Aaron Shamo could be considered the face of the opioid epidemic.

A prosecutor uttered those words during the closing argument at the 29-year-old’s trial last month. After three weeks of testimony, a Salt Lake City jury deliberated for two days before finding Shamo guilty of running a national drug-trafficking operation and distributing fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills in all 50 states.

His legal troubles began three years earlier, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, when federal agents wearing oxygen tanks and protective suits raided his home and two nearby stash houses. The November 2016 drug bust proved to be one of the largest in the state’s history, resulting in a seizure of more than 74,000 fentanyl pills and $1.2 million stuffed in a sock drawer and a safe.

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According to a story published by the Associated Press and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Shamo’s trial detailed the ease with which fentanyl, a synthetic opioid chemically similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, is bought and distributed across the globe.

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Shamo built a multimillion-dollar opioid ring and operated what he called “his empire” from a basement in suburban Utah, using a handful of friends, Internet access and a mailbox.

The group began by selling Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat attention-deficit disorder, but soon moved on to more serious drugs. According to prosecutors, Shamo, an Eagle Scout and college dropout, “established himself as the CEO of a nationwide drug distribution network” and became a “drug dealer to other drug dealers.”

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They bought fentanyl powder from an online marketplace and received the order by mail in packages shipped from China, one of the main global sources of the drug. (The other is Mexican cartels.)

Shamo and his co-workers also bought pill presses and used them to manufacture fake tablets of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, and what prosecutors called “poison” painkillers — shaped and stamped like legitimate pharmaceutical drugs. Then they resold the pills on the dark-net marketplace and distributed them via U.S. mail.

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“Evidence showed Shamo received messages from customers that they were getting sick,” the Utah U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement after the verdict. His response was to send more pills to the complaining customers.

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“There was no shortage of fake pain pills,” the statement said. “Co-defendants in the case, who were responsible for packaging and shipping, used a vacuum to clean up pills from the floor because they believed it was not worth their time to pick them up because of the volume of pills they were manufacturing.”

In a criminal case, federal law enforcement considers an undercover purchase of 100 pills of Oxycodone to be substantial. Shamo, prosecutors said, sold at least half a million pills over about two years.

Shamo’s verdict arrived weeks before OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family, reached a tentative deal with 24 states and thousands of local governments that, if finalized, would be the first wide-ranging settlement to hold a drug company accountable over its role in the opioid crisis, which has taken more than 200,000 lives through overdoses since 1999, according to federal statistics. The negotiated terms required the Sacklers to relinquish control of Purdue Pharma but admit to no wrongdoing.

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The widespread abuse of fentanyl, which began in 2013, has become the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.

The Washington Post previously reported: “From 2013 through 2017, more than 67,000 people died of synthetic-opioid-related overdoses, the majority of them from fentanyl. In 2018, another 31,473 Americans died, according to the latest available figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The most common distribution method for fentanyl is the U.S. Postal Service, a fact the Treasury Department acknowledged in an August statement announcing sanctions against three Chinese nationals accused of trafficking fentanyl.

That, according to the Associated Press, is how federal authorities’ attention turned to Shamo. By then, though, he had produced nearly half a million potentially lethal pills and earned millions of dollars in cash and cryptocurrencies selling them on the dark web.

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“It’s safe to say that this individual is responsible for hundreds of thousands, more likely millions, of counterfeit tablets going across the continental United States,” DEA Special Agent Brian Besser said at the time of Shamo’s arrest.

“These counterfeit pills have fentanyl being put into them, and there is no control mechanism, there is no regulation method. So one person may get a pill out of a counterfeit batch and take it and use it,” he said. “The second person may take the pill and die almost immediately.” Because some of the drugs were marketed as less powerful narcotics, like Oxycodone, they posed an extra danger to users unprepared to ingest fentanyl.

Although prosecutors alleged connections between Shamo and several overdoses, he was charged in connection with only one — a 21-year-old man in California.

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The jury convicted Shamo of 12 counts, including continuing criminal enterprise, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on the single count accusing Shamo of causing another person’s death.

“The opioid epidemic is something we all read and hear about every day, and [Shamo] was very much a part of it — he was dealing opioids,” attorney Greg Skordas, who represented Shamo, told The Washington Post on Tuesday. At trial, the defense tried to avoid the mandatory life sentence by arguing that Shamo was not the leader of the drug ring, but one of several participating members.

Skordas continued, “He was 26 years old when he was arrested, and he will never walk out of prison. The prospect of spending the rest of your life there seems incredibly disproportionate.”

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Shamo is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 3.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the number of states that have agreed to the settlement deal with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.

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