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Inside the newsroom: Why the family of Aaron Shamo was willing to talk

A photo of Aaron Shamo. Aaron Shamo's story uncovers the secret world of the darknet and its role in the opioid epidemic. Shamo's family agreed to tell more about this son and brother.
A photo of Aaron Shamo. Aaron Shamo's story uncovers the secret world of the darknet and its role in the opioid epidemic. Shamo's family agreed to tell more about this son and brother.
Courtesy the Shamo family

SALT LAKE CITY — Late on Thursday night, hours after the Deseret News first posted online the investigative piece about her younger brother — "Inside the rise and fall of Aaron Shamo" — Stephanie Shamo reached her brother in the Weber County Jail.

Line by line she read him the story about his life, from troubled youth to tech-savvy bitcoin miner to alleged international drug kingpin and arrest. It centered around fentanyl and the opioid crisis, and Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security agents believe he has had a big role in spreading pills and the plague of opioid abuse across the country.

One need not have sympathy for Aaron Shamo to understand the pain of the Shamo family and the thousands of families who have lost loved ones to the deadly opioid crisis. Sellers and illicit drug users — everybody loses.

This week's story by Deseret News investigative reporter and editor Jesse Hyde, appearing on the front page of the print edition Sunday and currently online, details Shamo's story as a way of uncovering the secret world of the darknet and its role in the opioid epidemic — more than 59,000 dead in 2016 alone.

"We're undergoing this huge societal change," Hyde said as we discussed the story and the monthslong investigation into the crisis. As a journalist and as a parent, the question he raises is this: "What's the best way to live within that?"

The internet is disrupting both legitimate companies and illegitimate operations. It's knocking down boundaries and barriers — many of which were there to protect children. It can be a tool to spread democracy. But it's also a tool that can break us. Now it's easy to access pornography and drugs. It's easy to be bullied anonymously or to receive threats. It can isolate those least able to cope with such isolation.

Understanding the new world is a big piece of protecting ourselves and our families from the breakdown of these boundaries; understanding the opioid crisis and finding solutions is one of our goals for this year, and we will continue to shine a light on it.

As the story notes:

  • This crisis outpaces the worst years of death by guns.
  • This crisis outpaces the worst years of death from HIV.
  • This crisis outpaces the worst years of death by car crashes.

"What we feared and hoped somehow would stay away has arrived in spades. Fentanyl is as dangerous as it gets," said John Huber, U.S. attorney for Utah. There is no magic to accessing the dark web, more formally known as the darknet. A few clicks take you to browsers and places that are encrypted, and then illicit activities are at your fingertips. It's easy to buy drugs, and it's easy to sell drugs. Parker Atkinson, who is working an internship with the Deseret News this summer, worked with Hyde on the story, and his expertise into this technical world was invaluable to telling this story.

Friday I asked him how difficult it was to get on the darknet. He pulled out his phone and within 30 seconds he was there. A quick tutorial and I can be there. It's not illegal to be on the darknet (that's afterall, just a label) but it is illegal to use it for nefarious purposes.

Hiding your tracks is part of the world of the darknet, but it's difficult not to make mistakes, and law enforcement officials said that's what ultimately brought down Aaron Shamo, who has pleaded not guilty.

Hyde reached out to Shamo's parents to learn more about this person raised in Arizona, an Eagle Scout with potential. And he reached out to Shamo in jail. Is he so different then many? Why did he make the choices he made?

"I think on any story you should at least give people the opportunity to tell their side," Hyde said. Usually in these types of cases, the court documents and press conferences paint a pretty dire picture of the person and the activities, and rightly so. But it's hard to get at just what is behind such an activity and how people get involved in it.

Lawyers don't want their clients to say something incriminating. Family members don't want to compromise a case. So they balance what they can say. Hyde took seriously his desire not to violate the trust of those who trusted him in its telling, from the family members of the accused, the accused himself, and the many in law enforcement and elsewhere who helped us capture the trail of drugs from China to Utah.

For the family, the story isn't pretty. But now it's more complete.

I don't know what Shamo truly thought as he heard quote after quote told to him by his sister that night, but the headline, "From Mormon kid to alleged drug kingpin" is itself something to ponder. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of the true impact and cost of the opioid plague.