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How a millennial built a fentanyl empire

How a millennial built a fentanyl empire


The photograph that flashed onto the courtroom display confirmed a younger man lifeless on his bedroom flooring, bare ft poking from the cuffs of his rolled up denims. Lurking on a trash can on the edge of the image was what prosecutors stated delivered this demise: an atypical, U.S. Postal Service envelope.

It had arrived with 10 spherical, blue tablets inside, the markings of pharmaceutical-grade oxycodone stamped onto the floor. The young man took out two, crushed and snorted them. However the tablets have been poison, prosecutors stated: counterfeits containing deadly grains of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that has written a deadly new chapter within the American opioid epidemic.

This photograph offered by the U.S. Attorneys Workplace for Utah and introduced as proof at the Aaron Shamo trial exhibits fentanyl-laced pretend oxycodone drugs collected in the course of the investigation. Shamo referred to as himself a “white-collar drug supplier,” drew in co-workers from his time at eBay and peppered his messages to them with smiley-face emojis. (U.S. Attorneys Workplace for Utah by way of AP)

The envelope was postmarked from the suburbs of Salt Lake City.

That’s the place a clean-cut, 29-year-old school dropout and Eagle Scout named Aaron Shamo made himself a millionaire by building a fentanyl trafficking empire with not rather more than his pc and the assistance of some associates.


This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Middle on Disaster Reporting.


For three weeks this summer time, these suburban millennials climbed onto the witness stand at his federal trial and provided an unprecedented window into how fentanyl bought and bought on-line has reworked the global drug commerce. There was no testimony of underground tunnels or gangland murders or something that a wall on the southern border may stop. Shamo referred to as himself a “white-collar drug supplier,” drew in co-workers from his time at eBay and peppered his messages to them with smiley-face emojis. His lawyer referred to as him a idiot; his main protection was that he isn’t sensible sufficient to be a kingpin.

How he and his associates managed to flood the nation with a half-million pretend oxycodone drugs reveals the convenience with which fentanyl now strikes all over the world, threatening to increase the epidemic beyond America’s borders. It is so potent, really easy to transport, specialists say, large-scale traffickers not require refined networks to ship it to any nook of the globe. All they need is a mailbox, web access and other people with an appetite for opioids. And consumption charges are rising from Asia to Europe to Latin America as pharmaceutical corporations promote painkillers abroad.

The case towards Shamo detailed how white powder as much as 100 occasions stronger than morphine was bought on-line from a laboratory in China and arrived in Utah by way of international mail; it was formed into perfect-looking replicas of oxycodone tablets in the press that thumped in Shamo’s basement and resold on the web’s black markets. Then it was routed again into the postal system in hundreds of packages addressed to houses throughout this nation awash with prescription painkiller habit.

When Shamo took the stand to attempt to spare himself a lifetime in jail, he began with a nervous chuckle. He careened from one matter to the subsequent in a monologue prosecutors would later describe as masterful manipulation to convince the jury he thought his drug-dealing was serving to individuals. Clients wrote thank you notes because their docs refused to prescribe extra painkillers, he stated. It felt like “a win-win state of affairs” — he acquired wealthy and his clients acquired medicine.

Considered one of them was a struggling 21-year-old named Ruslan Klyuev who died in his bed room in Daly City, California, the envelope from Utah at his ft. Shamo was charged in connection to that overdose alone, however when investigators scoured the listing of consumers they stated they counted dozens more lifeless.


The query before this jury is being debated all throughout America: 20 years into the opioid epidemic, is there such a factor as justice for 400,000 lost lives?

The most important civil litigation in historical past is testing how the pharmaceutical business must be held accountable for inundating the country with billions of addictive ache drugs. Purdue Pharma, seen by many as the primary villain for deceptively pushing the blockbuster drug OxyContin, reached a tentative $12 billion settlement this week with about half the states and roughly 2,000 local governments. Attorneys common who didn’t signal on say the figure is way too low. A trial of different pharmaceutical corporations is scheduled for next month, by which communities will contend that their mass advertising of prescription painkillers sparked an epidemic.

