In the year before Dave Dukes killed a man who was trying to rob the store where he worked, he'd witnessed three other robberies.
After each of them, Dukes, 28, would say later, he'd asked his supervisors at Dollar General to put in a security guard.
But, according to Dukes, his bosses didn't do that — though, because of how many robberies he'd been through, they did start sending him out to train employees at other stores.
After the third robbery, Dukes started bringing a gun to work.
Then, in October 2019, the fourth robbery happened.
According to the local prosecutor's office, a man entered the store with a gun and demanded money from the cashier. When Dukes tried to intervene, the man — Roosevelt Rappley, just 23 years old — pointed his gun at Dukes. Then Dukes pulled out his own gun and shot Rappley, killing him.
A grand jury in Ohio reviewed the case and found Dukes 'acted lawfully under the circumstances,' according to the prosecutor's office.
But by then Dukes was out of a job, allegedly having been fired by Dollar General for violating company policy. Dollar General's 2019 policy said that possession of a firearm on the company premises may result in termination.
Dollar General declined to say why Dukes was terminated, saying in an email that it does not comment publicly on specific employment situations. The company said it does not retaliate 'against employees who make good faith reports of safety concerns.' It also maintains that the safety of its employees is a top priority.
Rappley's family is still trying to process his death eight months after the robbery. Rappley's sister Jasmine Jessery said in an interview that she didn't hold a grudge toward Dukes. 'He was protecting himself,' she said.
Jessery described her brother as a kind person who had linked up with the wrong crowd. 'Everything went sour' then, she said.
A thriving business
Business is booming at Dollar General, the chain adding more stores every year than any other retailer in America. That was the case even before the coronavirus pandemic, but Dollar General has been in an even stronger position during the pandemic as price-conscious consumers stock up on essential items.
Dollar General has kept its stores open since the coronavirus hit, and its stock price has rallied 23% since the beginning of the year even as the S&P 500 has lost 5%. In March, the company announced a goal of hiring up to 50,000 new workers to meet increased customer demand.
Former executives, store employees, law enforcement officials and retail security experts told CNN Business that while the company's low-cost, no-frills model might be embraced by Wall Street, it is putting its workers at risk.
Dollar General stores, which process a high number of cash transactions, are a prime target for armed robberies, they said. Some of the former company officials and current and former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity either to discuss internal conversations or for fear that speaking out would impact their jobs.
'Every night I was just waiting for there to be a phone call that said, 'Hey we've lost somebody,'' Brian Flannery, who oversaw security at around 2,000 Dollar General stores in the northeast as a divisional loss prevention director from 2011 to 2015, said. 'It wasn't a matter there [of] if you were going to have a bad robbery. It was a matter of when.'
At least six Dollar General employees have died during robberies since 2016, according to a review of news and police reports. And while the FBI doesn't specifically track robberies at dollar stores as it does those which occur at convenience stores and gas stations — other robbery targets — police have warned company managers that its stores are vulnerable.
In a statement in response to this story, Dollar General said, 'We employ a number of measures designed to create and maintain a safe work environment for our employees and a safe shopping environment for our customers, all while protecting company assets.'
The company said its safety and security measures take federal and state laws, retail industry standards and law enforcement recommendations into account and its measures are 'designed to prevent, deter and if necessary, respond to criminal activity in our stores.'
'Our employees are our greatest asset. Their safety and security is of paramount importance,' Dollar General added.
The problem of robberies isn't exclusive to Dollar General. In an interview with CNN Business, Jason Hall, a lieutenant with the Dayton Police Department, described local dollar stores as 'robbery magnets.'
He has tracked robberies at local chains including Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General over the last few years — and Dollar General, by far, had the most incidents.
In Dayton alone, police were called to 86 robberies at just seven Dollar General stores between 2016 and 2019. Robberies at Dollar General locations accounted for 29% of the 80 commercial robberies in the city in 2019, according to figures provided by the department.
Dollar General declined to comment on how much it spends annually on crime prevention or any specific measures in its stores to protect workers and prevent robberies 'as to do so potentially compromises the integrity of those measures, provides a roadmap to would-be wrongdoers and may place customers and employees at risk.'
