By Lindsay Whitehurst and Claire Galofaro / Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — As America’s opioid crisis spiraled into a fentanyl epidemic, prosecutors say one young Utah man made himself a drug kingpin by creating counterfeit prescription painkillers laced with the deadly drug and mailing them to homes across the United States.
Former Eagle Scout Aaron Shamo, 29, will stand trial beginning Monday on allegations that he and a small group of fellow millennials ran a multimillion-dollar empire from the basement of his suburban Salt Lake City home by trafficking hundreds of thousands of pills containing fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that has exacerbated the country’s overdose epidemic in recent years.
The federal government’s case is expected to offer a glimpse at how the drug, which has killed tens of thousands of Americans, can be imported from China, pressed into fake pills and sold through online black markets to people in every state.
Prosecutors have alleged that dozens of the ring’s customers died in overdoses, though the defense disputes that and Shamo is charged only in connection to one: a 21-year-old identified as R.K., who died in June 2016 after snorting fentanyl allegedly passed off as prescription oxycodone.
Shamo’s family, though, said he’s been singled out even as deeply involved friends are offered more lenient plea deals. His father, Mike Shamo, said his son was a chess whiz as a kid who experimented with marijuana in his teen years, but later earned his Eagle Scout badge crocheting blankets for a hospital.
Aaron Shamo became an internet-savvy aspiring entrepreneur and health-conscious workout buff who loved self-improvement books like “The Secret” and had dreams of starting his own tech-support business, Mike Shamo told The Associated Press.
“He was brought in and saw the opportunity for making money, and he didn’t truly understand the danger behind what he was doing, how dangerous the drugs were,” he said. “I think he was able to separate what he was doing because he never saw the customer. To him, it was just numbers on a screen.”
At the time of Aaron Shamo’s 2016 arrest, authorities said the bust ranked among the largest in the country.
In a raid on his home in the upscale suburb of Cottonwood Heights, agents found a still-running pill press in the basement, thousands of pills and more than $1 million in cash stuffed in garbage bags, according to court documents.
The group had started two years before, and grew to include more than a dozen people, some of whom Aaron Shamo met working at an eBay call center, court documents allege. Prosecutors say it started with a partnership between Aaron Shamo and Drew Crandall, a shy friend he had bonded with over skateboarding and tips for talking to girls. The pair eventually began importing and reselling steroids to gym buddies, and the operation grew from there, according to court documents.
Another man, Jonathan “Luke” Paz, has also pleaded guilty to helping develop the recipe and press the fentanyl-laced pills after Crandall left on an extended international trip.
Attorneys for Crandall and Paz did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Aaron Shamo ordered the fentanyl from China and paid a number of people to receive it at their homes and turn it over to him, according to authorities. He and Paz allegedly cut the powder, added other fillers and pressed it into pills, using dyes and stamps to mimic the appearance of legitimate pharmaceuticals, prosecutors said.
Public health experts warn that such mom-and-pop drug trafficking networks can be especially dangerous: They cut and mix fentanyl — a few flakes of which can be deadly — without sophisticated equipment, meaning in a single batch, one counterfeit pill might contain little fentanyl and another enough to kill instantly.
They were shipping “disguised poison,” prosecutor Michael Gadd said at one hearing. “If you think for a moment about what type of people abuse prescription oxycodone, it’s your neighbor, it’s my neighbor. It’s people who had a knee surgery and got hooked.”
The pills were sold online, through a dark-web marketplace store called Pharma-Master. The dark web is a second layer of the internet reached by a special browser and often used for illegal activity, but it still has sites with user-friendly interfaces and customer reviews, similar to platforms like Amazon and eBay.
Pharma-Master allegedly grew to become one of the most prominent darknet dealers, sometimes processing 20 to 50 orders a day, according to court documents.
When orders came in, packagers counted pills, sealed them with a vacuum sealer and slipped them into envelopes or boxes addressed to homes across the U.S., prosecutors said. They put pills into Mylar bags to mask the contents, wrote fake return addresses like “Jamaica Green Coffee,” and even included phony invoices. The packages were dropped in mailboxes all over the Salt Lake area to hide from police, authorities said.
Some were small orders from people buying for themselves, but in other cases, the group shipped thousands of pills in bulk to gang members and drug dealers who then resold them on the street, prosecutors allege.
Each pill cost less than a penny to make, and could be sold on the street as a legitimate pharmaceutical for $20 or more, prosecutors said.
In June 2016, though, U.S. customs agents seized a package of fentanyl addressed to someone receiving it for Aaron Shamo, and things unraveled from there, according to court documents.
Five months later, investigators had found an incoming shipment from a Chinese company known as “Express,” which is also under investigation. They also scooped up outgoing shipments: A single day’s worth included 35,000 fentanyl-laced pills in 52 packages addressed to homes in 26 states, prosecutors said. One box alone had a wholesale value estimated at more than $400,000, according to court documents.
Aaron Shamo’s house was also raided in late 2016, and the following spring Crandall was arrested in Hawaii when he returned from the globe-trotting trip through Australia, New Zealand and southeast Asia to marry his girlfriend.
In the years since his arrest, Aaron Shamo has become something of an advocate for other jail inmates, starting a letter-writing campaign calling on local churches to write to people behind bars to give them hope for life after incarceration, said his father, Mike Shamo. He’s also written to the governor, calling for more rehabilitation programs for jail inmates.
Meanwhile, Paz and Crandall have already agreed to plea deals and could testify against their onetime friend, along with a potential parade of other alleged co-conspirators.
His family will be watching the trial too.
“We just want equity. We want equality for everyone in this, so those that were equally guilty are held accountable for their actions,” Mike Shamo said.