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 less than a day in the case against Aaron Shamo.
"He's 29 and his life is over," defense attorney Greg Skordas said after the verdict was read.
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.
Authorities say the 2016 bust at his home in suburban Salt Lake City ranked among the country's largest.
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.
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 defense 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 the overdose.
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 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.