There's no dispute that Aaron Shamo was involved in running a multimillion-dollar pill-pressing operation out of the basement of his Utah home, an illegal enterprise that pumped more than half a million fentanyl pills across the country.
But was Shamo the organization’s kingpin — or a pawn who was used by his friends and who took the fall after federal investigators zeroed in on their operation?
During closing arguments in his weekslong trial, attorneys painted very different pictures of the 29-year-old Cottonwood Heights man.
Federal prosecutors called him a callous drug dealer, someone who lived lavishly while selling knock-off prescription pills to people in the throes of addiction. He partied on boats, prosecutors said, bought table service at concerts, mindlessly gambled money away and bought expensive cars and clothes with the illegal money. Even as he knew people were getting sick after taking his pills, Shamo responded by sending them more drugs to replace those that made them ill.
“He was enjoying the high life on other people’s misery,” federal prosecutor Vernon Stejskal argued to the jury on Thursday.
But Shamo's attorney, Greg Skordas, told jurors that his client wasn't the mastermind of this operation — he wasn't smart enough. His business partner once referred to him as a "moron," Skordas said, and he barely passed high school.
Skordas instead said his client was a fool who would do anything to keep close the friends who he went into business with. The defense attorney noted that Shamo bought the most damning items — a pill press machine, packaging items and other supplies — in his own name, with no effort to cover his footsteps.
“He’s the fool,” Skordas argued. “He’s the one that was conned the most. And when the chips started falling down, everyone started piling up on him as soon as they could.”
Skordas noted that almost all the others involved in the drug operation were given favorable plea deals by federal authorities and never spent a day in jail, while Shamo has been incarcerated since his arrest in 2016. All testified at his trial that Shamo was running the operation, but Skordas said they only said that because federal investigators told them so.
"The government wants him so badly," he argued, "that they're willing to turn everybody the deal of the century just to get this dumb kid."
Shamo is on trial for 13 charges after prosecutors accused him of being the kingpin in a drug-trafficking operation that furthered people’s opioid addictions and led to an overdose death of a 21-year-old California man.
Stejskal pinned the man’s death on Shamo, telling jurors that the man was just another faceless orderer of Shamo’s fentanyl-laced oxycodone pills.
"Dealers like Mr. Shamo," he said, "are callous to the consequences of selling drugs to other dealers and helpless addicts."
Skordas countered that, saying the man’s toxicology report showed he had many more drugs in his system when he died, including a high amounts of alcohol, cocaine metabolite and a deworming medication that is often used to dilute cocaine. His death, Skordas said, may not have been from the fentanyl alone.
Federal prosecutors asked the 12-person jury to find Shamo guilty of all the charges, convictions that could put him behind bars for decades. Skordas, instead, asked that the jury think carefully about the evidence and only convict Shamo of drug-dealing charges and not the more serious crimes involving running the enterprise and causing the man's death.
Prosecutors accuse Shamo and his friend Drew 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 country, 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 as part of his plea deal.
Shamo also testified at his trial, telling jurors that he thought he was doing good by selling pain pills on the dark web to people who couldn’t get the medication from their doctors.
But after he was arrested in 2016, he said he saw the true effects of addiction while behind bars and watching people suffer from withdrawals.