Leader of dark-web opioid drug ring gets life sentence

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A suburban millennial convicted of becoming an online drug kingpin was sent to prison for life Thursday, but not before he was confronted by a grieving mother.

Tova Keblish said her son thought he was buying painkillers online to cope with his agony after leg surgery. Instead, authorities say the pills were fakes pressed in the suburban Salt Lake City basement where Aaron Shamo built a multimillion-dollar drug ring with little more than a computer and some friends. The pills contained the opioid fentanyl, a drug that authorities say can be deadly with just a few flakes.

Gavin Keblish of Long Island, died soon after buying them, leaving his family to mourn his big hugs and loud laugh, she testified.

“Your customers were not just numbers, not just emails. There were people behind them,” Tova Keblish said. “You have denied my son the right to live.”

Shamo, 30, was convicted in federal court last year of shipping hundreds of thousands of fake prescription drugs all over the country, helping fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic. The case offered a glimpse at how a small group of people can easily buy fentanyl from China, press it into fake pills and ship it to customers in every state through the U.S. mail.

The 2016 bust at Shamo’s home ranked among the largest in the country, with more than $1 million found stuffed in his sock drawer, prosecutors said.

A clean-cut millennial who grew up in a family that belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Shamo said the operation started small with text messages and smiley-face emojis sent to friends from his job at eBay but quickly grew out of control.

Shamo referred to himself as a “white collar drug dealer” and pumped himself up with notes like “I am awesome” as he expanded the operation, according to trial evidence. He sold through a storefront called Pharma-Master on the dark web — a wild, unregulated layer of the internet reached through a special browser.

At times he even convinced himself he was helping people who said they couldn’t get painkillers from their doctors as authorities tried to rein in opioid use in the U.S.

“I didn’t know the dangers of what we were doing,” Shamo said Thursday. “Together we created a monster.”

Shamo was found guilty of a dozen federal counts in August 2019, including one for running a criminal enterprise that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Authorities have said the pills were linked to dozens of overdose deaths, though charges were only filed in one and the jury deadlocked on that count. Still, the families of people who died after online records show they bought pills from Shamo watched the case closely. Gavin Keblish’s family flew across the country to watch his trial in person.

Defense attorneys didn’t deny Shamo was selling drugs, but they also argued a life sentence was too harsh for a first-time offender who worked with others. He was a “people pleaser” who couldn’t have put the operation together without a few key friends, his lawyer Greg Skordas has said. Several of those friends are expected to get lighter sentences after striking plea deals and testifying against him.

By Patricia Older