This crisis started within the 1990s and has since spiraled into waves, each worse than the one before: Prescription opioids unfold habit, then a crackdown on prescribing paved the street to heroin, which led to fentanyl — a synthetic opioid made completely in a laboratory. Traffickers added it to heroin to boost its efficiency and profitability. That transition occurred slowly at first, then with extraordinary ferocity.

By 2017, deaths from artificial opioids had increased greater than 800 %, to 28,466, dragging america’ general life expectancy down for a 3rd consecutive yr for the first time in a century. Fentanyl deaths have been reported abroad, in Canada, Sweden, Estonia, the UK. Nations with surging prescription opioid habit, like Australia, worry they’re on the brink.

“Fentanyl will be the bubonic plague,” stated Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, warning that any country with a burgeoning prescription opioid drawback might soon find itself following American footsteps. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Nobody can say precisely how or why fentanyl, first synthesized in 1959 as a strong painkiller, entered the fashionable illicit drug market, stated Bryce Pardo, a researcher at the Rand Company. In 2013, individuals started overdosing on heroin laced with fentanyl in New England and Ohio, and it unfold from there. Shabbir Safdar, the Partnership for Protected Medicines’ government director, stated the first recognized dying from a fentanyl-laced capsule was in San Francisco in October 2015.

It was a frightening improvement: The DEA estimates three.4 million People misuse prescription painkillers, compared to 475,000 heroin customers — which means the pool probably exposed is 10 occasions greater.

There are two sources of provide. Mexican cartels and packages shipped direct from China, the place it is produced in a huge and under-regulated chemical sector. A Senate investigation last yr discovered large quantities of fentanyl pouring in from China by way of the Postal Service. The report largely blamed dated know-how that left customs inspectors sifting by way of packages manually in search of “the proverbial needle in a haystack.” The Postal Service wrote in a press release to The Associated Press that it is working arduous with its international counterparts to shut those loopholes, and is enhancing its know-how to intercept fentanyl shipments.

By the point a seized package deal heading from China to Utah led investigators to Shamo, he had already turned fentanyl into a minimum of 458,946 probably toxic tablets, the federal government stated. There are various extra like him, officers say, upstart traffickers pressing pure Chinese-made fentanyl into drugs in their basements and kitchens with unsophisticated gear. In a single batch, one capsule may need no fentanyl and one other sufficient to kill an individual instantly. One agent at Shamo’s trial compared it to making chocolate-chip cookies, provided that too many chips ended up in a “cookie,” whoever ate it dropped lifeless.

For traffickers, the profit margins are irresistible: The DEA estimates a kilogram of fentanyl synthesized for a number of thousand dollars might make a supplier greater than $1 million.

“Any moron can principally grow to be a serious drug kingpin by dealing in fentanyl,” stated Vigil. “You’ll be able to have any person with an IQ minus 100 who turns into an overnight multimillionaire.”


Aaron Shamo dreamed of entrepreneurial riches. He idolized Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and studied self-improvement books like “Assume and Grow Wealthy.”

He and a longtime good friend, Drew Crandall, worked at eBay after failed stints in school. However Crandall was fired and Shamo decided it was “unfair” that he still needed to work, so he give up. They needed straightforward money.

Shamo grew up in Phoenix with three older sisters. As an adolescent, he started smoking pot and refusing to attend providers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His mother and father despatched him to boarding faculty in Utah, where he earned his Eagle Scout badge. He later met Crandall by means of their shared love of longboarding they usually moved in together. Crandall was awkward and shy; Shamo was charismatic, and prided himself on helping his pal speak to women.

The pair concocted a plan to sell their Adderall, prescribed for consideration deficit disorder, on the dark net — a wild, unregulated layer of the web reached by means of a special browser. There are underground marketplaces there that mimic Amazon or eBay, where weapons and medicines and pirated software program are traded. Money is exchanged anonymously via cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

They discovered what they wanted on the internet, looking with queries like “tips on how to ship medicine.” It was really easy. They expanded, ordering medicine in bulk, breaking them down and selling at a mark-up, all while barely having to go away the home.

They used the postal system like a drug mule, peddling the membership drug MDMA, magic mushrooms, date rape medicine — they once purchased a kilogram of cocaine from Peru. They recruited associates, offering them $100 to have parcels mailed to their houses, no questions requested.

