SALT LAKE CITY — Aaron Shamo just wanted to help a friend when he started selling a drug for ADHD on the dark web.
Both he and Drew Crandall, a co-worker at eBay who had accumulated a lot of debt, had prescriptions for Adderall. They found they could get a good markup on the “steady supply” Shamo received from his doctor, so they opened a darknet storefront.
“It was kind of win-win situation. It helped Drew. I thought it was cool,” Shamo testified in federal court Tuesday.
Business thrived and Crandall started paying off his bills, and they decided to expand into other drugs.
“I thought this was a great idea to help my friend and something I thought was completely harmless,” Shamo said.
But, he noted, “with money comes greed.”
Shamo, 29, is accused of making powerful painkillers in his basement in Cottonwood Heights and shipping them across the country in what mushroomed into an international drug trafficking operation that led to an overdose death. He is on trial for charges alleging he made millions of dollars from sales of fake oxycodone laced with fentanyl from China and counterfeit Xanax tablets.
Shamo’s appearance on the witness stand ended more than two weeks of testimony in the trial. Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday. U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball has yet to rule on a defense motion for a mistrial that claims prosecutors improperly tied overdose deaths to Shamo for which he wasn’t charged.
Defense attorney Greg Skordas also filed a motion late Tuesday asking the judge to acquit Shamo because the government didn’t prove that the fentanyl Ruslan Klyuev took before his death came from Shamo. Klyuev, 21, died in June 2016 in Daly City, California.
“All that can be proven is that there was fentanyl in Mr. Kluyev’s system and that there was a package in his room from Utah that may have contained illegal drugs at one time. The drugs snorted by Mr. Klyuev before overdosing cannot be identified as pills that came from Mr. Shamo,” according to court documents.
Prosecutors have portrayed Shamo as the operation’s mastermind. His defense attorney acknowledged Shamo committed some crimes in selling the drugs on the darknet, but that he did not cause anyone’s death and was not a kingpin.
Shamo had more than 20 employees and at times trained them, directed them to purchase ingredients and handled customer service issues, prosecutors said. Six co-defendants in the case, including Crandall — none of whom were charged with distributing fentanyl resulting in death — have reached plea deals and were prosecution witnesses.
Under questioning from his lawyer, Shamo put much of the operation’s success on Crandall, the brother he never had who advised him to “follow the money.”
“He was my brother and I wanted to do anything I could for him,” Shamo said.
Special assistant U.S. attorney Michael Gadd painted Shamo as someone who desperately wanted friends, blamed others for growing the trafficking operation and had no remorse for people abusing the drugs he sold.
“Did that guy just need a friend?” Gadd asked Shamo, displaying a photo of plastic bags containing thousands of pills in one order.
Gadd read a self-affirming note Shamo wrote to himself on New Year’s Day 2016 saying what a great guy he was, how his girlfriend was going to love him and that he was going to make $250,000 in the next few months.
Shamo replied that wasn’t feeling all that good about himself but was hoping those things would be true.
“You had something to prove didn’t you?” Gadd said.
Shamo’s mother and sister testified Monday that he had trouble making friends and was bullied growing up. Gadd zeroed in on that, asking Shamo if he had something to prove about his potential and to his friends and family.
Gadd asked Shamo if others were at fault for wanting to make fake oxycodone and Xanax pills, buy better pill presses and increase the size of orders. Everybody wanted more, Shamo said, “myself included.”
In November 2016, after conducting surveillance on Shamo for weeks, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and local police raided his home where they seized $1.2 million in cash from a sock drawer. Shamo testified he was pressing Xanax pills in the basement when agents arrived. He had another $429,000 stashed at his parents’ house.
Shamo frequently gambled in Las Vegas losing thousands of dollars. He took trips to Puerto Rico and Mexico, where he considered buying houses. He bought designer clothes, a friend’s 2008 BMW and another friend’s truck. He said he also tried to “be more mature” and bought some furniture.
“Do your feel remorse, other than getting caught?” Gadd asked.
“Of course I feel remorse,” Shamo replied, adding he would have ceased the operation immediately had he been more aware of the opioid crisis.
Under questioning from Skordas, Shamo, who has been in jail since his arrests, explained that some of his cellmates have drug problems. He called it an “eye-opening” experience to see people hit rock bottom.
“I was never around addiction, really,” said Shamo, dabbing tears from his eyes. “I got to see the struggle. It’s just brutal to see what they’re doing.”