SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A jury began deliberating Thursday in the case of a Utah man accused of running a multimillion-dollar opioid ring that shipped potentially poisonous, fake prescription drugs across the country, causing at least one fatal overdose.
Prosecutors said during closing arguments that Aaron Shamo’s operation helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic by making hundreds of thousands of pills available to addicts and other users. They say it might have been responsible for dozens of other fatal overdoses.
“Shamo was a master manipulator. He knew what buttons to push to get people to do what he wanted, which was to keep working for his organization and keep making more money, more money, more money,” U.S. prosecutor Vernon Stejskal told jurors.
Defense attorneys countered that the 29-year-old Shamo wasn’t a kingpin, just a “dummy” who was desperate to make friends and ended up taking blame for the operation.
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.
He is facing 13 counts of operating a criminal enterprise, selling drugs that caused a death and other charges.
The jury deliberated for about 90 minutes Thursday without reaching a verdict. They are expected to continue Friday.
Authorities have said the 2016 bust of the operation run from Shamo’s basement in suburban Salt Lake City ranked among the largest in the country. 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.
In 2016, prosecutors said, some of those drugs reached 21-year-old Ruslan Klyuev, a baby-faced, curly haired technophile who lived in a working-class suburb of San Francisco.
He died hours after crushing and snorting the fake oxycodone.
A medical toxicologist testified that he would not have died if the fentanyl from the pills had not been in his system.
Shamo’s lawyers downplayed those findings and blamed the mixture of substances in the young man’s system, including alcohol and cocaine additives.
Defense attorney Greg 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.
The drug ring began to fall apart when customs agents intercepted a fentanyl package from China. From there, investigators say they worked their way up to the raid on Shamo’s home in November 2016, apparently in the middle of a pill-pressing run.
By LINDSAY WHITEHURST
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