SALT LAKE CITY — A Cottonwood Heights man charged last year with making hundreds of thousands of illicit fentanyl pills in his home apparently had partners who allegedly helped him sell the drugs on the darknet.
A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted three men and two women in connection with what U.S. Attorney John Huber described as an international drug ring ran out of some of Utah's "most respected neighborhoods and communities."
"What we feared and hoped somehow would stay away has arrived in spades," he said. "Fentanyl is as dangerous as it gets."
Huber said it was one of the largest fentanyl operations that federal authorities have seen nationwide.
Prosecutors allege that Aaron Michael Shamo made counterfeit prescription drugs in his basement, sold them from an online store on the darknet for bitcoin and then converted the digital currency to cash. During one 11-month stretch from December 2015 to November 2016, the operation mailed 5,606 orders totaling $2.8 million, according to court documents.
Federal agents arrested Shamo, 27, last November and seized thousands of pills containing fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid. But an alleged accomplice, Drew Wilson Crandall, had fled to Australia with his girlfriend and was in Laos when agents raided Shamo's house and another house in South Jordan, authorities said.
Crandall, 30, was arrested in Hawaii earlier this month and made an initial appearance in federal court in Salt Lake City last Friday.
The 15-count indictment also names Alexandrya Marie Tonge, 25, and Katherine Lauren Ann Bustin, 26, both of South Jordan, and Mario Anthony Noble, 28, and Sean Michael Gygi, 27, both of Midvale. Charges include conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute and aiding and abetting importation of a controlled substance.
Shamo, who earlier this year pleaded not guilty to possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute, now faces additional charges, including continuing criminal enterprise, money laundering and use of the U.S. mail in a drug trafficking offense. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Shamo and Crandall are in federal custody. A summons to appear in court will be issued to the other defendants.
Agents discovered a "pill press" in Shamo's Cottonwood Heights home that is likely capable of manufacturing several thousand pills an hour, Brian Besser, Drug Enforcement Administration agent in charge in Utah, said last November. Agents seized 70,000 pills and $1.2 million in cash stuffed in garbage bags during the raid, Huber said.
Fentanyl can be deadly to the touch to non-opioid users, Besser said. Because it was falsely packaged as black market oxycodone, which is far less potent, he said "it would be very safe to say people have died from this operation" due to overdoses.
Investigators are still trying to track down whether anyone who used the pills sold out of Utah was harmed, Huber said Wednesday. The drugs, he said, were sold from "here to Maine and everywhere in between."
Shamo and Crandall worked together at eBay before quitting their jobs, telling a co-worker, Tonge, they were making a lot of money trading bitcoin. Tonge asked them how she could get involved, according to the complaint.
The two men hired her and her roommate, Bustin, in 2014 to work as a "drop" to receive packages at their home in South Jordan and then give them to Shamo and Crandall, according to court documents. They were paid $200 to $300 per package.
Tonge told agents she knew the packages, which came from Florida and foreign countries, including China, contained something illegal but that she didn't know what. In June 2015, she asked Shamo and Crandall if she could play a bigger role to make more money.
Shamo and Crandall allowed Tonge and Bustin to package the pills for shipment, court documents say.
Crandall showed them how to wrap the packages using a vacuum sealer and Mylar bags that he told them would make the drugs undetectable, according to court documents. They used padded envelopes or priority mail envelopes bearing fake company names and regular postage stamps to ship the narcotics.
Tonge told agents that in 2015 Crandall and his girlfriend moved to New Zealand and that Shamo said he had "bought Drew out," according to court documents. From then on, Shamo delivered the drugs in plastic baggies to their house for packaging and shipping, court records say.
Crandall was in Laos with his girlfriend when agents raided the Cottonwood Heights and South Jordan homes in November 2016 "but was once again involved in the organization … sending messages and providing customer service on the darknet related to narcotics orders from Shamo's customers," according to the complaint.
Bustin told agents that Tonge downloaded encrypted "order fulfillment" information in an email from Shamo. Crandall showed Tonge how to access the email account and decrypt the order, including the quantity of pills and address for each customer, court records say.
Huber said the darknet pill store, including customer reviews, appeared like any other online business.
"It's crazy to see what we would normally see on one of our standard internet marketplaces, he said.