Former San Diego sheriff’s captain pleads guilty to illegal ‘off roster’ gun sales
A former sheriff’s captain charged with selling “off roster” guns available only to law enforcement admitted to long-standing corruption in a plea agreement Tuesday.
Marco Garmo, who retired last September amid the investigation, pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court to one count of engaging in the business of dealing firearms without a federal license. He faces a maximum of five years in prison when sentenced.
The criminal conviction focuses on the gun-trafficking charge, but the plea agreement also details other abuses of power during the last part of his 27-year career, including lying to investigators and tipping off a family-connected illegal marijuana dispensary of an impending raid.
“This case involved stunning and sustained violations of the public trust by a high-ranking law enforcement officer who bent his public position to his private gain,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Frakes said in a statement.
According to the indictment, unsealed in November, Garmo oversaw a scheme that took advantage of a provision in state gun laws that allows law enforcement to occasionally resell certain firearms not available to the general public, as long as it is not part of a profitable business. Law enforcement officers also aren’t restricted in the number of handguns they can buy per month.
Investigators alleged Garmo — who had risen to captain of the Rancho San Diego sheriff’s station — wasn’t merely selling a few weapons but instead was engaged in a clear case of gun trafficking.
The scheme involved Garmo making straw purchases of handguns, rifles and high-capacity magazines that civilians were not allowed to purchase, then transferring or pretending to loan many of them to friends or acquaintances, prosecutors said.
He acknowledged acquiring 144 firearms from March 2013 to February 2019, and then transferring 93 of them, according the plea agreement.
The operation earned Garmo extra cash but also helped him curry favor with potential donors for his planned run for sheriff, prosecutors said.
One of his frequent customers was prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, a gun enthusiast who pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting last year. Hamel has agreed to forfeit the roughly 200 firearms and some 100,000 rounds of ammunition seized from his East County estate and his business. He is set to be sentenced in February.
One of Garmo’s colleagues, former sheriff’s Lt. Fred Magana, also has pleaded guilty to his role in helping Garmo advertise guns to customers, as well as making two straw purchases of off-roster guns at Garmo’s direction. He retired from the department after pleading guilty. He is set to be sentenced in December.
When possible employee misconduct came to the attention of Sheriff Bill Gore a few years earlier, an investigation revealed about a dozen transactions that did not involve a federal firearms license as required, Gore said in 2017. Garmo was disciplined as a result.
Garmo told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he had made “a mistake” and that he was unaware he’d been violating the law.
“The minute it was brought to my attention it stopped happening,” Garmo told the Union-Tribune.
But the sales continued, authorities said, and Gore forwarded new allegations for further investigation to the FBI, which then brought in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In Tuesday’s plea, Garmo also admitted to abusing his position of authority by tipping off his cousin, a partner in Campo Greens, an unlicensed marijuana dispensary, to a planned search.
According to the indictment, the dispensary prepared for the raid by emptying its shelves. When asked later about the tip-off, Garmo lied to investigators, saying he would never put his fellow deputies “in harm’s way,” according to the plea agreement.
Garmo also admitted to proposing a kickback scheme regarding another unlicensed dispensary. In the summer of 2018, the county had condemned the property in which the dispensary had operated — a tactic to rid unincorporated areas of illegal pop-ups.
Garmo recommended the property owner hire Waiel Anton and an unnamed county employee as consultants to get the condemned property reopened, according to the plea agreement. Anton would pretend to rent the property, and the county employee would take steps to facilitate its reopening. Garmo would be paid 10% of the consulting fee.
But the plan fell through, prompting Garmo to tell the county employee to “piss on” the landlord, according to the plea agreement.
Anton has been charged with using his influence to help Garmo’s clients in the gun scheme apply for permits to carry a concealed weapon.
Anton continues to head to trial, along with another codefendant, Giovanni Tilotta, a licensed gun dealer and owner of Honey Badger Firearms in San Diego, who is accused of coordinating some sales. Both have pleaded not guilty.
One such sale closed in Garmo’s office at the Rancho San Diego sheriff’s station, according to the plea deal. Tilotta sold two handguns and an AR-15-style rifle to an unnamed defense attorney, with Garmo coordinating backdated paperwork from the dealer to avoid the required 10-day waiting period, according to the plea agreement.
Garmo has agreed to forfeit 58 guns as part of his plea.
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