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‘Not a pain pill, but a death pill,’ says mom whose son died from fentanyl-laced drugs Utah man sold

90 died after buying drugs from Aaron Shamo’s website, prosecutors say

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Aaron Shamo

Aaron Shamo

Family photo

SALT LAKE CITY — A grieving mother whose “winsome” 23-year-old son died from a counterfeit drug laced with fentanyl had this to say about the Utah man who sold him the pills on the darknet:

“He never sees the faces or knows the lives of his victims, but my husband and I would like the character and impact of at least one such life to be known.”

Her son was hard-working, gifted in athletics and in building and fixing things. He was on the rise in a construction company where he worked as supervisor, overseeing four different renovation projects the morning he died.

He left behind a younger brother with whom he played soccer and hunted and fished. He left behind a blond, curly-haired 3-year-old daughter. He left his mom and dad, who heard frequently in the years after they adopted him that he was a beautiful child. He left behind his birth parents, who would have soon met him for the first time. 

“Why the sudden end to this incredibly valuable life? He took something for pain that was not what it was claimed to be. Not a pain pill, but a death pill,” the mother wrote in a statement federal prosecutors collected from the families of Aaron Shamo’s dead customers.

“The indiscriminate murder of a deeply loved person whose star was on the rise, snuffed out by a death peddler. Irreplaceable and forever missed. ... An immeasurably valuable life, as all lives are. Also immeasurable is the deep evil of someone who engages in heartless, reckless actions for the sake of enriching himself.”

Shamo, 30, raked in millions of dollars making fentanyl-laced painkillers in his basement and selling the pills on the darknet. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 15 after a jury last year found him guilty of 12 of 13 felony charges, including continuing a criminal enterprise, which carries a mandatory-minimum life sentence.

Jurors didn’t make a decision on whether Shamo sold drugs that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old California man.

Still, in arguing that Shamo should spend the rest of his life in prison, prosecutors highlighted at least 90 people they say died after buying drugs from his website in a memorandum filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. Government prosecutors say they agreed not to present evidence about those deaths at trial due to the risk of unfair prejudice.

“While it is true in many instances that the defendant’s pills did not directly cause his customers’ deaths, in those instances the defendant’s pills fed his customers’ addictions until death ultimately took them,” according to court documents.

Shamo’s attorney, Greg Skordas, said the jury didn’t convict Shamo of causing someone’s death, and the prison sentence will be the same regardless of what prosecutors wrote in the memorandum, which he called “fluff” and an attempt to draw media attention.

“They couldn’t win that one,” he said. “They have no business making the argument. They just did it for attention. I mean, it’s a life sentence. The judge can’t do anything no matter what we all submit.”

Skordas described Shamo as “dumb kid” who did a horrible thing that had terrible consequences. He said other members of the drug-making operation played him for a fool and at least three of them are as culpable as him but prosecutors want to make an example of Shamo.

The sentencing hearing comes more than a year after he was convicted — delayed in part by Shamo having a breakdown in jail that left him hospitalized and incompetent for a time, Skordas said. Shamo, he said, has received treatment and medication and is now competent to appear in court.

Prosecutors described Shamo as the self-made “Pharma-Master” who ran a drug trafficking operation that made and sold counterfeit hundreds of thousands of Xanax and fake oxycodone laced with fentanyl on the darknet. They argued that one sale resulted in the overdose death Ruslan Klyuev, of Daly City, California.

After the trial, prosecutors said Klyuev — who died with alcohol, cocaine metabolites and deworming medication (used to cut cocaine) in his system — wasn’t responsible for his death “and Mr. Shamo is. But it was difficult for the jury to come to that conclusion given all the complicated circumstances.”

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 online 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.

“The defendant dedicated himself to building his drug trafficking empire and becoming rich. The defendant also knew about the acute dangers of fentanyl but continued to produce fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills at an ever-increasing rate prior to his arrest,” according to the sentencing memorandum.

Prosecutors say darknet drug traffickers have paid attention to Shamo’s case from start to finish. They argue a life sentence would deter current and future traffickers. 

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.