SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man who raked in millions of dollars making fentanyl-laced painkillers in his basement and selling the pills on the darknet, including some that prosecutors say caused dozens of deaths, will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball imposed the life sentence on Aaron Shamo, 30, after a hearing Thursday in federal court.
A 12-person jury found Shamo guilty last year of 12 of 13 charges, including continuing a criminal enterprise, which carries a mandatory-minimum life sentence. Kimball said he has no discretion to alter the sentence,
Jurors didn’t make a decision on whether Shamo sold drugs that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old California man.
But government prosecutors listed in court documents at least 90 people who they say died after buying drugs from his “Pharma-Master” website. Prosecutors say they agreed not to present evidence about those deaths at Shamo’s trial due to the risk of unfair prejudice.
Tova Keblish, of Long Island, New York, said in the hearing that her only son Gavin died after taking a “homemade instant death pill” he bought from Shamo’s website to relieve his pain from leg surgery.
“You may be saying, ‘I didn’t make him take it. I didn’t kill him.’ But you did,” she said, speaking directly to Shamo in the courtroom.
Keblish said her 23-year-old son was an Albany University graduate who was working as a counselor for children in foster care when he died. His injury made him vulnerable to a “predator” like Shamo, she said. Gavin Keblish, she said, thought he was buying oxycodone but got a lethal dose of fentanyl.
“You have ripped our hearts out and destroyed them,” Keblish said. “I will never forgive you.”
During his opportunity to speak, Shamo said he “made a fool of myself” and is “embarrassed” by his actions.
“As I look back, I can’t believe I did what I did,” he said.
Shamo said what started as a “small hobby” grew into a business. He said he enabled friends to do illegal things and “together we created a monster.” He said he didn’t know the dangers of what they were doing and thought they were doing good.
“I was wrong,” he said, adding he didn’t see that people “really do get addicted” to drugs until he went to jail. “I’m deeply sorry and regret the decisions I made.”
Shamo said he got lost in the money and the lifestyle it brought. Now, he said, he’s going to prison and “I don’t think I’ll ever get out.”
Defense attorney Greg Skordas called the sentence “unjust.”
Skordas said he “doesn’t believe for a minute” that Congress figured the mandatory-minimum life sentence attached to the crime would apply to a 26-year-old mentally ill drug dealer.
The sentencing hearing was delayed for months in part by Shamo having a breakdown in jail that left him hospitalized and incompetent for a time. He received treatment and medication to restore his competency, though Skordas described him Thursday as “barely competent.”
“It’s a tragedy what happened here. It’s an absolute tragedy,” he said.
Skordas said imposing a life sentence wrongly supposes Shamo is incapable of being rehabilitated and becoming a productive member of society.
“Make no mistake, your honor, this was not a just prosecution, and I think that we’re all worse off for it,” he said.
Prosecutor Steve Gadd said for Shamo and his associates, his deceased customers were faceless names on a page representing “filthy riches by selling poison disguised as medicine.” But to prosecutors, he said, they were brothers, sister, sons and daughters loved by many.
Gadd described the letters that families of victims wrote to the court as “haunting” witnesses to the “terrible evil” committed by Shamo.
Kimball said some of the letters he received called for the death penalty.
“That was never on the table,” the judge said.
In addition to continuing a criminal enterprise, the jury found Shamo guilty of three counts of importation of a controlled substance; possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute; manufacture of a controlled substance; adulteration of drugs while held for sale; use of the U.S. mail in furtherance of drug trafficking offense; money laundering; money laundering promotion and concealment; and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful activity.
Six other defendants in the case, some of whom testified against Shamo, will be sentenced after his case is finished as part of plea deal with prosecutors.
Shamo was the mastermind of a drug operation that employed as many as 20 people making powerful painkillers and shipping them to customers online around the country. He did extensive research on fentanyl, pill presses, punches and dyes, ingredients, selling on the darknet, how to make and ship drugs, and money laundering.
In November 2016, after conducting surveillance on Shamo for weeks, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and local police raided his Cottonwood Heights home where they seized $1.2 million in cash from a sock drawer. He had another $429,000 stashed at his parents’ house. Shamo was pressing Xanax pills in his basement at the time of his arrest.
Agents also later seized 513 bitcoins from Shamo’s online wallet, valued at an estimated $2.4 million.