But the profit margins have been slim and their ambitions have been larger: They purchased a capsule press, ordered the sedative alprazolam online from India and watched YouTube movies to figure out how you can flip it into pretend Xanax, an anti-anxiety treatment. Crandall, math minded, created the recipe. They combined it up by shaking it in mason jars.

Then Crandall fell in love.

His new girlfriend grew suspicious when he would sneak away to package deal medicine. When she confronted him at a celebration, he tearfully confessed. She forgave him, if he promised to go away the business. They purchased one-way tickets to New Zealand.

Then an area drug supplier made a suggestion to Shamo that may change the course of his life: There was a fortune to be made in producing pretend oxycodone.

Shamo enlisted his health club buddy, Jonathan Luke Paz, to help him. Shamo ordered fentanyl on-line from China, arrange the capsule press in the basement and purchased dyes and stamps to match well-liked prescription drugs. Then they handed them over to the local supplier, who examined them on his own clients. The primary batches have been weak or speckled in shade, he informed them, or didn’t react like real oxycodone when customers heated it on tinfoil to smoke it.

But they have been getting higher.

“Near being cash in the bank,” the supplier messaged Shamo. “You probably did it, bro.”

On the primary day of 2016, Shamo wrote out his objectives for the upcoming yr: He can be wealthy. All the women would want him.

“I will overachieve,” he wrote. “I’ll overcome.”

He went online together with his products a month later. Some have been specified as fentanyl, however some weren’t, purporting as an alternative to include 30 milligrams of oxycodone. Shamo named this new retailer Pharma-Grasp.


As winter turned to summer time, sales skyrocketed. Pharma-Grasp started selling hundreds of drugs every week, charging round $10 every.

On June 6, a relatively small order got here in: 10 drugs, to be shipped to an condo home in Daly City, a working-class suburb of San Francisco.

Like each order, it was despatched in an encrypted e-mail to two former eBay co-workers answerable for distribution. Alexandrya Tonge and Katherine Bustin counted out the drugs in their suburban apartment, packaged the shipments and dropped them within the mail.

The envelope arrived on the doorstep at 3 p.m. on June 11.

Underneath totally different circumstances, Shamo may need been associates with the 21-year-old man who lived there. Ruslan Klyuev, a Russian immigrant, was additionally an aspiring tech entrepreneur at midnight net. He had a child face: rosy cheeks and curly hair. Klyuev beloved to prepare dinner and would make extravagant meals for the home.

However his relationship ended, his net design business sputtered and he turned estranged from his family, stated Barry, a roommate who spoke on the condition that his last identify not be revealed. His feelings toggled between sorrow and elation, and he struggled with substance abuse.

After consuming vodka, Klyuev crushed two of the tablets with a battery and snorted the powder with a rolled-up sticky word, in accordance with testimony. He began drifting out and in of sleep. He couldn’t get up.

He was found lifeless the subsequent day, with fentanyl, alcohol and a substance associated with cocaine in his system.

His was the one dying with which Shamo can be charged. His protection lawyer, Greg Skordas, argued that neither his demise nor any others could be undoubtedly linked with Shamo’s operation.

But in documents, prosecutors related Shamo to a veritable slaughter:

A 24-year-old man in Seattle overdosed three weeks after he bought drugs from Pharma-Grasp in March 2016.

Later that spring, 40 tablets have been shipped to a 21-year-old in Washington, D.C. He died in his dorm room 11 days later.

On this Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, photograph, Rod and Tonya Meldrum maintain a portrait of their son Devin Meldrum, in Provo, Utah. He suffered from debilitating cluster headaches and fatally overdosed after taking a single fentanyl-laced counterfeit oxycodone capsule purchased from a dark-web retailer run by Aaron Shamo, in response to his family and authorities. Shamo was not charged in Meldrum’s dying, and his legal professionals have argued that and other alleged overdoses can’t be definitively linked to him. (AP Photograph/Rick Bowmer)

In Utah, a 29-year-old software program analyst named Devin Meldrum had been looking since he was a youngster for a remedy for cluster complications that felt like knives stabbing his skull, stated his father, Rod.

