought, I've done something wrong," said Collett, a tall, balding man rarely seen without a smile. "I thought I didn't count right or didn't read the figures right. I kept redoing it. I kept thinking it will turn up and I'll realize how stupid I've been."

But the numbers didn't change and soon the Board of Pharmacy and law enforcement got involved. Collett says he still doesn't know where the drugs went, but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Tillamook County Sheriffs Office say they do.

Last month, they arrested Florence West, 57, of Nehalem and charged her with unlawful delivery of a schedule 2 controlled substance. Missing from the pharmacy were thousands of methadone, oxycodone and other pills, which authorities say West gave to customers who told her they'd accidentally lost or destroyed the narcotics. They do not believe she took money for the drugs.

"Our initial investigation into the Wheeler Pharmacy indicates that there may be more than 10,000 missing Methadone pills," said Tillamook County Sheriff Todd Anderson. "We know one person was receiving up to 600 Methadone pills a month."

After West's arrest, Collett agreed to give up his license to dispense schedule 2 narcotics, which include drugs such as methadone. Detectives say he was also illegally dispensing drugs.

"Pharmacist Jeff admitted to DEA and Sheriff's Office investigators that he 'loaned' customers schedule two narcotics," said Tillamook County Sheriff's Detective Paul Fournier in an e-mail. "We also have evidence of instances where he gave narcotics to customers so they could meet their pill count for their physician."

Collett initially denied giving out the narcotics but said he did occasionally help customers short on blood pressure or thyroid pills just until their new prescription came through. Later, however, he acknowledged that about two times in 20 years he gave customers extra narcotics after theirs were stolen. "I gave them enough to get them to the next prescription, at which time they would be deducted from that prescription."

Although Collett agreed to surrender his license to dispense schedule 2 narcotics, he planned to reapply for the license as soon "as the matter was cleared up."

But the DEA had different ideas. Last week, agents notified him that surrendering his license to dispense schedule 2 narcotics was not enough and that he would no longer be permitted to fill prescriptions for any controlled substances.

"That means we can't do pain pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, cough syrup," said Collett. "It also means we are not able to fully serve our customers."

On top of those troubles are fines totaling $60,000. The only way he can pay them, Collett said, is to return his unopened inventory to the wholesalers.

With the pharmacy closing, staff members fear customers — many of whom are elderly and unable to drive — will have trouble getting the medicine and other supplies they need. The closest pharmacy is in Garibaldi, about 10 miles south along U.S. 101.

"What is the community going to do?" wondered Frank Stuart, a retired pharmacist who helps out at the Wheeler Pharmacy part time. "It's hard, it really is. Many, many people will be devastated by this."

But while these are sad days at the pharmacy, detectives say its a big step toward halting the flow of drugs on the street.

"We have had deadly overdoses in this county that were the result of diverted narcotics," said Fournier, in the e-mail. "One was a local 18-year-old who died recently after mixing a small amount of diverted narcotics with alcohol. People in this community support us when we take a $20 sack (one dose) of heroin off the street. Here we are talking about nearly more than 20,000 missing dangerous narcotic pills, an amount that is staggering to think about being out on the streets of Tillamook County."

So far, West is the only employee arrested, but she may not be the only one charged, Fournier said.

Collett said the stress is a lot more than a 70-year-old with an eye on retirement bargained for, but he will handle it the way he always has. "We have faith in the Lord that he is going to see us through this. He has always been there for us in the past and I am sure he will continue to be."

And then a still-smiling Collett took his place behind the tall white counter to explain to one more worried customer why he would no longer be dispensing their drugs.

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