Case for 9 who led or helped run multimillion opioid drug ring comes to a close
The criminal case tied to a multimillion-dollar drug ring that operated from a Cottonwood Heights basement and used the darknet to sell pills laced with a powerful and deadly opiate drew to a close Friday as those who helped run the scheme were sentenced to prison.
Aaron Shamo, the 31-year-old college dropout who authorities said raked in millions of dollars selling the fentanyl-laced painkillers on the darknet, was ordered in October to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
The pills he pressed in his basement and sold with the help of eight others caused more than 90 deaths. Officials say the actual total isn't clear because investigators couldn't track down every distributor who purchased the pills in bulk and then sold them to others.
As of Friday, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball imposed lesser sentences for each of Shamo's eight co-defendants in their roles in the operation. As part of bargains with prosecutors, they pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy to launder money, trafficking drugs through the mail or distributing fentanyl and alprazolam, commonly known by the brand name Xanax.
Thirty-five-year-old Drew Wilson Crandall, of Draper, was ordered on Friday to 4½ months in federal prison for helping to run Shamo’s empire. Crandall, whom prosecutors have described as Shamo’s second in command, admitted in 2018 to importing and distributing the substances with Shamo from the dark web shop Pharma-Master and mixed the powders in Mason jars before using pill presses. He testified against Shamo, describing how the operation started small when the two were roommates and Shamo suggested they sell Adderall to cover Crandall’s student loan payments.
Crandall sold his stake in the company to Shamo for $40,000 and moved to New Zealand in 2015, but later agreed to work again for Shamo, handling customer service issues.
The tearful apologies from Crandall and others in court Friday did little to comfort Tova Keblish, whose son Gavin, 23, bought what he believed was Oxycontin from Shamo’s store on the dark web after breaking his leg.
She said a heavier sentence would send the message anyone involved in dealing fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic similar to morphine — will do serious time.
“But I can’t even say that,” said Keblish, of Long Island, New York, one of several mothers whose sons overdosed on the pills. “These kids are young enough that they’re going to do a few months and then be out and have a life. Our sons won’t have a life.”
At the time of Shamo's arrest, authorities seized $1.2 million in cash from a sock drawer at his home and said he had $2.4 million more in Bitcoins.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for Utah Vernon Stejskal said the sentences send a message that anyone involved in the distribution of illegal narcotics will be held accountable.
Authorities say the case illustrates just how easy it is for drug dealers to use the dark web and run a global trafficking operation from their living rooms.
"The dark web allowed the defendants in this case to operate their criminal organization from the safety and comfort of their own homes," Utah Postal Inspection Service Team Leader Jared Bingham said in a statement. "However, the danger and lethal effects of their drug dealing enterprise was not limited to individual cities and towns."
The other defendants sentenced this week include:
• Alexandrya Marie Tonge, 29, and Katherine Lauren Anne Bustin, 31, both of South Jordan, were each sentenced to three years in prison. Both admitted to being paid to ship and receive packages with the illegal narcotics on behalf of Shamo and Crandall, and to using their Bitcoin wallets to cover drug trafficking expenses.
• Ana "Gabby" Noriega, 30, of West Jordan, received three years of probation after admitting to buying supplies using money she knew came from the drug sales.
• Mario Anthony Noble, 32, of Midvale, was sentenced to 30 months after admitting to being recruited by Shamo to be the "backbone" of Shamo's dark web store and maintaining customers' mailing addresses.
• Sean Michael Gygi, 31 of Midvale, a "runner" who admitted to accepting packages of narcotics from China and delivering them to post offices around the Salt Lake Valley, was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
In June, Christopher Sean Kenny, 46, of Midvale, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He bought a Ford F-150 in August 2016 using cash from selling narcotics for Shamo, receiving a dollar per pill, prosecutors said. He admitted to being a "middleman" who helped Shamo sell the fentanyl-laced products.