Docs had prescribed opioids but limited the dosage, so he bought a backup supply from Pharma-Grasp. On Aug. 13, 2016, he ran out of drugs days before his refill. As he acquired ready for bed, he texted his fiance and took a capsule from his reserve for the primary time, his father stated.

He was lifeless before she arrived to say goodnight, blue on his toilet flooring.

His father isn’t positive Shamo even now understands the magnitude of what happened: “Does he even comprehend how many families have had their hearts torn out?”


On-line, Pharma-Grasp was getting rave evaluations.

“These will make u a millionaire in beneath a yr, assure,” wrote one shopper who referred to as himself “Trustworthy Cash.”

He was a supplier in Portland named Jared Gillespie. He bought 80,000 tablets from Pharma-Master, in accordance with paperwork filed towards Gillespie in Oregon. He knew he was buying fentanyl drugs, the Oregon prosecutors alleged, but the individuals buying from him had no option to know that. They’re unknown and uncounted.

Shamo provided steep discounts for bulk consumers. Tonge, considered one of his distributors, testified that she started to query Shamo’s declare that he was serving to sufferers who couldn’t get treatment: Why would one individual need 5,000 drugs?

Her vacuum cleaner would turn into a important piece of proof. Its dust bin was full of drugs. The operation had grown so frantic, pumping out tens of hundreds of tablets a month, that once they spilled onto the ground, they weren’t value saving.

Tonge and her companion complained that the orders have been coming too shortly, so Shamo hired a “runner” named Sean Gygi to select up the packages and drop them within the mail, dozens of them a day.

Drug manufacturing turned routine: Shamo as soon as wrote himself a to-do record, and included a reminder to “make blues,” the road identify for oxycodone, together with getting a haircut, washing his sheets, cleaning the kitchen. And Shamo deliberate to increase. He bought one other press so huge brokers would later need a tow truck to tug it out of his storage.

This photograph offered by the U.S. Attorneys Workplace for Utah and launched as proof on the Aaron Shamo trial exhibits money present in Aaron Shamo’s residence. Shamo was convicted of operating a multimillion-dollar fentanyl trafficking empire from his basement in suburban Salt Lake Metropolis in a case that gives an unprecedented window into how fentanyl purchased and bought on-line has reworked the global drug commerce. (U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace, Utah, by way of AP)

The cash was pouring in, and out.

Shamo hired a personal assistant; she did his buying, had his automotive detailed. He stuffed a duffel bag with $429,000 money and requested his mother and father to carry it. He bragged to associates about VIP bottle service at golf equipment and playing in Las Vegas. He shopped for actual estate in Puerto Rico; took pictures sipping champagne on a cruise ship; purchased designer denims, an 88-inch tv, a ship and a BMW.


Crandall and his girlfriend posted photographs on Instagram of journeys to Laos, Thailand, Singapore, kayaking and partying. But he was operating out of money and agreed to turn into a remote customer service consultant. The listing of individuals accepting packages from China ballooned to greater than a dozen. Everyone was making straightforward money and getting text messages from Shamo dotted with “lol” and “superior!”

Shamo penned another word: “I’m Shamo. I am awesome. My pals love me. I created an empire.”

But whilst he cheered himself on, there were indicators of hazard.

One customer reported an overdose dying. Shamo scanned obituaries, then declared it was a pretend, Crandall stated. Then a message stated tablets have been making individuals sick.

Crandall forwarded it to Shamo with a dismissive query: Should he tell them to “suck it up?” Or send more tablets to pacify them?


They didn’t realize it, but a suspicious customs agent at the Los Angeles Worldwide Airport had flagged a field from Shanghai, China, pulled it off the belt and seemed inside. The agent discovered 98.7 grams of fentanyl powder — sufficient to make virtually 100,000 tablets. The field was destined for Utah.

Agents appeared for extra packages making their method from China to Utah, and ultimately one arrived, stated an agent with Homeland Security Investigations who spoke on situation of anonymity to protect ongoing investigations. On Nov. 8, 2016, postal inspectors seized a field en route from a port city in China recognized to regulation enforcement as a fentanyl-trafficking hub. It was addressed to Gygi, Shamo’s “runner,” so brokers arrived at his house with a search warrant.

