By Pat Anson, Editor
A drug bust in a Utah home last November has uncovered one of the largest counterfeit pill operations in U.S. history.
This week a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City indicted six individuals for manufacturing nearly 500,000 pills laced with illicit fentanyl that were disguised to look like the painkiller oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax). The counterfeit pills were distributed throughout Utah and the United States to customers who ordered them online.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that it is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. In recent years, illicit fentanyl has been blamed for thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. and Canada.
“What we feared and hoped somehow would stay away has arrived in spades,” said Brian Besser, the DEA’s agent in charge in Utah. “Fentanyl is as dangerous as it gets.”
According to documents filed in federal court, the pill ring was created by Aaron Shamo and Drew Crandall, both Utah residents who worked together at eBay, but quickly grew to include the other conspirators. Prosecutors say the defendants purchased pill presses, dies and stamps so the counterfeit pill markings would match those of legitimate pharmaceutical drugs. Some items were purchased legally and others, such as fentanyl and alprazolam, were illegally imported from China
The fake pills were sold on a “dark net online store” at a significant profit. Once sold, Shamo and Crandall used their co-conspirators to package the pills and ship them to customers. In less than a year, the operation mailed 5,606 drug orders totaling $2.8 million, according to court documents.
“Shamo’s customer base was extremely comprehensive and widespread, touching every corner of the United States,” Besser said. “It touched large cities and rural communities.”
The round blue tablets manufactured by the pill ring were offered for sale online as oxycodone 30mg tablets. The tablets were debossed with “A 215” on the bisected side, with an “M” on one side and a “30” above the bisect on the other side. The indictment alleges the defendants did not use oxycodone at all in the manufacturing process, but instead used illicit fentanyl.
Federal agents arrested Shamo last November. During a raid on Shamo’s suburban Salt Lake City home, agents discovered a pill press capable of manufacturing several thousand pills an hour. Agents also seized 70,000 pills and $1.2 million in cash stuffed in garbage bags.
Crandall fled to Australia with his girlfriend and was in Laos when agents raided Shamo’s house. He was arrested last month in Hawaii. A summons will be issued for the other four conspirators for their initial appearances in federal court.