Stacks of potentially deadly fentanyl-laced pills sealed inside plastic tubs were displayed Monday on a table in a Salt Lake City courtroom, a haul that prosecutors say amounted to a tiny portion of the opioids shipped all over the U.S. as part of a multi-million dollar operation accused in at least one fatal overdose.
Prosecutors lifted the heavy boxes as a trial began for 29-year-old Aaron Shamo, and they described how the once small-time drug dealer allegedly had become a kingpin by selling opioids laced with fentanyl imported from China that was pressed into fake pills and sold through online black markets.
Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, has exacerbated the country's overdose epidemic in recent years.
"Death, drugs and money. That's why we're here," prosecutor Michael Gadd said during his opening statement.
Shamo's lawyers acknowledged he was involved in drug dealing but insisted a learning disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder made him incapable of masterminding the operation described by prosecutors.
"The evidence will not establish that Aaron Shamo caused the death of another, or that he was the organizer, leader, mastermind of this organization," defense attorney Greg Skordas told jurors.
The federal government's case against Shamo is expected to offer a glimpse of how fentanyl, which has killed tens of thousands of Americans, can be imported and used.
Prosecutors have alleged that dozens of the ring's customers died in overdoses, though the defense disputes that and Shamo is charged only in connection to one: a 21-year-old man in California identified as R.K., who died in 2016 after snorting fentanyl allegedly passed off as prescription oxycodone.
Mike Shamo, the defendant's father, has said his son was a chess whiz as a kid who experimented with marijuana in his teen years and later earned his Eagle Scout badge crocheting blankets for a hospital.
Aaron Shamo became an internet-savvy aspiring entrepreneur and health-conscious workout buff who loved self-improvement books like "The Secret" and had dreams of starting his own tech-support business, Mike Shamo said.
"He was brought in and saw the opportunity for making money, and he didn't truly understand the danger behind what he was doing, how dangerous the drugs were," Mike Shamo said. "I think he was able to separate what he was doing because he never saw the customer. To him, it was just numbers on a screen."
In a raid on the Shamo home in the upscale suburb of Cottonwood Heights, agents found a still-running pill press in the basement, thousands of pills and more than $1 million in cash, according to court documents.
The group had started two years before, and grew to include more than a dozen people, some of whom Aaron Shamo met working at an eBay call center, court documents say.
He ordered the fentanyl from China and paid a number of people to receive it at their homes and turn it over to him, according to authorities. He and another man cut the powder, added other fillers, shook it up in mason jars and pressed it into pills, using dyes and stamps to mimic the appearance of legitimate pharmaceuticals, prosecutors said.
Public health experts warn that such mom-and-pop drug trafficking networks can be especially dangerous: They cut and mix fentanyl — a few flakes of which can be deadly — without sophisticated equipment, meaning in a single batch, one counterfeit pill might contain little fentanyl and another enough to kill instantly.
Court documents say the pills were sold online, through a dark-web marketplace store called Pharma-Master. The dark web is a second layer of the internet reached by a special browser and often used for illegal activity.
Some were small orders from people buying for themselves, prosecutors say, but in other cases, the group shipped thousands of pills in bulk to gang members and drug dealers who then resold them on the street, prosecutors allege.
Each pill cost less than a penny to make, and could be sold on the street as a legitimate pharmaceutical for $20 or more, prosecutors said.
Shamo is charged with 13 counts, including drug importation, money laundering, and continuing criminal enterprise, a count that carries a possible sentence of up to life in prison.