SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. authorities said they have busted a multimillion-dollar opioid-drug ring based in a suburban Salt Lake City basement, underscoring how a small operation can quickly turn out hundreds of thousands of potentially fatal fentanyl pills to buyers nationwide.
The seizure of nearly 500,000 pills ranks among the largest in the country, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said Wednesday. The group, who met working at eBay, bought drugs from China and pressed them into fake prescription drugs sold online, Huber said.
"What disturbs me is people can so easily get into this business and exploit it for their profit," he said.
The drugs were especially dangerous because they were manufactured to look like prescription pain pills, he said. Users could have overdosed more easily because they didn't realize they were taking the more powerful fentanyl — the drug blamed for the death of entertainer Prince.
Officials believe they can trace 8,000 drug shipments to buyers around the country back to the operation in the upscale suburb of Cottonwood Heights, Huber said. Investigators say it made $2.8 million in less than a year.
Authorities unveiled an 11-count indictment against six people accused of participating in an operation that first came to light in November with the arrest of 27-year-old Aaron Shamo, the group's suspected ringleader.
If convicted on the first count alone, knowingly engaging in a criminal enterprise, Shamo could face up to life in prison. His lawyer, Greg Skordas, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Prosecutors say he had a partner, Drew Wilson Crandall, 30, who was arrested in Hawaii in early May. Crandall's lawyer, Jim Bradshaw, declined to comment.
Agents found guns and more than $1 million in cash stuffed in garbage bags in the raid on Shamo's Cottonwood Heights home, prosecutors say, as well as the pills made to look like Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and the painkiller oxycodone.
Four other people also are charged with helping package the drugs and send them to customers, many through the mail.
The case shows that a relatively small number of people can have an outsize effect as the country deals with an opioid crisis, said Brian Besser, district agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"America has an inescapable appetite for drugs," he said. "Until we can change the paradigm on how we deal with pain and how we self-medicate, this problem is going to continue to proliferate."