Aaron Shamo Goes to Trial for Selling Fentanyl Online

On August 12, a trial began in Salt Lake City for Aaron Shamo, a 29-year-old former Eagle Scout who had earned millions of dollars from selling illegal drugs on the Dark Web and mailing them throughout the country.  In 2016, a SWAT team raided Shamo’s home in Utah and discovered over $1 million in cash, 95,000 fraudulent pills, and the pill press that he used to manufacture them in his basement. Shamo was arrested during the raid and has been in jail awaiting trial ever since. At the time of his arrest, Shamo was producing and selling counterfeit oxycodone pills and Xanax tablets, all of which he laced with fentanyl, a highly dangerous opioid.

In a 13-count indictment, federal prosecutors charged Shamo last year with importing and manufacturing controlled substances, possessing illegal drugs with intent to distribute, money laundering, and organizing an elaborate criminal conspiracy, among other serious crimes. Prosecutors are also seeking to hold him responsible for the death of a man in California who suffered a fentanyl overdose after using what he believed was prescription-grade oxycodone. Shamo may spend the remainder of his life in prison if the jury finds him guilty of these charges.

According to his lawyer, Shamo admits to selling illegal drugs, but he and his family deny that he was a “kingpin” or that he caused anyone to die. His family claims that his partners-in-crime exaggerated his role to law enforcement in return for lenient plea bargains. However, the Justice Department contends that Shamo was indeed an online drug lord and a conduit through which Chinese fentanyl streamed into American homes.

Bitcoins And The Dark Web: Drug Trafficking From A Utah Basement

In 2014, Aaron Shamo became a drug dealer. He started by selling Xanax and prescription painkillers at clubs in Salt Lake City. Later that year, he moved his operations onto the Dark Web. The Dark Web, or the Dark Net, is a deeper level of the Internet that can be accessed with a specialized browser. People can use the Dark Web to buy and sell illegal products and services, including drugs. Shamo built a pill press in his basement and allegedly hired as many as twenty people to work for him as couriers and packagers. He created a vender persona, “Pharma-Master,” on AlphaBay, a Dark Net market, and he used Bitcoins to conduct his illegal transactions. As “Pharma-Master,” Shamo sold an array of medications and “party drugs” like Ecstasy before he started to sell fentanyl.

Fentanyl is significantly more potent than morphine, heroin, and most other opioids. It is an ingredient in some prescription painkillers, and drug traffickers sometimes mix it into illegal substances to create more addictive products. Shamo ordered fentanyl from Chinese pharmaceutical companies. About two years after the police arrested Shamo, the Chinese government decided to classify fentanyl as a controlled substance and punish Chinese citizens who sell the drug to Americans. Nevertheless, while Shamo was operating on the Dark Web, there was a legal market for fentanyl in China which he was able to access.

Shamo and his co-conspirators used fentanyl to create counterfeit pills, but since they lacked pharmaceutical expertise and professional equipment, their pills contained uneven amounts of the opioid. While one Shamo pill could contain almost no fentanyl, another might contain enough to cause instant death. For this reason, prosecutors say that Shamo’s products were “disguised poison.” Shamo ultimately sold thousands of pills and earned at least $2.8 million in profits. However, since he used the postal system to operate his illegal enterprise, customs officers and DEA agents started to seize his packages, and they were eventually able to track him.

If the trial results in a conviction, Shamo will be one of the most notable and prominent drug traffickers to ever go to prison for selling drugs on the Dark Web.

[UPDATE: Aaron Shamo has been convicted. Read more about the outcome of the trial.]

Last Updated:


Nathan Yerby

Photo of Nathan Yerby
  • Nathan Yerby is a writer and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

  • More from Nathan Yerby