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Originally published March 4, 2011 at 9:05 PM | Page modified March 4, 2011 at 9:27 PM

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'Drugstore Cowboy' sentenced to what may be his last ride

Jim Fogle, author of "Drugstore Cowboy," is clinging to life inside the King County Jail as he awaits his transfer to prison to begin serving a nearly 16-year sentence for robbing a Redmond pharmacy with a BB gun last May — most likely his last after a 57-year run of arrests and prison stints up and down the West Coast.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Jim Fogle's lead character dies at the end of his novel "Drugstore Cowboy" but clings to life in the final scene of the 1989 Gus Van Sant movie based on the book.

Now it is Fogle clinging to life inside King County Jail as he awaits his transfer to prison to begin serving a nearly 16-year sentence for robbing a Redmond pharmacy with a BB gun last May — most likely his last after a 57-year run of arrests and prison stints up and down the West Coast.

Fogle, 74, who breathes through a tube connected to an oxygen tank and has been undergoing lung biopsies at Harborview Medical Center, knows he probably will die behind bars.

"There isn't much chance of getting out," Fogle acknowledged during one of four jailhouse interviews with The Seattle Times. "If I hadn't got busted, I'd be dead by now the way I was living and stuff."

Fogle, who pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery last month, was wheeled into King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum's courtroom Friday: His defense attorney, Anna Samuel, requested a 10-year sentence because of Fogle's age and medical prognosis, but the judge said there was no basis in case law to deviate from a standard sentence.

Lum read aloud a list of Fogle's felony convictions — 13 since 1954, not including the Redmond robbery — and said Fogle has "one of the more extensive histories" he has seen in 13 years on the bench.

The judge told Fogle: "Those victims did not know your gun wasn't a real gun, and they were terrified."

Fogle didn't speak during his sentencing.

Fogle and his partner, Shannon Benn, 45, who was armed with a real gun, burst into Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy on Redmond Way around 9 p.m. May 25. A female employee was able to trigger a silent alarm and ask a passer-by to call police before she and two female co-workers were tied up at the back of the store.

When Fogle walked out of a back door with a trash bin full of drugs, he was confronted by officers with guns drawn. Benn came out a few moments later and attempted to fire, but his gun jammed. He, too, was arrested and is now serving more than 11 years in prison after pleading guilty in September.

Before his arrest in May, Fogle had been free for three years — his longest stretch on the outside since he was first shipped off to the former federal penitentiary on McNeil Island for stealing cars when he was 17.

"They really want me to do a biography of my life. I suppose I should," Fogle said. "It'd be a great story. No one would believe it, there are so many twists and turns. And people would say, 'Nobody could be that stupid.' "

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Fogle grew up in Olympia with an abusive father who worked at a plywood mill, and a mother he adored who, after divorcing his father, became deputy director for a school superintendent.

"My mom would say, 'I'll tell ya about Jim. He'll give you the shirt off his back — and if it doesn't fit you or you don't like it, he'll go steal another one for you,' " Fogle recalled with a laugh.

Fogle, who has a sixth-grade education, can recite lengthy poems — his own and those written by others. He chuckles, telling stories of his wild youth, like the time two teenage girls busted him and another guy out of jail after they were caught trying to burglarize a tavern for gas money.

It was 1957 in St. George, Utah. The U.S. government was doing nuclear testing not far away.

"I was running across the desert with a posse of cops chasing me ... and boom! It changed from blue light to a mushroom. I got busted about two hours after that."

Fogle soon turned to ripping off jewelry stores and pharmacies. A jewelry-store heist in California landed him at San Quentin Penitentiary, where he spent a chunk of time, he said.

"There were 5,000 people in this penitentiary, and everybody was killing each other," Fogle said. "If we didn't have a killing on Saturday morning, you could almost bet we'd have one on Sunday morning."

He said he started robbing drugstores to sell the dope. But then he "got curious" and started using the strongest narcotics he could get his hands on: cocaine, heroin, Demerol, morphine.

"I've been doing this [expletive] my whole life, up and down, and over and across," he said.

Fogle has penned a dozen novels behind bars. "Drugstore Cowboy" is Fogle's best-known work, about a band of "dope fiends" who rob drugstores across the Pacific Northwest.

He said he wrote it on a manual typewriter in about six weeks while serving time at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The 1989 film adaptation, which starred Matt Dillon, was critically acclaimed, winning the best screenplay award in 1989 from the Los Angeles, New York and national societies of film critics.

So does he feel like he wasted his life in prison?

Fogle's response: "Yeah, I guess you could say that, but then, I never would've read all the books I read, and I would never have written all those books."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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