In one of the largest drug busts in Utah history, federal agents seized synthetic opioids in bulk and cash by the bagful on Tuesday. The home the agents raided contained a “pill press,” which they considered to be the source of thousands, possibly millions, of fentanyl pills. The drug producers falsely labeled the pills as Xanax or oxycodone and distributed the capsules in part by mail across the United States.
Multiple federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Guard, as well as the Internal Revenue Service, surrounded a house located in the city of Cottonwood Heights, in Salt Lake County. Authorities also searched another home, which the Salt Lake Tribune described as a “stash location.” At the stash location alone, the Tribune reported that authorities found 70,000 pills disguised as oxycodone and another 25,000 as fake Xanax.
Witnesses likened the scene at Cottonwood Heights to something “out of a science fiction movie,” as ABC4 Utah News put it, because agents donned oxygen tanks and protective gear before entering the home. Agencies were concerned that skin contact with fentanyl powder, which was reportedly present throughout the house, posed a danger.
“A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you,” warned the DEA’s acting deputy administrator, Jack Riley, in June, in a statement laying out the DEA’s policies for handling suspected fentanyl in the field. (In short: don’t.) Fentanyl is chemically similar to morphine, though 50 to 100 times more potent.
Federal prosecutors charged 26-year-old Aaron Michael Shamo with possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute.
Shamo “is known to have employed several individuals over the past year to accept shipments of packages from China at their residences,” according to a federal complaint obtained by KSL TV. Such operations typically involve purchasing powder in bulk from illicit sources overseas, and then converting the powder to pills.
“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, according to ABC4 Utah News.
“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,” Besser said. “The second person may take the pill and die almost immediately.” Because the drugs were marketed as less powerful narcotics, like oxycodone, they posed an extra danger to users unprepared to ingest fentanyl.
Besser added: “It would be very safe to say that people have died from this operation.” Using the pill press found inside Shamo’s house, a drugmaker could produce thousands of pills in an hour, the agent said.
Shamo has been scheduled to appear in court Wednesday morning, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah. It was not clear based on media reports whether Shamo had a lawyer.
More from Morning Mix