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Former San Diego Sheriff's Captain accused of gun trafficking with help of prominent jeweler, others

Posted at 12:41 PM, Nov 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-22 21:19:25-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A former San Diego Sheriff's Department Captain accused of operating an illegal firearms trafficking business was arrested Friday.

Former SDSO Capt. Marco Garmo is accused of operating the illegal firearms trafficking business, at times from his office at Rancho San Diego Station, authorities say.

The indictment also accuses a fellow Sheriff's deputy, Lt. Fred Magana, prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, firearms dealer Giovanni Tilotta, and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton with aiding the Captain's business.

Officials say Garmo was operating the illegal business during his entire tenure as Captain at the Rancho San Diego Station. The 27-year veteran of the department, who retired in September, is accused of beginning the business for profit and to gain future donors for an anticipated campaign for San Diego County Sheriff.

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Friday morning, Magana and Hamel both plead guilty to charges including engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license, false statement in acquisition of a firearm, and conducting firearms transaction in violation of state law.

Both admitted to aiding Garmo's business by making "straw purchases" of firearms, or purchases of firearms on behalf of someone else. The pair also admitted to creating false records to conceal those purchases, and offering to promote Garmo's weapons.

As part of his plea, Hamel admitted to buying a variety of handguns from Garmo and making purchases in which Garmo would falsely report that he had acquired the guns for himself, not Hamel. The local jeweler also admitted to acquiring several firearms from Garmo without proper documentation and planning a false paper trail.

Hamel must forfeit more than 200 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition seized during a February 2019 raid.

RELATED: FBI, ATF raid home, businesses of prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel

Magana admitted to straw purchasing a pair of "off-roster" firearms, which are guns made available for law enforcement but not the public, for Hamel at Garmo's direction and advertising Garmo's firearms to potential customers.

Officials say Anton helped buyers apply for concealed carry permits as part of his "consulting" business and received money to give buyers early appointments and avoid the backlog of other applicants. Anton is charged with also giving "kickbacks" to Garmo for referrals.

Investigators accuse Tilotta, the owner of Honey Badger Firearms, with organizing Garmo's straw purchases and submitting false firearms records. Friday's indictment also accused Tilotta of selling and transferring guns inside Garmo's Rancho San Diego office.

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Many of Garmo's gun transactions included buying and reselling off roster handguns. While law enforcement officers are allowed to resell off roster guns in certain instances, Garmo was reportedly warned by the ATF that excessive resales for profit could violate federal law.

Officials say Garmo acquired about 146 firearms between March 2013 and February 2019 and sold or transferred 104 of them.

Investigators also accused Garmo of lying about tipping off a cousin, who was a partner in an illegal marijuana dispensary called Campo Greens, of an impending warrant search he had received for the business. The tip off allowed the business to clear any products or cash before authorities arrived.

Sheriff Bill Gore said in a statement Friday that Garmo's actions do not represent the department:

"In the spring of 2017, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department learned an employee was possibly involved in misconduct. Upon confirming the information and determining the misconduct potentially involved criminal activity, the Sheriff's Department requested an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The FBI and ATF conducted a thorough investigation and the United States Attorney's Office, Southern District of California, issued indictments on one current Sheriff's employee and one former employee. I want to thank our federal law enforcement partners for their diligence on this case, and I have the utmost confidence in the criminal justice system.

Acts such as these are a violation of public trust and tarnish the reputation of law enforcement. I am disappointed by the actions of these two individuals, as they do not reflect the values of this department and its thousands of trustworthy, hard-working employees. The Sheriff's Department will not tolerate criminal behavior amongst its ranks and will hold its employees accountable for their actions."

Magana and Hamel are out on bail and scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 21, 2020.

Anton and Garmo are set to be arraigned Friday. Tilotta is still at large, authorities say.