Editor's note: The illicit drug trade is undergoing a seismic shift, with Utah in the middle of the deadly trade of the opioid fentanyl. This is the first in an ongoing series about this modern-day plague.
For weeks, Aaron Shamo had felt a sense of foreboding. He didn’t know how to describe it really. But sitting in his basement, playing Xbox, it was a feeling he just couldn’t shake.
It was two days before Thanksgiving, and outside his split-level home in Cottonwood Heights it looked like the first big storm of winter was on its way. It was a little unusual for a 26-year-old to be able to afford to live in a neighborhood like this, where houses went for half a million dollars and the neighbor across the street had a koi pond and a big cream-colored boat, but there was nothing about Shamo that gave anyone pause. An Eagle Scout, he’d been a deacon in the Mormon church as a kid, passing the sacrament on Sundays. But these days he didn’t go to church much.
Neighbors noticed he slept in and seemed to go to bed late, but that wasn’t really weird either, even for a 26-year-old. They’d see him pulling out of his driveway in his black BMW, or wearing a tank top to show off his ripped physique. Shamo would wave, maybe say hi, but he mostly kept to himself.
No one who lived on Titian Way would ever guess the DEA considered him one of the most successful drug dealers in Utah, a kingpin of something called the darknet. And no one would ever suspect he had $1.2 million in cash tucked away in his basement.
The DEA believed Shamo ran a global operation based largely on a synthetic opioid known as fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and linked to overdose deaths across the country. If they were right, he represented the rise of a new kind of drug dealer and an alarming shift in the way Americans were getting illicit narcotics.
Traditionally, drug trafficking organizations had operated like sophisticated corporations, employing hundreds, if not thousands of people to move loads of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine from the fields and super labs of the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Michoacan to the street corners of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. It was a complex and efficiently organized logistics system that relied on everything from tractor-trailers with hidden compartments to fishing boats that unloaded on remote beaches along the northern coast of California.
But now, just as it had done with countless other industries, the internet was disrupting the drug game. Darknet dealers didn’t need anything other than a laptop, a rudimentary understanding of the internet and a mailing address. Shamo, it seemed, had perfected this new method of drug distribution.
Shamo certainly didn’t look the part of a stereotypical drug dealer. Clean-cut and fastidious about his diet, he loved working out and reading motivational books, like "The Secret," learning how to “manifest” his goals. Always smiling, he punctuated nearly every sentence with a little laugh.
He knew that when people met him, saw the Beemer and the gleaming white smile, they might dismiss him as a guy who’d dropped out of Utah Valley University, interested mostly in girls, partying and making a lot of money.
But if Shamo had to describe himself, he’d say he was a “closet nerd.” That’s what he told girls when they met him, just so they wouldn’t freak out when they walked into his apartment and saw what looked like an IT closet in his bedroom, with stacks of servers and black cords snaking across the carpet.
Back then, when Shamo was in college, he’d started something called Bitcoin mining. When people asked how he made money, he told them he traded in Bitcoins, the online currency. Most people didn’t know what Bitcoins were and so the questions usually stopped there.
That morning, a pale winter haze hung over the valley. It was about 10 a.m. and Shamo was in his basement playing a video game called “Battlefield 1”. He planned to fly to San Antonio for Thanksgiving with his girlfriend the next day to surprise his family. He wanted to get married soon, move to California and start a new life, away from Utah.
And yet, something felt off. He’d noticed someone following him the other day, running three red lights to stay on his tail.
Suddenly, he heard a loud crash above him. He dropped his Xbox controller and rushed upstairs. And then he froze, too stunned to move. A battering ram had busted his front door off its hinges. SWAT officers in riot gear and black masks stood in the doorway, staring him down. Shamo felt his body go numb.
“Freeze,” one of the SWAT officers said from behind a shield, pointing what looked like a machine gun. Two DEA agents flashed their badges.
“Careful with these guys,” one of them said. “They’re a little trigger happy.”
They took him upstairs and cuffed him.
“Don’t try to run,” one of them said.
Later, this would strike Shamo as almost funny, in a tragic kind of way.