Growing at a price
As other retailers have struggled in recent years, dollar stores have enjoyed breakneck growth. The Great Recession, slow wage growth and widening inequality in America had all boosted discount retailers. Now the pandemic is as well.
The two largest players are Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which bought Family Dollar in 2015.
There are a few differences between the chains. At Dollar Tree, for example, all items are exactly $1. The stores tend to be in middle-class suburban areas.
Dollar General's more than 16,000 stores, on the other hand, sell items largely in the $1 to $10 range, meaning there is more cash in registers. That makes stores more susceptible to robberies, according to retail security experts.
Dollar General stores are predominantly located in rural areas. About 75% of its stores are in towns with fewer than 20,000 people. Todd Vasos, the company's CEO, has described his core customers as struggling Americans. Dollar General's primary customers make $40,000 a year or below per household.
'We do very good in good times and we do fabulous in bad times,' Vasos said on a call with Wall Street analysts in May. 'We're very, very bullish on what post-Covid looks like because...I think we're very well positioned no matter what this economy does to both our core customer and to the customer overall.'
Investors like Dollar General because it's been relentless at making more with less: less real estate, less labor and smaller product sizes than its larger big-box competitors. In its latest fiscal year, Walmart's US stores had a 5.1% operating profit margin before taxes; Dollar General stores boasted an 8.3% margin — an indicator that Dollar General is more efficient at keeping costs low and turning sales into profits.
Since 2010, Dollar General's annual profits have increased five-fold and its stock has surged more than 800%. Its locations have nearly doubled, and now the chain boasts more US stores than Walmart, Kroger, Costco and Home Depot combined. A record 25,000 retail stores are expected to close this year, but Dollar General still plans to open 1,000 new locations in 2020, or roughly 20 new stores a week.
But the company's low-cost approach often comes at the expense of employees, former executives said. Efforts to keep costs down have also kept the company's leadership from wanting to take bigger steps on security, these executives said.
Visibility inside the stores is often poor for workers because of the design, according to law enforcement officials. Stores tend to be small and crowded, with high shelves and piles of boxes and carts lining the aisles. Some police patrolling outside complain that it's difficult to see inside because windows are covered with advertisements and signs.
Dollar General said in an email that 'we continually review and, as needed, adapt operating procedures and store layout [and] fixturing.'
Staffing is intentionally kept at a minimum, often with just one or two low-wage employees on site at any given time, former executives said. And although store registers are often flush with cash because it's what many customers use to pay, security guards are rarely on the premises.
Security guards were viewed as costly to the company's bottom line, the former executives also said.
One former Dollar General executive described the difficulty in convincing other company leaders that security guards could deliver a positive return on investment. 'We certainly didn't get a return having somebody standing there and paying $10 or $12 an hour,' the former executive said. 'Out of the 13,000 stores when I was there, probably less than 100 stores had some type of outside security.'
Another of the former Dollar General executives, who focused on security, said he was 'heavily chastised' for frequently going over budget on monthly guard expenses.
Adding staff to stores would have also jeopardized the low-cost model.
'It's a low margin business, so you have to have low labor [costs] to make a profit,' said one of the former executives. 'Putting more labor in the stores took away from the profit, or you have to raise prices. And there was no appetite to raise prices because it's a low-price business.'
The company has invested in interactive security monitoring services. At thousands of stores in higher-crime neighborhoods or that have experienced frequent incidents, cameras are monitored by offsite security agents. The agents can communicate with employees in the store and make public announcements over the loudspeakers letting customers know they are on camera.
If the agents see a robbery or suspicious activity at the store, they can alert the local police. There are also two-way phones and panic buttons that employees can press to talk directly with a security agent if they are in distress.
Interface Security Systems, one of the services that Dollar General uses, boasts on its website that its technology helps companies reduce security guard costs by 88%. Dollar General also has used iVerify, another off-site monitoring company. Earlier this year, Securitas Electronic Security acquired the customer contracts of iVerify.
The remote monitoring systems can be effective at deterring shoplifting inside the store, according to experts. But unlike human security guards who can act as a visible, physical deterrent, they are less effective at deterring robberies, according to police, former employees at iVerify and Interface, and retail security consultants.
One former iVerify executive said, 'it's rare that you're going to be looking at a video when the robbery occurs.' He said the remote monitoring was better-suited for investigating robberies after they occurred.
