Former San Diego County Sheriff’s Capt. Marco Garmo and four other men were indicted Friday by the U.S. attorney’s office in an illegal-gun-sales case that involved more than 140 transactions over six years, including for two years after the career lawman was warned about his practices.
Sheriff’s Lt. Fred Magana and prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel were among those charged in the case. They pleaded guilty Friday and are awaiting sentencing, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Garmo and co-defendants Giovanni Tilotta and Waiel “Will” Anton face multiple criminal counts in the case, officials said.
Federal prosecutors said the former sheriff’s captain illegally bought and sold about 146 guns fromMarch 2013 to last February, regularly certifying that he was the “actual transferee/buyer” on state-mandated disclosures.
But over the same period, Garmo transferred approximately 93 of those firearms to third parties through federal firearms licenses and transferred even more weapons without going through the federal licensing process, the indictment states.
“Garmo engaged in the business of dealing in firearms by devoting time, attention and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms,” according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said there was more to the scheme than making money.
“Another aspect was for Garmo to build goodwill with future potential donors or benefactors who could advance his career or support anticipated political campaigns, including Garmo’s expressed intention to run for San Diego County sheriff,” the indictment states.
A decorated career law enforcement officer, Garmo rose to the rank of sheriff’s captain before being placed on administrative leave early this year and retiring from the Sheriff’s Department effective last month.
In 2017, Sheriff Bill Gore issued a formal reprimand to Garmo after an investigation found that he had bought and sold dozens of guns without securing a federal firearms license, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year.
Garmo said at the time that he was simply a gun hobbyist who was unaware that he needed a federal license to buy and sell so many weapons.
“I’m a gun guy,” Garmo told the Union-Tribune in 2018. “I’m not making excuses. It’s a mistake that’s probably commonly made. My intentions were not to violate the law. The minute it was brought to my attention, it stopped happening.”
Gore said the agency’s punishment fit the misconduct because Garmo did not appear to be selling the guns for profit and apparently had overlooked the law that requires people who buy or sell more than five guns a year to have a federal license.
“He played by all the rules, but he did too many” transactions, Gore said. “They were all registered by the Department of Justice; that’s how we found out about them. We don’t let other people say ignorance of the law is an excuse, and that’s why we disciplined him.”
The Sheriff’s Department case was referred to the district attorney’s office for possible criminal charges, but then-Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis declined to file charges and instead sent Garmo a letter warning him not to continue violating the law.
According to federal prosecutors, Garmo did not heed the warning.
The indictment says the illegal transactions persisted until this year. The sales included not only guns that are illegal to own in California but also high-capacity magazines that are not permitted in this state, prosecutors said.
Gore issued a statement Friday saying that he learned about the possible employee misconduct in 2017 and requested an investigation by the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“Acts such as these are a violation of public trust and tarnish the reputation of law enforcement,” Gore said in the statement. “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.”
It was not immediately clear if Magana remains a Sheriff’s Department employee. A department spokesman said last summer that he was on “paid administrative assignment.” The department did not immediately respond to a question Friday about Magana’s employment status.
McDonald and Davis write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.