Where would he run?
He was trapped, and no matter what happened from here, his life would never be the same.
A modern plague
Six months later, on May 31 of this year, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber gathered in downtown Salt Lake City with agents from the DEA and Homeland Security to announce the dismantling of an international drug ring.
ExpandFor months, Huber had been talking about the rising rate of opioid overdoses in Utah, and how the illicit drug trade was undergoing a seismic shift. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had once given his office cases built on meth busts and marijuana seizures, but now the cartels had moved on to something more profitable, lethal and much easier to ship: heroin. Using the same distribution routes they had established to traffic meth, they were now flooding Salt Lake City’s streets and suburbs with black tar heroin processed in Sinaloa.
Today, though, Huber was standing before the press to announce a new front in the drug war: a multimillion dollar drug trafficking ring comprised of a handful of 20-somethings living in the Salt Lake suburbs. The head of that ring, he said, was Aaron Shamo.
A year before, the DEA had warned Huber they were beginning to seize a new opioid called fentanyl in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, it had been developed in the 1960s to treat extreme cancer pain, but now drug dealers were lacing it into pills designed to look like prescription strength oxycodone.
Some users craved the more potent high. Others, thinking they were taking a dosage of oxycodone their body could handle, overdosed and died. The DEA warned Huber that it was just a matter of time before fentanyl got to Salt Lake City. To Huber, Shamo represented its arrival.
For as much attention as the opioid epidemic has generated over the past two years, Huber worried its scope and reach is something the public has still not fully come to grips with.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. When the data comes in for 2016, overdose deaths are expected to exceed 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States. Huber and others on the front lines of the drug war trace much of this to the rise of fentanyl.
“Think of Dodger Stadium, seats more people than just about anybody,” said Rusty Payne, the spokesman for the DEA. “Fill that whole place, pack it with people. We lost more people to drug overdoses than you can squeeze into Dodger Stadium, in 50 states in one year. That is extraordinary.”
To put those numbers in perspective, consider the following: peak car crash deaths in 1972 (before seat belts) were 54,589. Peak HIV deaths in 1995 hovered around 50,000. And the most people who ever died from guns, in 1993, was 39,595. What we’re seeing is a modern plague.
And Utah isn’t immune. For the past decade, Utah has consistently ranked in the top 10 for opioid–related drug overdoses. Two years ago, Utah ranked fourth. Last year the state had the seventh-highest opioid overdose death rate per capita in the nation. (Opioids are a class of drug that includes heroin, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and pain relievers available by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine).
“There’s a certain undercurrent in Utah where illicit conventional drugs, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, we don’t want to talk about that,” said Brian Bessser, who heads the DEA’s Salt Lake office. “That’s bad, that’s dirty and we don’t do that. But drugs that come in a bottle, that’s a different story, they’re from my doctor, that’s private, leave me alone.”
Besser said the opioid epidemic affects all strata of society. He’s heard about accountants and lawyers and high school lacrosse players who overdosed on heroin or pain pills. He knows a single mom from American Fork, now in recovery, who would leave her LDS sacrament meeting to drive up to a spot near Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City known as “The Block” to score a baggie of heroin. Heroin is so ubiquitous on The Block it usually only took her 10 minutes to score, and she usually made these transactions in plain daylight.
What began as an addiction epidemic fueled by the proliferation of prescription pain pills is now morphing into an overdose epidemic, said Maia Szalavitz, author of "Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction."
And it could get worse. In Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the heroin epidemic, counties are seeing an alarming rise in overdoses tied to fentanyl and analogues like carfentanil, historically used to tranquilize elephants, but now laced into pills for addicts seeking an even more powerful high. Carfentanil was blamed for a spike of 78 overdoses in Cincinnati over two days last summer.
So far, the fentanyl scourge hasn’t hit Western states with the same force it's impacted places like Ohio. That could be because of the historical divide in the nation’s heroin market. Powdered heroin is generally found east of the Mississippi. Black tar heroin is found in the West.