Securitas, the company that now owns iVerify's customer contracts, did not respond to request for comment. A representative for Interface said 'there is a place for both remote interactive monitoring and security guards in most retail chains' and that its interactive remote monitoring systems with live video and two-way audio were a strong crime deterrent.
When robberies do occur, some of the former Dollar General executives said, the company offered reactive, short-term measures — such as adding a security guard to a store for a few weeks.
'It was literally whack-a-mole. You would get the okay to spend cash when there was an incident. A reactive security program in that kind of environment is not what you're looking for,' said Flannery, the former divisional loss prevention director at Dollar General.
Dollar General said it disagreed with Flannery's characterization of its security efforts and that it doesn't believe 'those assertions are supported by facts.'
The safety concerns take a toll on some workers.
When Kenya Slaughter works the cash register at a Dollar General in Alexandria, Louisiana, she makes sure she has enough $1 and $10 bills in the drawer, so she won't have to go back into the safe. When she has to take out money from the safe behind the register, she 'strategically positions herself' so she's not opening it with her back turned.
Still, potential robbers 'know we don't have security and that people are in there alone,' she said.
Indeed, Dollar General employees told NBC News in a report last month that they've been stabbed, shot and held at gunpoint.
In recent years, Dollar General has focused on solving another problem.
Current and former staffers said there was an intense urgency to combat 'shrink' — or merchandise lost due to shoplifting, employee theft or inventory errors. In its latest annual report filed in March, Dollar General called the problem 'significant,' noting that 'higher rates of inventory shrinkage or increased security or other costs to combat inventory theft could adversely affect our results of operations and financial condition.'
The sources said they felt that the company prioritized reducing 'shrink' over preventing robberies, which had a human toll.
'In the two years I sat in the executive meetings, I never remember anybody bringing up armed robberies as a problem. We talked about loss of product and store manager turnover,' said one former top Dollar General executive. 'The people that are below the store manager level are just a commodity.'
The obsession with reducing shrink was often turned inward, with Dollar General treating some of its own workers with constant suspicion, said Tracy Vargas, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Vargas worked as a clerk at Dollar General in 2014 and 2015 for her PhD dissertation on dollar stores at Syracuse University. She also interviewed 50 employees from across the country. In her dissertation, she described workers being treated like criminals with surveillance cameras often focused on their activities rather than on customers.
Dollar General said its 'understanding is that Ms. Vargas's employment with the company was intended solely to validate her preconceived notions regarding the company for purposes of a book that she was writing, rather than in furtherance of serving the customers and communities that rely on us.'
It added: 'We categorically deny the assertions.'
A 13-foot poster in the store backroom, known as the Shrink Chart, displayed performance statistics including the number of times each employee voided cash register transactions that week, Vargas said. (A large number of voided transactions or price checks could be interpreted by managers as a sign of employee theft.)
Meanwhile, Dollar General provides little training on how to handle robberies, sources told CNN Business.
Former store workers, including Dukes and Vargas, described when they were first hired being shown a simulation video of a robbery. There are no hands-on drills and they did not have to review the video annually, some of these sources said. In some stores, signs are posted in back rooms giving employees directions on what to do 'should the unlikely event of robbery occur.'
Vargas told CNN Business that Dollar General employees are 'sitting ducks' and 'considered to be profit risks to the corporation's bottom line.'
'Employees are alone, exposed, and at the mercy of whomever [decides] to walk through the door that day,' she said.
Law enforcement raises concerns
In some cities, local officials have urged Dollar General management to take more steps to prevent violent crime. They say their warnings have largely gone ignored.
Dayton police have prepared reports on crime at local Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores. On February 1, 2017, members of the department presented a Dollar General divisional loss prevention director with a 32-slide PowerPoint deck detailing the factors the department believes to be 'enabling factors' in robberies. The factors included blocked windows, high shelves, lack of maintenance outside the stores and lack of security guards in high-incident locations.
It's a 'fairly large issue for us,' Hall, the Dayton Police Department lieutenant, told CNN Business. 'We've made a lot of recommendations to try to improve these situations. We have noticed that not many of these recommendations have been implemented or fully implemented.'
