Utah man accused of running a multimillion-dollar opioid ring says he thought he was helping people

(Photo courtesy of Weber County Sheriff's Office) An undated booking photo of Aaron Shamo.

When Aaron Shamo was running a multimillion-dollar pill-pressing operation out of the basement of his Utah home in 2016, he told himself he was doing something good.

Facing a federal jury on Tuesday, he testified that he was receiving positive messages from people who told him they couldn’t get pain pills from their doctor, and his product was helping them. People loved the drugs he sent, he testified.

But at that time, he said he had no idea how addictive the knock-off prescriptions pills were that he made with the help of friends and then sold on the dark web.

It wasn’t until he was arrested in late 2016 that he saw the true effects of addiction, he told a jury in tears. He saw fellow inmates who were sick and miserable, who promised they would never use drugs again — only to end up back in the jail weeks later on drug charges.

“You watch people jump right back in,” he cried. “I got to see that struggle. It’s just brutal to see what they’re doing.”

But while Shamo told jurors that he was remorseful for his role in aiding other peoples’ addictions, federal prosecutor Michael Gadd pressed him on cross-examination that he was only sad because he got caught.

His real motivation, Gadd argued, was money. He had become “addicted” to it, Shamo once told his mother. And when SWAT came barreling into Shamo’s home one November morning in 2016, they found more than $1 million in cash simply stuffed in a sock drawer.

And Gadd pointed out that Shamo’s internet search history showed he once watched a 30-minute video about the dangers of fentanyl, the powerful opioid he had laced into fake oxycodone pills. And he and the others who pressed pills always wore gloves and face masks.

Did he really not know the drug was dangerous?

“It sounds kind of dumb,” Shamo responded. “But we didn’t really think of the risk.”

The 29-year-old Cottonwood Heights man is on trial for 13 charges after prosecutors accuse him of being the kingpin in a drug trafficking operation that furthered people’s opioid addictions and led to an overdose death.

Shamo was the sole witness who testified in his defense Tuesday, as his trial winds to a close. He testified that he wasn’t the one who was calling the shots as he and his friends moved from selling Adderall to more serious drugs over the years. The decisions, he said, were always driven by the group.

He once asked his friend, Drew Crandall, if they should move from selling fake Xanax to the more lucrative fake pain pills, Shamo testified. His friend’s response: “Follow the money.”

Then two women who were involved in packaging had suggested to him that they should be selling pills in packages of 100 or 1,000 pills — not just an order or 10 or so.

They followed the money.

“It’s really stupid thinking about it now, really shameful too,” he testified. “At that time, that’s when things started picking up. My eyes were a little too big and I was like, this isn’t what I expected at all. It went from something so small to something where we had two [pill pressing] machines.”

He laid the blame on his friends — some of them former coworkers who he met while working at an eBay call center in Utah — for pushing their business from something small into a huge drug ring. And every time he wanted to get out, it seemed like someone had a reason for the group to keep going.

Shamo testified that he still lived a somewhat modest lifestyle, despite having stacks of cash around his house. He drove a BMW, but didn’t buy it new. He bought some designer clothes, and went on vacations. When he decided to “be more mature,” he invested in some furniture.

But it wasn’t as satisfying as he thought it would be.

“I felt hollow,” he said. “I wasn’t happy. I wore cool clothes, [but thought] man, I’m a piece of s--t.”

And then on Nov. 22, 2016, the empire crumbled as police shut down his online storefront and broke down his door to serve a search warrant. Shamo was in the basement pressing Xanax pills when they came.

He’s been in jail ever since.

Prosecutors accuse Shamo and Crandall of initially buying the pill presses and other items needed to run the drug ring, which they say eventually grew to include dozens of co-conspirators.

They distributed pills around the world, prosecutors allege, selling to both individual buyers and those who resold the drugs.

Crandall pleaded guilty to charges, but has not yet been sentenced. He testified against his former business partner at the beginning of Shamo’s trial.

Prosecutors also accuse Shamo of selling fake oxycodone pills to a California man in 2016, who then overdosed and died. A medical examiner found the man died from drug intoxication, and a forensic toxicology expert said Fentanyl was the likely cause.

But Shamo’s attorney, Greg Skordas, argued to the jury that his client did not cause the man’s death — and he was not the mastermind of the organization as prosecutors alleged.

A jury is expected to begin deliberating the case after closing arguments Thursday.