Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Utah
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, August 9, 2019
More than half a million counterfeit pills distributed throughout the country
SALT LAKE CITY – A federal jury in Salt Lake City returned guilty verdicts Friday afternoon finding Aaron Michael Shamo guilty of organizing and directing a drug trafficking organization that imported fentanyl and alprazolam from China and used the drugs to manufacture fake oxycodone pills made with fentanyl and counterfeit Xanax tablets.
Shamo was found guilty on 12 of the 13 counts in the indictment. The jury did not make a decision on the aiding and abetting the distribution of fentanyl resulting in death count.
“Aaron Shamo knew the nation was on fire with opioids and he poured fuel on the flames, over and over and over, never getting burned himself, but causing pain and misery wherever his fire spread. Aaron Shamo could be considered the face of the opioid epidemic. He was a profiteer, callously making millions of dollars and living a life of leisure while exploiting those suffering through opioid addiction,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Vernon Stejskal said in his closing argument Thursday afternoon. The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon.
U.S. Attorney for Utah John W. Huber, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Special Agent in Charge Steven Cagen of Homeland Security Investigations in Denver, DEA District Agent in Charge Brian Besser, Special Agent in Charge Charles L. Grinstead of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations Kansas City Field Office, Special Agent in Charge Tara Sullivan of the IRS Criminal Investigation Las Vegas Field Office, and Acting Inspector in Charge Jessica Wagner of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Phoenix Division, announced the jury verdict today.
“The opioid crisis has devastated individuals, families, and entire communities across the nation. Aaron Shamo controlled and led a highly profitable organization that delivered fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills to every state in the union. Though his customers remained faceless on the dark web, their despair was real. Shamo profited off that despair and a jury of his peers has held him accountable,” U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said today.
“We may never know the full extent of the lives lost or the families harmed by Aaron Shamo’s deadly enterprise as a global drug dealer. Shamo’s conviction today is a significant victory in the ongoing war on illegal opioids in our state and nation. Utahns owe a debt of gratitude to all involved in taking down this predator,” Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said today.
Shamo and his co-conspirators purchased pill presses to manufacture pills so they would appear to be legitimate pharmaceutical drugs. Shamo then distributed the controlled substances to other individuals for distribution in all 50 states using their storefront, PHARMA-MASTER, on the Dark Net marketplace AlphaBay and the U.S. mail. Federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors say an undercover purchase of 100 oxycodone is a substantial step in an investigation. Shamo sold half a million pills – or more.
"The rapid emergence of extremely potent and highly addictive synthetic opioids has drastically changed the landscape for both drug addiction and drug enforcement. Fentanyl and its many analogues are lethal in just milligrams. Any criminal exploitation of this powerful drug poses a significant public safety threat to our community, to those struggling with opioid addiction, and to the many first responders who diligently strive to keep us safe. The DEA is committed to aggressively identify and investigate any person or organization trafficking in or clandestinely manufacturing synthetic opioids for profit.
“The comprehensive investigation into the Aaron Shamo counterfeit pill manufacturing network shows how dangerous these enterprises are. The subsequent conviction of Mr. Shamo proves that those who operate with blatant disregard for public safety will bear the full weight of the law and be held accountable for their crimes," Brian S. Besser, DEA District Agent in Charge, said today.
“A major narcotics and money laundering operation was dismantled due to the technological expertise of our agents and law enforcement partners,” said Steven Cagen, Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in Denver. “Criminals who ruthlessly seek profits and personal gain at the expense of victims in our communities can’t hide in the dark web. We remain steadfast in our resolve to bring to justice those that push dangerous drugs into our neighborhoods and contribute to the epidemic of opioid addiction in our country.”
“The illegal manufacture and distribution of opioids can result in overdoses and deaths, further fueling the national crisis,” said Special Agent in Charge Charles L. Grinstead, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Kansas City Field Office. “The FDA is committed to doing our part to disrupt and dismantle illegal prescription drug manufacturing and distribution networks, including those that import raw materials from overseas to create counterfeit drugs, and misuse the internet to distribute those drugs with reckless disregard of the risk to public health and safety.”
“Trafficking opioids through the dark web enabled Mr. Shamo and his organization to profit and launder millions through this illicit activity,” said Special Agent in Charge Tara Sullivan, IRS Criminal Investigation. “Today’s verdict is just, and shows IRS Criminal Investigation’s continued effort in prosecuting those who bring harm to our community.”
“Postal Inspectors are committed to keeping the U.S. Mail safe for all. As criminals change their methods, we continue to adapt, capture, and hold the perpetrators accountable. Along with our excellent law enforcement partners, we will continue to show criminals the dark web is never truly anonymous,” stated Acting Inspector in Charge Jessica Wagner of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Phoenix Division.
Evidence presented at trial showed that Shamo established himself as the CEO of a nationwide drug distribution network. In closing arguments, prosecutors said Shamo became the person he set out to be – the Pharma Master. Evidence at trial showed Shamo did the things leader and organizers do, prosecutors said. He was in control of the majority of the functions of the enterprise. He established the dark web storefront, hired employees, took charge of marketing and product placement. He was a drug dealer to other drug dealers. He had the contacts in China and ordered the fentanyl. Most significantly, investigators were led to Shamo as they followed the proceeds of the drug trafficking organization. He had sole access to incoming bitcoin payments from customers. Shamo referred to the organization as his baby and his empire, prosecutors said in closing arguments today.
Evidence showed Shamo developed the fentanyl product through a dangerous “trial and error” process as he distributed it to individuals across the country. Experts say 1 milligram of fentanyl in a pill can have dangerous consequences up to and including death.
Evidence showed Shamo received messages from customers that they were getting sick. His response, prosecutors said, was to send more pills to the complaining customers. There was no shortage of fake pain pills. Co-defendants in the case, who were responsible for packaging and shipping, used a vacuum to clean up pills from the floor because they believed it was not worth their time to pick them up because of the volume of pills they were manufacturing.
The jury convicted Shamo, 29, of Cottonwood Heights, Utah, of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, three counts of aiding and abetting the importation of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, manufacture of a controlled substance, and two counts of knowing and intentional adulteration of drugs while held for sale. The jury also found Shamo guilty of aiding and abetting the use of the U.S. Mail in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering promotion and concealment, and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity.
Sentencing in the case will be Dec. 3, 2019, at 2:30 p.m. in U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball’s courtroom. Shamo faces a potential mandatory-minimum life sentence. He remains in the custody of U.S. Marshals.
Sentencings are pending for co-conspirators in the case, who reached plea agreements with federal prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vernon Stejskal of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Gadd and Kent A. Burggraaf prosecuted the case. Gadd and Burggraaf are Assistant Attorneys General in the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations, DEA, IRS-Criminal Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations, and Postal Inspectors with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated the case.
USAO - Utah