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Utah man convicted running dark-web fentanyl drug ring sentenced to life in prison

FILE - This 2015 photo provided by Michael P. Shamo shows his son, Aaron Michael Shamo. At the center of a multimillion-dollar opioid case, he testified Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, that he saw himself as helping people get prescription drugs they needed while making money for himself and his friends. (Michael P. Shamo, via AP)

BREAKING: Aaron Shamo, from Cottonwood Heights, has been convicted of selling millions of dollars of painkillers laced with fentanyl on the dark web. On Thursday, he was sentenced to life in prison. 

The sentencing was handed down by U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball who imposed the minimum-life sentence on Shamo, 30, as required by Utah’s indeterminant sentencing after a hearing in federal court. 

Last year, Shamo was found guilty on 12 of his 13 charges which include continuing a criminal enterprise, which carries the mandatory-minimum life sentence.

At sentencing, Judge Kimball said he received letters calling for Shamo to receive the death penalty, although according to him, that was “never on the table.”

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SALT LAKE CITY – The Cottonwood Heights man who once reportedly ran the country’s largest dark-web drug ring is set to be sentenced Thursday.  Prosecutors say Aaron Shamo ran a massive fentanyl pill-making operation from his basement in Utah, and he left a trail of addiction and death behind him.

There is only one possible sentence for Shamo.  The Utah jury convicted him of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which essentially means they believed Shamo was the boss of all bosses in his particular drug ring.

“The jury convicted Shamo of a count that is commonly known as ‘kingpin,’” according to US Attorney for Utah John Huber.

Federal law dictates that anyone convicted of that crime must serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The judge isn’t allowed any flexibility and the attorneys can’t ask for the sentence to be adjusted.  So, if the sentence is pre-determined, why is Huber making statements at the sentencing?  He says he wants to drive home just how large and dangerous the drug ring was.

Huber says, “Those products were distributed, 500,000, conservatively, throughout the United States.”

Prosecutors say Shamo would get shipments of fentanyl shipped from China, and he would make thousands of fake OxyContin and Oxycodone pills per day.  Huber says those fake pills were then shipped to every single state in the union.

(A map of every city Shamo is accused of shipping drugs to. Credit: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Investigators say fentanyl became extremely popular with drug dealers since it’s extremely cheap and more potent than other opioids.  However, it’s also much more dangerous.  Huber says two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal, and they have reason to believe Shamo’s pills are connected to dozens of deaths, nationwide.

“We found, conservatively, 90 customers on his list who passed away as a result of a drug overdose,” Huber says.

He also believes their evidence shows Shamo wanted the credit of being the top man, even though he knew the pills were potentially deadly.

In this Nov. 22, 2016 photo, police and agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration put on protective gear as local and federal law enforcement agencies respond to a fentanyl drug bust in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. The raid on Aaron Shamo’s 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. (Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News via AP)

“The evidence shows that even after he was learning that people were getting sick, if not dying from this poison he was distributing, he pressed on,” Huber says.

However, Shamo wasn’t convicted of any crimes connected to these overdose deaths, and his defense team believes the mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without parole is unjust.  Attorney Greg Skordas says there were two other people running the pill-making mill, and they are likely to get much lighter sentences than Shamo will.

“Our argument was always that there were three leaders of the organization, and that he was no more or less culpable than the other two,” Skordas says.

He believes the government has a duty to strongly prosecute cases like this, but he believes this particular sentence is obscene.

Skordas says, “A stiff sentence of 10, 20 or even 30 years would have been really more just life in prison with no chance of ever getting out.”