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Prosecutors portray Utahn as drug kingpin; defense says he wasn't head of organization

Aaron Shamo is charged with continuing criminal enterprise, importation and manufacturing of a controlled substance, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, drug trafficking and money laundering. He is being held in the Salt Lake County Jail. The Cottonwood Heights man is accused of making and selling fake painkillers, including fentanyl-laced pills that allegedly caused a man's death. His trial began Monday in federal court and is expected to last four weeks. Salt Lake County Jail
This 2016 photo provided by the Weber County Sheriff's Office shows Aaron Shamo, 27, who is charged with running a multimillion-dollar opioid drug ring out of his Cottonwood Heights home. He has pleaded not guilty. His monthlong trial began Monday. Weber County Jail

SALT LAKE CITY โ€” The Utahn accused of making powerful painkillers in his basement in Cottonwood Heights and shipping them across the country was the force behind an international drug trafficking operation that led to an overdose death, prosecutors argued Monday.

The 29-year-old Aaron Shamo is on trial for charges alleging he made millions of dollars from sales of fake oxycodone laced with fentanyl from China and fake counterfeit Xanax tablets.

"Death, drugs and money. That's why we're here," special U.S. Assistant Attorney Michael Gadd told 14 jurors during opening arguments in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

Shamo's defense attorney acknowledged his client committed some crimes in selling the drugs on the darknet, a corner of the internet sometimes used for illegal activity. But he did not cause anyone's death and was not a kingpin, attorney Greg Skordas said.

"He's guilty of many of these counts," Skordas told jurors. "Aaron's owning what he did." But the evidence fails to show his client was the leader and mastermind, Skordas insisted.

Several people who worked with his client, including some found with thousands of pills, either cut a plea deal or were granted immunity from criminal charges in exchange for working with prosecutors as they built a case against his client, Skordas said.

Six co-defendants in the case โ€” none of whom were charged with distributing fentanyl resulting in death โ€” have reached agreements with prosecutors. They are among 44 witnesses prosecutors have identified for the trial.

On Monday, Skordas suggested his client will testify in the trial that is expected to span several weeks.

Shamo, a Utah Valley University dropout, recruited employees, including onetime co-workers from his former job at Ebay, to either receive shipments of pill ingredients or tuck the final products in wrappers with cartoon drawings on them and priority mail envelopes before depositing them in U.S. Postal Service drop boxes in the Salt Lake Valley, prosecutors say.

In the courtroom Monday, they displayed boxes wrapped in plastic containing the possibly deadly pills and pictures on a screen of dyes, glass jars they say were used to mix the ingredients, and pill presses that shaped them to look like legitimate prescription drugs.

Shamo had more than 20 employees and at times trained them, directed them to purchase ingredients and handled customer service issues, prosecutors said.

The drugs were sold using bitcoin through a storefront called Pharma-Master on the darknet marketplace Alphabay and shipped to thousands of people all over the country, at one point raking in $2.8 million in less than a year, court documents say. Shamo is accused of selling hundreds of thousands of fentanyl pills called by various names that made their way to individual people and to drug dealers for further distribution.

In November 2016, after conducting surveillance on Shamo for weeks, the the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and local police raided his Cottonwood Heights home where they seized $1.2 million in cash. He was playing a video game when a SWAT team arrived.

Investigators tied one of Shamo's shipments to the 2016 death of the California man identified as R.K. after he snorted two crushed-up pills from a blue sticky note, Gadd said Monday.

One review of the online page for Shamo's shop praised its "fantastic service," he told jurors, but another urged users to be careful because the drugs might be stronger than expected.

He and a friend, Drew Crandall, originally ran the company together, but Shamo eventually bought out Crandall, who continued to work for him after he left to travel abroad with his girlfriend, court documents say.

When Crandall arrived in the United States to get married and was arrested in 2017, Skordas countered, Shamo was in the Weber County Jail and "not directing anything." His client has attention deficit disorder and a learning disability, he added.

Two friends Shamo allegedly hired to receive packages testified they agreed to do so because it was easy money and they believed the shipments contained party drugs like ecstasy.

One of the men, Sean Gygi, said he was a courier for Shamo but did not know what the packages contained until investigators with the DEA told him they had found potentially deadly fentanyl inside. At that point, he said he realized he needed to help them.

Outside the courthouse, Mike and Becky Shamo said they believe their son made poor choices and feel sorry for the families of those who overdose, but they feel their son does not deserve to face a possible sentence of up to life in prison if he is convicted.

"They're just a bunch of kids who did really bad things," Becky Shamo said. "He's a good kid. He's only 29. He deserves a chance at life."

Shamo is charged with 13 counts. They include continuing criminal enterprise, importation and manufacturing of a controlled substance, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, drug trafficking and money laundering. He is being held in the Salt Lake County Jail.

Correction: An earlier version misidentified Michael Gadd as another prosecutor, Vernon Stejskal.