That’s significant because the bulk of drug trafficking is still controlled by cartels, and if they shift from black tar to powdered heroin, fentanyl (also a powder) will most likely come along with it. That means that heroin addicts buy on the street will in all likelihood be cut with fentanyl because of its potency.
What’s driving the spread of fentanyl is largely economics, Huber said. Because of its strength, a dealer can order one kilo from a clandestine lab in China for $3,500, cut it into pills with the same coloration and markings as the oxycodone pill and sell it on the street for $30 a pill. One kilo of fentanyl can produce close to 1 million pills, Huber said, and depending on the market, those pills can generate a profit of $6 million to $20 million.
“Those profit margins are irresistible if you’ve checked your moral agency,” Huber said. “The problem is we’re not talking about science here. I’m talking about Beavis and Butthead making pills.”
“Because he’s making it in his bathroom or wherever else, grinding up the fentanyl in a coffee grinder while he watches the 'Price is Right,' he can’t figure out how much fentanyl is going in each pill,” Besser said. “So if you’re the unlucky sap that got the pill that happens to be hot, the moment you take that you’re going to die.”
When the DEA raided Shamo’s Cottonwood Heights home and a stash house in South Jordan last November, they found a pill press, $1.2 million in cash and 95,000 pills that could have been sold for as much as $2.2 million, according to court records.
Shamo has pleaded not guilty, but if convicted, he would be one the biggest darknet drug dealers ever successfully prosecuted in U.S. The allegations against him document the way technology is fundamentally altering the drug game, and how hard it is becoming for law enforcement to stop the flow of illicit narcotics.
It’s also the story of small decisions and big consequences, and the choices a kid who grew up in a devout Mormon family in the suburbs of Phoenix made that led him to a prison cell, facing a possible life sentence.
“I’d want people to know I’m not like, a guy in a cartel, or some Pablo Escobar,” Shamo said earlier this month from the Weber County Jail in a series of interviews with the Deseret News. “My parents would say I’m a good kid.”
Shamo paused for a moment, looking at the ground. A wan smile crossed his lips.
“I never would’ve imagined I’d end up here,” he said.
The good son
Mike and Becky Shamo had always been devout members of the LDS Church, and they took seriously the belief that God communicated to them through the Holy Ghost. In the late ’80s, they had three daughters but sensed there was another child waiting in heaven to be born. That child was Aaron.
From the beginning, Aaron was different than his sisters. They were driven and excelled at sports, particularly soccer. Aaron’s parents put him in sports, too —soccer, baseball, football — but he wasn’t particularly good at any of them.
And unlike his sisters, who would all go to BYU, Aaron struggled in school. His parents knew he was smart — they’d seen him figure out tricks in Nintendo video games at the age of 4, and in junior high he could beat most adults at chess — but he had little interest in getting good grades.
“My mom is very driven, and she was determined to help Aaron,” his older sister Stephanie Shamo said. “She tried tutoring, everything.”
In junior high, Aaron started hanging out with a crowd that worried his parents. His mom asked him why he didn’t join the chess club. He didn’t want to be known as a nerd, he told her. Mostly, he wanted to play video games, in particular first person shooter games like Halo. He started ditching school and refusing to go to church.
He started smoking marijuana and fighting with his parents, and so at the age of 15, they sent him to Anasazi, a wilderness therapy camp in the desert of Arizona, where for nine weeks he learned to start fires with sticks and camp under the stars with little more than a pack and a tarp.
“My parents think he ran with a bad crowd, but to me he seemed like a pretty normal teenager,” Stephanie said. “Where we lived in Arizona, there weren’t a lot of LDS people, and I think they wanted him to have more Mormon friends, and he didn’t.”
A year after Anasazi, Aaron was back to skipping school and smoking marijuana, and so his parents enrolled him at Cross Creek, a lockdown facility in La Verkin, Utah. Aaron stayed at Cross Creek for two years, where he earned his high school diploma and his Eagle Scout award.
This time, Aaron truly seemed to have changed when he came home. The explosive temper that had unsettled his parents was gone.
