AlphaBay Vendor PHARMA-MASTER sentenced to life in prison

AlphaBay Vendor PHARMA-MASTER gets life in prison – Aaron Michael Shamo, the CEO of a nationwide dark net drug trafficking organization that distributed more than a half million counterfeit pills throughout the country, will serve life in federal prison after engaging in, and being convicted of, the most serious offense in the Controlled Substance Act.  U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball imposed the sentence Thursday morning in Salt Lake City. 

alphabay vendor pharma-master
AlphaBay Vendor Aaron Michael Shamo, aka PHARMA-MASTER

A federal jury found Shamo guilty of organizing and directing a drug trafficking organization that imported fentanyl and alprazolam from China and used the drugs to manufacture fake oxycodone pills made with fentanyl and counterfeit Xanax tablets following a trial in August 2019.  Forty-seven witnesses testified at trial and hundreds of exhibits were received into evidence. 

The jury convicted Shamo, 30, of Cottonwood Heights, Utah, of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, three counts of aiding and abetting the importation of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, manufacture of a controlled substance, and two counts of knowing and intentional adulteration of drugs while held for sale. The jury also found Shamo guilty of aiding and abetting the use of the U.S. Mail in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering promotion and concealment, and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity. Shamo was found guilty on 12 of the 13 counts in the indictment.  The jury did not make a decision on the aiding and abetting the distribution of fentanyl resulting in death count.

The nation’s opioid crisis was in full effect by the end of 2016, when Shamo was distributing his fentanyl-laced oxycodone around the country. Shamo distributed the controlled substances to other individuals for distribution in all 50 states using their storefront, PHARMA-MASTER, on the Dark Net marketplace AlphaBay and the U.S. mail. Federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors say an undercover purchase of 100 oxycodone pills is a substantial step in a drug investigation. Shamo sold more than half a million fentanyl-laced pills on the dark net.  He also sold hundreds of thousands of fentanyl pills locally. Prosecutors told the jury that Shamo became the person he set out to be – the Pharma Master.

Evidence at trial showed Shamo did the things leader and organizers do. He was in control of the majority of the functions of the enterprise.  He established the dark web store front, hired employees, took charge of marketing and product placement. He was a drug dealer to other drug dealers. He had the contacts in China and ordered the fentanyl.  Most significantly, investigators were led to Shamo as they followed the proceeds of the drug trafficking organization. He had sole access to incoming bitcoin payments from customers. Shamo referred to the organization as his baby and his empire, prosecutors argued at trial.

Shamo developed the fentanyl product through a dangerous “trial and error” process as he distributed it to individuals across the country, evidence showed.  Experts say 1 milligram of fentanyl in a pill can have dangerous consequences up to and including death. Shamo received messages from customers that they were getting sick.  His response, prosecutors said, was to send more pills to the complaining customers.  There was no shortage of fake pain pills.  Co-defendants in the case, who were responsible for packaging and shipping, used a vacuum to clean up pills from the floor because they believed it was not worth their time to pick them up because of the volume of pills they were manufacturing.

“Aaron Shamo knew the nation was on fire with opioids and he poured fuel on the flames, over and over and over, never getting burned himself, but causing pain and misery wherever his fire spread.  Aaron Shamo could be considered the face of the opioid epidemic. He was a profiteer, callously making millions of dollars and living a life of leisure while exploiting those suffering through opioid addiction,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Vernon Stejskal said in  closing argument during the trial.

In their sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors told the Court that the true scope of the defendant’s victims cannot be calculated.  Since Shamo sold the fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills in bulk to redistributors, the end users of the pills could not always be located by investigators. Evidence shows that more than 90 individuals died from subsequent overdoses.  

