Million-dollar opioid drug ring started small, No. 2 says

AP National - World

Officials wheel evidence in to the federal courthouse Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Former Eagle Scout Aaron Shamo, 29, will stand trial on allegations that he and a small group of fellow millennials ran a multimillion-dollar empire from the basement of his suburban Salt Lake City home by trafficking hundreds of thousands of pills containing fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that has exacerbated the country’s overdose epidemic in recent years. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A man who prosecutors call the second-in-command of a multimillion-dollar online opioid drug ring said Thursday the operation started small, when he needed cash for student loans so he let his roommate sell his prescription Adderall.

Drew Crandall, 33, said the dark-web operation run by his roommate Aaron Shamo, 29, grew to include date-rape drugs, ecstasy, Xanax and more.

Shamo is on trial facing charges including operating a criminal enterprise and selling drugs that caused a fatal overdose. His lawyers have acknowledged Shamo was involved in drug dealing, but say he’s been wrongly cast as the kingpin of an organization that could not have run without help from Crandall and others.

Crandall testified Thursday that after Shamo added fake oxycodone laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl to the product line, Crandall said he started getting customer reports of users getting sick and overdosing.

Sales were skyrocketing at the time, and Shamo was getting big orders for tens of thousands of pills, said Crandall, who agreed to testify against his former roommate after pleading guilty to drug distribution and money laundering counts in a deal with prosecutors. His sentencing has yet to be scheduled.

The operation based out of a suburban Salt Lake City basement became one of the most prominent dark web drug operations in 2016, prosecutors have said, as the country’s opioid crisis spiraled into a fentanyl epidemic.

Crandall once described Shamo as a “moron” who couldn’t get the mix of pill ingredients right or properly operate the pill press, defense attorney Greg Skordas said.

“It sounds like you were doing everything. You were so worried about him doing the mixes right, you set up a computer program,” he said.

Crandall said his onetime roommate could find online everything he needed to set up and run the operation.

“It’s pretty easy to google things and do a little bit of research,” Crandall responded. The more shy and awkward of the pair, he said Shamo was a manipulator who attracted people to him.

Crandall said he helped press Xanax, mixing the ingredients in glass mason jars, but he left the country for an extended trip with his girlfriend before Shamo started making the fentanyl-laced pills.

While Crandall was traveling through New Zealand, Australia and southeast Asia, though, he agreed to do online customer-service work.

That’s where he got the reports of the drugs making people sick, he said.

His first response was to ask Shamo if he should “just tell them to suck it up,” according to text message conversations found by investigators.

Crandall said Thursday his perspective had changed since he was arrested two years ago after arriving in Hawaii to marry his girlfriend. He’s been jail ever since, witnessing the effects of the opioid epidemic firsthand.

“I live with people who are struggling that that addiction every day. Oftentimes, they try so hard but they can’t help themselves,” he said. “It’s ruining people and their families.”

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