He lived at home for six months and was so pleasant to be around his mom said she didn’t want him to leave for college. But in 2009 he moved to Utah, where he enrolled at Utah Valley University in Orem. Aaron loved it.
He dated as much as he could, often taking girls longboarding on the streets around campus. He even started going back to church and briefly considered going on a mission.
Aaron was happy. He spent weekends with friends wakeboarding on Utah Lake or riding motorcycles up Provo Canyon. But his parents noticed he wasn’t going to class. He even failed rock climbing. His parents decided that if he wasn't going to attend class, they weren't going to pay for tuition or housing.
It was during this time Aaron became interested in Bitcoins, the world’s first decentralized currency. Attached to no country or central bank, encrypted transactions took place online between users directly, without an intermediary. It was a new form of digital cash that was completely untraceable.
Aaron had always been fascinated with starting his own business, becoming an entrepreneur. He idolized Steve Jobs and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two self-made millionaires. Since coming to Utah he’d come up with all sorts of novel ways to make money: he sold plasma, got paid to click on online ads and began ordering knockoff designer jeans from China and then selling them at a big markup.
Because Bitcoins were new, Aaron believed he could make money trading them, just like any other market exchange.
By this point, Aaron had moved to Salt Lake City with a friend he’d met at UVU named Drew Crandall, a lanky redhead who’d grown up in Utah. Also raised Mormon but no longer attending, Crandall and Shamo immediately hit it off. They both liked cars and electronic music. They started clubbing around Salt Lake City, and Shamo taught Crandall, who he describes as socially awkward and shy, how to talk to girls.
They both took a job at eBay in 2013, handling customer support calls. Shamo liked the job at first, but before long he became frustrated that his supervisors wouldn’t take his suggestions on how to streamline their operations.
ExpandBy 2015, Shamo and Crandall both quit. According to charging documents, one of their friends from eBay eventually reached out to Shamo and asked how he was making so much money. Bitcoins, he told her. She asked if she could help. Shamo allegedly told her he did have something she could do for him: accept mail and deliver it to his house. He was involved in something called the darknet.
In 2011, around the time Shamo was getting involved with Bitcoin trading, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security named Jared Der-Yeghiayan was standing in a windowless mail room in Chicago when a customs officer handed him an envelope they’d just seized from O’Hare airport. It had come on a flight from the Netherlands. Inside the envelope was a tiny pink pill embossed with the symbol of a squirrel. The customs officer said they’d been getting these sorts of shipments for weeks.
That pill, which tested as the club drug ecstasy, eventually led Der-Yeghiayan to discover a website called Silk Road, which customers were using to order any drug imaginable — MDMA, LSD, marijuana, meth — with Bitcoin. Silk Road operated on the darknet, which was accessible through the TOR browser. Originally developed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, TOR (an acronym for The Onion Router for its layers of encryption) allowed people to use the internet without revealing their location.
The founder of Silk Road, a doctoral student at the University of Texas named Ross Ulbricht, had radical libertarian ideas. He liked the idea of a marketplace unfettered by government regulation, and the perverse irony of using the internet (built by the U.S. government) and the darknet (developed by American intelligence) to move drugs through the U.S. Postal Service.
Ulbricht shared similarities with Shamo. Both were Eagle Scouts, both came from educated upper-middle class families, and both shared a fascination with computers and technology. They were also both fans of the TV show "Breaking Bad," which tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a drug dealer.
Shamo’s family wonders how much this show may have inspired him. During a series of jailhouse interviews, Shamo declined to answer any questions related to drugs or the darknet, worried saying something might implicate him. He did say he was aware of Silk Road and Ulbricht, but declined to elaborate.
A friend of Shamo’s told a Homeland Security agent that Shamo was known for selling “blues,” or prescription pain pills and Xanax at local clubs. Shamo said in interviews with the Deseret News that he at times smoked marijuana and drank, but declined to say if he’d ever used pain pills or harder drugs himself.
