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Police seek women for allergy medicine heists in three cities

Stores lose medications worth thousands of dollars

A group of women who allegedly stole thousands of dollars of allergy medications from Midpeninsula drugstores are being sought by police.

The women, described to be in their 20s, struck stores in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View early Sunday night, shoving or pushing employees in two of the incidents as they made their escapes.

Shortly after 7 p.m., a manager at the Walgreens at 300 University Ave. in Palo Alto noticed three young women enter the store with empty shopping bags, Palo Alto police Sgt. Wayne Benitez said. Suspicious that they may attempt to steal items, the manager observed the women go to the allergy medication aisle. She followed them and asked the women if they needed assistance.

The women were placing the allergy medicines containing the ingredient dextromethorphan, including Allegra and Claritin, in the shopping bags. As the women attempted to leave without paying, the manager stood in front of the door to block their departure.

She said, "You can't leave with that," according to Benitez.

"You can't stop me," said one of the women who then forcefully pushed the manager away from the display. (The manager was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs about 190 pounds.) The trio then ran south on Bryant Street toward Hamilton Avenue. The manager, who is about 30 years old, was not injured, Benitez said. The women escaped with about $500 worth of allergy medications.

Palo Alto police sent out a bulletin to other law enforcement agencies and shortly after the theft, received a call from the Mountain View Police Department regarding a similar crime in its city that evening.

Mountain View police spokeswoman Katie Nelson said that around 8:45 p.m., three women walked into the Walgreens at 121 E. El Camino Real and stole approximately $800 worth of what appears to be primarily joint and muscle-relief medication.

Menlo Park police reported they also had a similar crime that night at the Walgreens at 643 Santa Cruz Ave. In that case, three females entered the store shortly before 7:30 p.m., approached the allergy medicine display and stole numerous boxes of allergy medication, Menlo Park police spokeswoman Nicole Acker said.

An employee approached the suspects in an attempt to block them from taking more items. One of the thieves grabbed the employee by the arm and pulled his arm away, then she forcefully pushed the employee from in front of the display, according to Acker.

The trio then fled the store, but a few moments later one of the women returned and took additional allergy medications before fleeing a second time. The medications are valued at approximately $1,452, Acker said. The employee was not injured.

It is not known if the same three women hit all of the stores. The women in all the cases were all described as between 20 and 25 years old; between 5 feet 5 inches tall and 5 feet 7 inches tall; having thin builds; and wearing dark pants and jackets. Two women had purses and one had a brown shopping bag. Further descriptions of the women, such as facial features, were not available. They were gone when police arrived and were not located in subsequent searches.

The thieves in the Palo Alto case were described as a Hispanic woman weighing about 150 pounds and wearing a black jacket, jeans, a red sweater and carrying a red bag; a Hispanic woman weighing around 130 pounds and wearing a black sweater and jeans; and a black woman weighing roughly 120 pounds and wearing a gray sweater and jeans.

The perpetrators in the Menlo Park incident were described as two black women and an Asian woman.

Investigations into all three cases are ongoing. Benitez said surveillance footage captured in at least one of the incidents has not been released by police.

Dextromethorphan is a common ingredient in cold, cough and allergy medications. When abused, its effects can range from a mild hallucinogenic euphoria to a violent, PCP-like reaction, Benitez said.

Controlling juveniles' access to the drug in California began in Palo Alto. Benitez's college thesis on preventing the sale of over-the-counter cold medications containing dextromethorphan was used by then-state Senator Joe Simitian (currently a Santa Clara County supervisor) to craft Senate Bill 514.

Simitian submitted the bill after Benitez and fellow Palo Alto Police Department colleague Ron Lawrence won Simitian's "There Oughta Be a Law" contest in 2004. The bill prohibits the sale of products containing the drug to children under the age of 18. Young people were using the drug as a cheap and available way to get high, he said. It stalled in the Legislature, but it was later signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.

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