Dollar General said it 'enjoys frequent communication with the Dayton Police Department' and that it implemented the department's exterior maintenance suggestions in 2017. The company claimed the department did not provide 'specific store safety and security measures.'
A representative for Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, said 'working with and supporting local law enforcement is absolutely important to us. We continually refine our security program, which includes cooperating with local police departments to share photos and videos to support their investigations.'
In St. Louis, where there have been 'high calls for police service for larcenies, disturbances [and] hold-ups' at Dollar General and Family Dollar in recent years, 'implementing security is often suggested and ignored,' said Rich Sykora, an attorney for the city of St. Louis.
'We will take a fresh look at the St. Louis market and implement the appropriate steps,' a Dollar Tree representative responded.
In rural Effingham County, Georgia, Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie said three of the five Dollar General stores in the area have been hit in recent years. 'We don't call them dollar stores. We call them stop and robs,' he said.
McDuffie presented a list of safety concerns to Dollar General stores in the county, he said, including recommendations to improve lighting and limit the number of boxes piled up inside the stores, which can make it difficult for officers to see inside. 'Put in some security measures,' he urged. 'Light the parking lots up.'
'They say they're going to do better, but it doesn't seem to come to fruition,' he told CNN Business.
And in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, there have been a string of robberies at Dollar General stores over the past year.
'None of the stores have added outside cameras that could potentially capture the mode of transportation and the direction of travel for suspects,' said Tammy Erwin, a deputy at the Marion County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina.
'There are no security officers at any time. There are shifts with only one employee working in the entire store,' she said. She added that she wonders why Dollar General won't implement 'a buddy-system of employees, so that no one is alone in the store.'
Dollar General's 2019 handbook of operating procedures says 'at a minimum, two employees must be involved in the closing process. For safety purposes, always use the buddy system.' But there is no mention of similar policy for opening stores in the morning or at other hours of the day. The company says it 'tries to minimize the time that employees are alone in the store.'
The company said it has received 'no formal safety and security policy change' from the sheriff's offices in Effingham County, Georgia, and Marion County, South Carolina.
Dollar General said it was 'aware of a single request from a member of law enforcement in St. Louis,' who requested that Dollar General implement facial recognition software from a company 'in which we understood the individual to have a personal and financial interest.'
Deaths on the job
Family members of Dollar General employees killed during armed robberies and security experts say it's not just a lack of in-store security measures that are the problem.
Out of the six Dollar General employees killed since 2016, two were shot as they left stores to deposit cash from the register at the bank.
Some Dollar General employees take cash deposits to the bank by themselves: The company's policy in its 2019 store operating procedures says that stores should make one or two such deposits each day depending on their location, and that the deposits can only be made by 'key carriers,' or high-ranking employees.
Ron Holder took a job as a store manager at a Dollar General in Richmond, Virginia, and hoped to work his way up the ranks at the company and become a district manager. But he was killed in his car outside of Dollar General one morning after picking up a cash deposit from the store, according to the FBI. His case is still unsolved.
In Houston, 20-year-old DeQuan Anderson was killed in 2017 as he got in his car to bring cash from the store to the bank. His mother, Janine, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The case has gone to arbitration.
Janine Anderson described her son in an interview as 'an all-around good kid' who was active in his church and developed a love of photography in high school. He saved up money to buy a camera and equipment and took it everywhere he went.
'He always was going to have some type of career in art,' she said. 'That was his passion.'
Before his death, DeQuan had raised concerns about the bank-drop process on multiple occasions, the lawsuit said. But despite previous robberies at the store, Dollar General did not increase its security or hire an outside security company to transport cash to the bank, the lawsuit alleges.
Dollar General declined to comment on pending litigation.
Meanwhile, Dukes, the former Dollar General employee in Dayton, Ohio, is trying to bounce back after the October robbery that changed his life. He has had trouble finding work after the shooting. He is hoping to be more present in his kids' lives.
'I don't regret anything that I did,' he said. He was defending himself, he said.
But Dukes believes the robbery could have been avoided if Dollar General had taken his advice and put in permanent armed security. He hopes company executives will start doing more to protect their employees.
'They don't know what's going on inside these stores every day. They don't. Store managers are the ones that deal with that every day. But I would tell them that they need to take better care of their staff.'