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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah man was convicted Friday of running a multimillion-dollar opioid ring that sent hundreds of thousands of potentially deadly pills across the country in a scheme that authorities said helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic.
A jury reached the verdict after deliberating about eight hours in the case against Aaron Shamo. The conviction for running a criminal enterprise carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
“He’s 29 and his life is over,” defense attorney Greg Skordas said.
Shamo’s reaction was stoic, the lawyer said. “I don’t know if any of this has come to him yet.”
Prosecutors said Shamo was the kingpin of the ring that peddled fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl — a drug that authorities say can be deadly with just a few flakes — to thousands of people.
The government’s case offered a glimpse at how fentanyl, which has killed tens of thousands of Americans during the opioid epidemic, can be imported from China, pressed into fake pills and sold through online black markets to people in every state.
Authorities say the 2016 bust at Shamo’s suburban Salt Lake City ranked among the largest in the country at the time.
Shamo was convicted of 12 counts, including drug distribution and money laundering. The jury deadlocked and made no finding on a charge that Shamo sold the drugs that caused the overdose death of a 21-year-old California man.
“The ‘death resulting’ charge was a very difficult one,” assistant U.S. Attorney Vernon Stejskal said.
Ruslan Klyuev of Daly City also had alcohol and a substance associated with cocaine in his system when he died, authorities testified.
“Russ made some poor choices ... he certainly isn’t responsible for his death and Mr. Shamo is, but it was difficult for the jury to come to that conclusion given all the complicating circumstances,” the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors didn’t file any other charges involving fatal overdoses but said the operation could have been linked to dozens of deaths. Family members of some of those people were in court.
The verdict was emotional Tova Keblish, who traveled from Long Island. New York, to attend the trial. Her son Gavin Keblish died after he had surgery and bought counterfeit, fentanyl-laced oxycodone, she said.
“There’s never any closure, ever. It’s going to be something that’s part of our lives every day,” she said.
Defense lawyers acknowledged that Shamo, a clean-cut millennial who grew up in a family that belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was selling drugs but argued that he couldn’t have run the operation alone and there wasn’t proof he caused any overdoses.
Shamo testified during the trial that he convinced himself that he was helping people who needed the drugs, while making money for himself and his friends. More than $1 million was found in his dresser, according to court documents.
With the help of a handful of friends, Shamo bought the powerful opioid fentanyl online from Chinese manufacturers, pressed it into fake oxycodone pills and sold it on the dark web, prosecutors said.
Two friends Shamo had met while working at eBay packaged the pills, sometimes processing so many that they had to vacuum them off the floor, prosecutors said.
Another former co-worker sent them out through the U.S. mail.
Skordas argued that Shamo was a college dropout who was naive enough to buy much of the drug-making equipment in his own name.
He started with a partner who set up the pill press to make counterfeit Xanax before another friend suggested scaling up to make fake oxycodone, and yet another buddy handled most of the manufacturing of the pills, authorities said.
Shamo is a “follower, he’s a pleaser ... he’ll do anything these kids tell him to do because he wants to be friends,” Skordas said in his closing argument.
The trial traced the operation from its start, when Shamo and his roommate Drew Crandall started selling their leftover prescription Adderall pills online.
The enterprise expanded to party drugs, mushrooms and cocaine before they decided to buy a pill press and start making fake Xanax, a widely abused anti-anxiety drug, Crandall testified.
Crandall later pleaded guilty to drug distribution and money laundering charges and testified in a deal with prosecutors, as did several others who once worked with Shamo.
Sales started skyrocketing after Shamo got a new partner and, at the suggestion of another friend, added a new product — pills pressed to look like oxycodone but made with fentanyl. The pills were sold online, through a dark web marketplace called Pharma-Master.
They entered the market at a time when America’s opioid crisis was spiraling into a fentanyl epidemic.
Shamo ran the dark web storefront as orders began totaling tens of thousands of pills a month, according to testimony from his then-partner Jonathan Luke Paz, who pleaded guilty to helping press more than 400,000 pills at his friend’s home in the upscale suburb of Cottonwood Heights.
At one point, the operation pulled in $2.8 million in less than a year, prosecutors have said. But in mid-2016, customs agents intercepted a package from China. It came in pink, cartoon-covered packaging and was filled with fentanyl.
Things began to fall apart that autumn, as agents identified the friends Shamo was using to receive his packages, then his runners and packagers.
Shamo appeared to be in the middle of a pill-pressing run when he was arrested in a November 2016 raid, according to court testimony.
Shamo and Crandall have been in jail for more than two years. They are being held separately and have testified that they have seen the effects of the opioid epidemic for the first time as they watch fellow inmates struggle to fight their addictions and suffer the brutal effects of withdrawal.