According to law enforcement, Shamo began dealing drugs over the darknet in 2014, when he and Crandall ordered latex gloves, postage, bubble wrap and gelatin capsules to set up a pill press. Sometime in 2014, Shamo allegedly hired two friends from eBay, Alexandrya Tonge and her roommate, Katherine Bustin, to receive packages at their apartment in South Jordan. They were paid $200 to $300 a package, charging documents say.
In June of 2015, after receiving four or five packages, Tonge asked Shamo and Crandall if she could make more money working for them, according to court documents. Tonge told police that Crandall taught her and Bustin how to package drugs in vacuum sealed Mylar bags and showed them how to unencrypt emails that contained orders.
According to court records, Shamo allegedly sold drugs under the vendor title of Pharma-Master on AlphaBay, which is currently the biggest darknet market. The first known reference to Pharma-Master on AlphaBay came in November of 2015. In January, Pharma-Master got its first review, which was positive, and throughout that winter and early spring, word of Pharma-Master’s reliability and the quality of his pills started to spread.
"Vendor always responds in about an hour," one customer wrote of Pharma-Master’s shipments of Xanax and oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl.
"The best I’ve ever seen,” wrote another.
"I think one of the best pill vendors on the market. Throws extras in every order like it’s a (expletive) Happy Meal. Prices are good, communication is exceptional.”
By this time, according to charging documents, Shamo had hired two more friends, living in Orem, to receive packages for him, which sometimes came in wooden shipping boxes. He typically picked up the packages himself, or had his friends deliver them to his house at Cottonwood Heights.
Nicolas Christin, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies the darknet and has built a historic database of vendors, said that during this period Pharma-Master was selling valium, Xanax, oxycodone, MDMA, Viagra and fentanyl powder. While most vendors list small amounts — an ounce or two — Pharma-Master was advertising drugs in bulk quantities, putting Pharma-Master in the top 1 percent of all distributors on AlphaBay. At one point, Christin said, Pharma-Master was clearing a couple thousand dollars a day in sales.
Shamo’s sister Stephanie said she didn’t have any suspicions. If anything, her brother seemed happier than ever before. In January 2016, he and a group of friends visited her home near Lake Tahoe, and they all attended a popular electronic music festival, called Snowglobe, together.
In the ensuing months, her brother would regularly check in with phone calls and texts, with what Stephanie calls typical stuff. They’d talk about girls, and she’d encourage him to sock away money to buy a house and get married.
“He was thinking about going back to school,” Stephanie recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, I can’t do this forever.’ I thought he was talking about Bitcoin.”
By May of 2016, customers on AlphaBay started complaining about Pharma-Master’s “op sec,” or operational security. Where Pharma-Master had once taken great care to discreetly ship pills in vacuum sealed envelopes, it was now getting reckless and sloppy.
“That’s it,” one user seethed, incredulous that Pharma-Master had shipped a load of drugs in an open Chips Ahoy cookie bag. “Cookies were (expletive) everywhere when I opened the package and now I have to vacuum my floor.”
By this time, Crandall, who had once allegedly taught his friends how to carefully package shipments and use encrypted emails to communicate, was no longer as intimately involved in the business, according to charging documents. He’d left the country in 2015 and was now traveling throughout Southeast Asia with his girlfriend. But now and then Crandall would check in from places like Cambodia and Laos, law enforcement say, to help with orders.
By June of 2016, Pharma-Master was on the radar of the Postal Service, Homeland Security and the DEA, and packages started regularly getting seized, according to comments left on Reddit and AlphaBay.
Despite the fact that packages were getting seized, Shamo showed no signs of slowing, court documents say. In June of 2016, he allegedly ordered 40 grams of fentanyl from China, which is enough to press 40,000 pills. While the DEA says counterfeit oxycodone can go for as much as $40 a pill on the street, Pharma-Master sold pills for $8 to $10 each on AlphaBay, meaning profits on this shipment alone could have been anywhere from $400,000 to $1.6 million.
In the weeks before his arrest, Shamo said he felt uneasy.
“Things weren’t adding up,” he recalled in an interview from jail. “… I was definitely on edge. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I wasn’t feeling good about where I was in my life. I kind of suspected something was going on.”