 “The defendant’s history and characteristics support the imposition of a life sentence.  The defendant dedicated himself to building his drug trafficking empire and becoming rich.  The defendant also new about the acute dangers of fentanyl but continued to produce fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills at an ever-increasing rate prior to his arrest,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Dark net drug traffickers falsely operate under the assumption that they are anonymous and untouchable.  Dark net drug traffickers see the immense profit potential for the highest-volume sellers of opioids online – sellers like Shamo. A life sentence would deter current and future dark net drug traffickers,” they wrote.

“Shamo’s drug trafficking organization is a graphic example of the dangers in drug trafficking and the harm it causes individuals, families, and communities. At least 90 of Shamo’s retail customers have died.  Because Shamo’s organization supplied pills to other drug distributors on a wholesale basis, it is impossible to know for sure how many have perished in this illicit drug network. Most of Shamo’s profit hinged on fentanyl-laced fake pain pills, and fentanyl is an extraordinarily poisonous substance,” U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said. “Congress mandated the life sentence imposed today, which implies that a bi-partisan majority of our nation’s policymakers agreed on this significant sentence for circumstances like those found in Shamo’s conduct,” Huber said.

“In 2016, Shamo sold 1 million fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills to unsuspecting buyers in every state in the union. While the total harm he caused can never be measured, at least 90 of his known customers have died from overdoses. The Court’s sentence today—life imprisonment—brings justice to the families of his deceased customers and everyone else affected by his crimes. The Attorney General’s Office extends its deepest sympathies to the families of the deceased, recognizing that not even a just sentence can restore what was lost. We remain fully engaged in our effort to combat the opioid epidemic by aggressively investigating and prosecuting drug dealers who prey on the addicted,” Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said.

“The tragedy of the opioid crisis continues to this day, fueled in large part by those who use every method available, including the Dark Web, to sell their illicit goods to those with substance abuse addictions,” said Catherine Hermsen, Assistant Commissioner for Criminal Investigations- FDA Office of Criminal Investigations.  “The FDA will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to protect the public health and disrupt and dismantle illegal prescription drug manufacturing and distribution.”

“Aaron Shamo profited off of the pain and suffering of others in the hopes of becoming rich and famous. Shamo deserves to be held accountable for his actions. This investigation highlights the on-going struggle that our country faces with opioid addiction and the cooperative efforts needed to successfully dismantle criminal organizations targeting our neighborhoods,” Michael J. Tinkler, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Utah District Office, said.

“Today’s sentence is the result of a collaborative investigation between federal, state and local partners and exemplifies our commitment to dismantle major narcotics and money laundering operations in Utah,” said Eric Balliet, Deputy Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Denver.  “As this case shows, you can’t hide on the dark net. HSI will continue to use its considerable technological expertise to investigate criminals like Shamo who push dangerous drugs into our neighborhoods and contribute to the epidemic of opioid addiction in our country.”   

“Mr. Shamo put at risk countless individuals addicted to opioids, through the sale of dangerous counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills. His drug empire affected the entire nation and today Mr. Shamo and the United States people received their justice,” said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge, Tara Sullivan. “We will continue to work together with our law-enforcement partners to dismantle criminal enterprises like Mr. Shamo’s, who intend to financially profit from the exploitation and suffering of our communities and Americans as a whole.”

“The conviction and sentencing of Aaron Shamo is an excellent example of multiple law enforcement agencies combining their expertise and resources to work on the common goal of taking down dark web vendors.  These vendors work under the belief they are anonymous, selling dangerous narcotics such as the deadly fentanyl uncovered in this investigation.  U.S. Postal Inspectors are committed to continuing our work to dismantle drug trafficking operations to keep USPS customers and employees safe from greedy drug traffickers who favor profit over human lives,” stated Inspector in Charge Melisa Llosa of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Phoenix Division.”

A restitution hearing in the case will be held in November.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Vernon Stejskal of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Gadd and Kent A. Burggraaf prosecuted the case.  Gadd and Burggraaf are Assistant Attorneys General in the Utah Attorney General’s Office.  Special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations, DEA, IRS-Criminal Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations, and Postal Inspectors with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated the case.

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