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Jury deliberating in Utah case involving major opioid ring

Mike, right, and Becky Shamo, left, the parents of Aaron Shamo, walk with another family member as they leave the federal courthouse Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, Salt Lake City. A jury is deliberating in the case of a Utah man accused of running a multimillion-dollar opioid ring that shipped fake prescription drugs across the country, causing at least one fatal overdose. Prosecutors said during closing arguments that Aaron Shamo's operation helped fuel the nation's opioid epidemic by making hundreds of thousands of pills available to addicts and other users. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A jury began deliberating Thursday in the case of a Utah man accused of running a multimillion-dollar opioid ring. Prosecutors argued the ring shipped potentially poisonous, fake prescription drugs across the country, causing at least one fatal overdose.

Prosecutors said during closing arguments that Aaron Shamo’s operation helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic by making hundreds of thousands of pills available to addicts and other users. They say it might have been responsible for dozens of other fatal overdoses.

“Shamo was a master manipulator. He knew what buttons to push to get people to do what he wanted. That was to keep working for his organization and keep making more money, more money, more money,” U.S. prosecutor Vernon Stejskal told jurors.

Defense calls client “a dummy” not a kingpin

Defense attorneys countered that the 29-year-old Shamo wasn’t a kingpin, just a “dummy.” The DA argued Shamo was desperate to make friends and ended up taking the blame for the operation.

At the trial, Shamo testified that he convinced himself that he was helping people who needed the drugs. And, that he made money for himself and his friends at the same time.

He is facing 13 counts of operating a criminal enterprise, selling drugs that caused a death and other charges.

Stejskal said the 2016 bust of the operation in Shamo’s suburban Salt Lake City basement ranked among the largest in the country.  More than $1 million was found in his dresser, authorities have said.

With the help of a handful of friends, Shamo bought the powerful opioid fentanyl online from Chinese manufacturers. He then pressed it into fake oxycodone pills and sold it on the dark web, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors say Shamo didn’t work alone

Two friends packaged the pills. So many pills, prosecutors said, that they had to vacuum them off the floor. Shamo met the friends when he worked at eBay.

Another former co-worker sent them out through the U.S. mail.

In 2016, prosecutors said, some of those drugs reached 21-year-old Ruslan Klyuev. Described as a baby-faced, curly-haired technophile, Klyuev lived in a working-class suburb of San Francisco.

He died hours after crushing and snorting the fake oxycodone.

A medical toxicologist testified he would not have died if the fentanyl pills had not been in his system.

Shamo’s lawyers downplayed those findings. Instead, they blamed the mixture of substances in the young man’s system, including alcohol and cocaine additives.

Defense attorney Greg Skordas argued that Shamo was a college dropout who was naive enough to buy much of the drug-making equipment in his own name.

How he got started

He started with a partner who set up the pill press to make counterfeit Xanax before another friend suggested scaling up to make fake oxycodone, and yet another buddy handled most of the manufacturing of the pills, authorities said.

Shamo is a “follower, he’s a pleaser … he’ll do anything these kids tell him to do because he wants to be friends,” Skordas said.

The drug ring began to fall apart when customs agents intercepted a fentanyl package from China. From there, investigators say they worked their way up to the raid on his home in November 2016, apparently in the middle of a pill-pressing run.