Mostly, he liked to stay home on weekends, watching movies with his girlfriend and drinking a little wine.
“I was becoming more distant from my friends, kind of getting out of the party scene, like I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t clubbing anymore. … I definitely thought something bad was coming.”
If Shamo sensed he was under surveillance, he was right. By November 2016, according to charging documents, Homeland Security had flipped four confidential informants, and at least one was wearing a wire.
The informants began explaining the inner workings of Shamo’s operation and turning over shipments of pills that tested positive for fentanyl and alprazolam, the chemical used to make Xanax. In the final days before Shamo’s arrest, agents seized 68 packages headed to 27 states and more than 5,700 pills, which either contained fentanyl or alprazolam, according to charging documents.
Users had also started complaining about Pharma-Master's oxy pills, warning others they could be lethal.
"I'd be wary of any amateur presses containing something as strong and potentially deadly as fentanyl. It takes some expensive equipment and lots of experience to get a homogeneous mixture before pressing," one user warned on a Reddit forum discussing PharmaMaster.
"Man I just shot one of those pills and it is the closest I have ever come to overdosing," another user wrote. "That was extremely scary. … it kept coming stronger and stronger and stronger and I was just like, 'No, not like this. I want to live.'"
When agents from the DEA and Homeland Security raided Shamo’s Cottonwood Heights home on Nov. 22, those seizing evidence donned hazmat suits to avoid direct contact with fentanyl, which is so powerful a few flakes touching the skin have caused officers to overdose, said Rusty Payne at DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Agents set up a processing area under a white tent on the driveway of a neighbor and spent hours removing evidence. Neighbors were stunned to see the FBI hauling out plastic sacks of cash.
A month later, an arrest warrant was issued for Drew Crandall, who at the time was living in Australia. In photos posted on Instagram, Crandall seemed either blissfully unaware he was a wanted man or hardly worried about his capture. He and his girlfriend posted pictures posing with tigers in Thailand or kayaking around islands in New Zealand.
On Jan. 10, he posted a picture in Bali wearing a suit he’d bought for his wedding. Four months later, he flew to Hawaii to get married and was arrested upon landing at the Honolulu Airport and sent to Utah.
On May 31, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber announced Crandall’s arrest and named four other co-conspirators charged as part of Shamo’s ring. He also announced he was seeking a life sentence for Shamo. Authorities said Shamo had sent about 500,000 fake oxycodone pills across the country.
"What we feared and hoped somehow would stay away has arrived in spades," Huber said. "Fentanyl is as dangerous as it gets."
When Aaron Shamo was arrested, he didn’t call anyone. His sister Stephanie isn’t sure why. “I don’t know if he didn’t want to disappoint everybody,” she said. “The whole thing has been devastating for us and the family. Everybody at some point in their lives makes a decision they wish they could take back.”
On a recent June morning, seated behind plexiglass and wearing the standard blue jumpsuit for prisoners at the Weber County Jail, Shamo said it was still surreal to be in a cell. He had imagined an entirely different life for himself. A year ago, even, he imagined starting up a business, wearing a suit, being married and having children.
“You know, the white picket fence and all that,” he said with a sad, wistful smile.
He had started reading "The Secret" again, the book about manifesting your goals and dreams, and he still did that, but now they all lay somewhere in the far off future.
“In here, you can’t really think about certain things. If you start worrying, it just goes deeper and deeper,” he said. “So I try to keep busy, try to keep positive. But I would never wish jail on anybody.”
It is likely the U.S. Attorney’s Office hopes to make an example of Shamo by pushing for a life sentence, but it’s doubtful his arrest will do much to discourage others from trying to sell drugs on the darknet.
Two days after his arrest, a user on Reddit recommended a new vendor on AlphaBay.
“So as you know, PharmaMaster got booked,” the Reddit user, deadflargy, wrote. “He was number 1 in the fent oxy industry leaving Eazybarz number 2. Now that Pharma is gone, that leaves EazyBars number 1."
As of Wednesday AlphaBay had more than 300,000 listings, including more than 240,000 for drugs alone.
Contributing: Parker Atkinson