Gygi stated he thought the tons of of envelopes he’d put in the mail contained the social gathering medicine he typically took himself. Advised it was fentanyl, the agent recalled, Gygi drooped.

He agreed to put on a wire whereas he picked up the packages, like he did every single day. However as an alternative of dropping them in the mail, he delivered them to police.

This single day’s cargo contained 34,828 fentanyl drugs destined for houses in 26 states.

4 days later, on Nov. 22, 2016, brokers stood on Shamo’s stoop, shouted by means of a bullhorn, then broke the door down with a battering ram. They have been dressed in neon-orange hazmat suits with clear bowls round their faces that made them appear to be astronauts.

Shamo came up the stairs in a T-shirt and shorts, a masks and gloves in his pocket. A capsule press downstairs was operating, in a room with powder caked on the partitions and the furnishings.

Others have been raiding the stash at Bustin and Tonge’s apartment. Veteran vice officers would say that they had by no means seen so many drugs, even in worldwide operations. In complete, they packed up over 74,000 fentanyl tablets awaiting distribution.

In Shamo’s sock drawer, agents discovered stack after stack of cash. There was extra money in a protected in the closet. Agents totaled up more than $1.2 million, not including the money he had tied up in Bitcoin or luggage he’d stashed together with his household. Investigators ultimately caught up with Paz, whom Shamo paid around a greenback per capsule, and he surrendered $800,000 extra.

Crandall was in Laos, still touring together with his girlfriend, when he heard the news. He saved his drug-related knowledge on a flash drive, threw it down a storm drain and despatched an e mail to the darkish net market: “This account has been compromised.” After a number of months, he figured he was within the clear. He and his girlfriend planned their wedding ceremony and invited visitors to satisfy them in Hawaii for the large day: Might 12, 2017. They bought rings, and a gown.

Brokers have been ready once they stepped onto American soil in Honolulu.


When Crandall sat on the witness stand, he was slump-shouldered and shackled, clumsily making an attempt to maneuver his handcuffs to tug a tissue out of the field to wipe his eyes. In the two years since his arrest, he has been imprisoned in a county jail and watched his fellow inmates endure the brutal fallout of an opioid epidemic. They stole from their mother and father, cycled out and in of jail and shivered, sweated, sobbed via withdrawal.

He’d helped feed this, he realized. For cash.

He and Shamo’s other ex-partners and packagers pleaded responsible, agreed to testify towards their pal and hoped for mercy.

The story they advised convinced the jury to convict Shamo of 12 counts, including persevering with felony enterprise, the so-called “kingpin cost” that is sometimes reserved for drug lords like El Chapo and carries a mandatory life sentence. The jury deadlocked, although, on the 13th rely: the dying of Klyuev.

The bust was one of the largest operations in the nation in 2016. But the fentanyl commerce has solely grown more refined since. By comparability, Shamo now seems to be “small-time,” stated Safdar, with the Partnership for Protected Medicines. Probably the most notorious Mexican drug cartels have transitioned to fentanyl, whilst homegrown upstarts like Shamo’s proliferate.

Seizure knowledge in the United Nations World Drug Report exhibits trafficking shortly expanding worldwide. In 2013, four nations reported fentanyl seizures. By 2016: 12 nations. In 2017, 16 nations reported seizing fentanyl.

There isn’t any purpose to consider it won’t spread further. In Africa and the Center East, the artificial opioid tramadol is extensively abused, much of it illicitly manufactured in Asia. If that market transitions to fentanyl it will be catastrophic, stated Scott Stewart, a former agent with the State Department. In Australia, prescription opioid consumption has quadrupled. Marianne Jauncey, medical director of a Sydney harm-reduction middle, can’t consider any purpose fentanyl gained’t soon arrive — all they will do is prepare for the day that it does.

As Shamo was convicted, a single dark net marketplace nonetheless had 32,000 listings for medicine, hundreds of them claiming to be oxycodone. There was no option to tell whether or not they originated in a pharmacy or any person’s basement.

One vendor even borrowed a version of Shamo’s identify. Pharmamaster peddles oxys on-line, bought in bulk at a discount. It has, it boasts, an “limitless” supply.

“Pharma-grade A++,” the listings promise. “24-hour delivery!”