While federal prosecutors are giving each other high-fives and meeting with their buddies for a celebratory drink at their local watering hole, the parents, siblings and friends of Aaron Shamo are agonizing about the star child who took a very wrong turn in life.
Shamo didn't just suffer a staggering defeat in court; he is facing a life wherein concrete walls and stainless steel toilets are his only view. He's a mere 29 years old, but, as it now stands, he'll never hug his own parents again without supervision, laugh with his nieces and nephews at family dinners, or simply enjoy an evening out with friends. Nor will he be able to attend the funerals of those who were near and dear to him. Even after the 18 months he's been held in jail, he doesn't look like the bright-eyed young man arrested in February 2018. In a few more years, he will have changed even more. Ink might cover his body and there will likely be a few scars from scrapes with prisoners who, unlike him, committed some heinous and violent crimes.
Shamo was an enterprising young man, a go-getter, affable friend, an Eagle Scout, and a very clever and innovative businessman. But it seems he chose the wrong business. Through a long string of surveillance operations, it was determined that his entrepreneurial flair had gone too far. Prosecutors quickly had the goods. Pill-stamping presses, thousands of counterfeit opiate pills, raw ingredients—including Fentanyl from China, and about $4 million in cash and Bitcoin—were found between his own residence and his parents' home. The federal case wasn't just about manufacturing; the government alleged that he had been running a nationwide, illicit drug distribution organization, and that was easily proven.
Not so easy was a jury's determination that Shamo was personally responsible for the death of one of his users. Ruslan Klyuev, of Daly City, Calif., died with a combination of alcohol, cocaine metabolites and deworming medication (used to cut cocaine) in his system. When 12 verdicts had been read by the jury, there was one count remaining, and the foreman announced that the jury had been unable to reach a verdict on whether Shamo had been responsible for Klyuev's death. The facts surrounding that death were too complicated, and, while the jury did not find Shamo innocent of that count—a hung jury—it was not able to link the tragedy back to him.
The sentencing hearing is yet to come, but the penalties for Shamo's actions are so severe that he'll spend the rest of his life behind bars. Greg Skordas, who represented him, asserted, "The government wanted him to die in prison and they got their wish."
There's no question that what Shamo did was illegal and immoral, putting thousands of people at risk, and we'll never know if his little "business" was directly responsible for ruining lives and ending some. I feel anguish that so many people are driven to addictions and pay such a high price for their bad judgment. In a sense, Shamo was also an addict; he was addicted to plentiful money and what it can buy. Responsibility falls on the maker and the user, and one cannot exist without the other. Like all businesses, illegal drugs are driven by the consumer's need. The manufacturers and distributors all get caught in the same whirlpool.
But, manufacturing and distributing drugs is a very different kind of crime, since the victims are the ones who make the ultimate choice to become users. Drug abusers are looking for their cheap fix, and the makers and sellers are simply the attractive nuisance—a tragedy in the making. It's similar to building a swimming pool and not properly protecting it with a fence. When a child ends up in that pool, pale and lifeless, the owner becomes responsible through their own negligence. Shamo manufactured the attractive nuisances and people sought them out. He made a bad choice; they made a bad choice. Both will pay.
But there's something patently wrong with the picture—the U.S. represents nearly 5% of the total world population, yet its prisons hold almost a whopping 25% of those incarcerated, according to research done by the World Prison Brief. We lead the world—even those countries guilty of the worst human rights violations—in the rampant criminalization of human activity, though the study did note countries such as North Korea, Iran and China might downplay their numbers. Recently, Americans have seen a vast expansion of definitions of terrorism, creating draconian sentences for what might be the most innocuous acts.
That said, I do not believe that the manufacture and distribution of drugs—and the finding of running a "continuing criminal enterprise"—should allow society to cage a young man for the rest of his life. In doing so, the courts themselves become a criminal element. There has to be a better way of dealing with non-violent offenders.
The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org