Former San Diego County sheriff’s Capt. Marco Garmo was arrested Friday for allegedly running a longstanding illegal arms trafficking operation in which he bought and resold guns available only to law enforcement for both financial and professional gain.

Also charged in the indictment are prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, sheriff’s Lt. Fred Magana, firearms dealer Giovanni Tilotta and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton.

Hamel, who owns Leo Hamel Fine Jewelers, admitted to buying guns from Garmo without proper documentation. As part of a plea agreement, Hamel agreed to turn over more than 200 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, prosecutors said.

Leo Hamel  watches family assemble a puzzle in scene from TV commercial.
Leo Hamel watches family assemble a puzzle in scene from TV commercial. Photo via

Magana and Hamel are slated for sentencing Feb. 21. Magana and Hamel pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the operation at their arraignment Friday morning, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In mid-February, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and FBI carried out searches that included the Jamul home of Leo Hamel and his Mission Hills-area store on San Diego Avenue.

In March, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Hamel and his former wife stored many firearms at their Jamul estate.

“The couple owned so many guns that the divorce settlement they signed in December includes a one-time payment of $100,000 from Leo Hamel to Penelope Hamel to compensate the wife for her share of the collection,” the paper reported.

Prosecutors say Garmo, a 27-year member of the sheriff’s department and former captain of the sheriff’s Rancho San Diego station, illegally purchased and resold “off roster” handguns, firearms that may be sold to members of law enforcement, but not the general public.

A federal grand jury indictment alleges that over a six-year period, Garmo resold the firearms “at favorable prices” or exchanged them “for valuable services.”

Prosecutors allege the firearms were trafficked in part “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, by obtaining firearms for them that they could not directly obtain for themselves.”

Additionally, Garmo is accused of tipping off his cousin that a warrant search was imminent at the relative’s illegal marijuana dispensary.

Garmo was placed on administrative leave earlier this year after a search warrant was served at his home and other locations. He later resigned from his post.

Prosecutors say Magana purchased two off-roster guns for Hamel at Garmo’s direction and offered to advertise Garmo’s firearms to potential customers.

Tilotta, owner of Honey Badger Firearms, is accused of aiding Garmo by submitting falsified firearms records and selling firearms inside Garmo’s captain’s office at the Rancho San Diego station.

Anton is accused of helping Garmo’s customers apply for concealed carry permits as part of a “consulting” business, which allowed the customers to circumvent the CCW applicant backlog. He also allegedly repeatedly insisted that one of his customers — whom he was unaware was an undercover agent — lie to federal investigators after Anton’s home was searched.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said in a statement issued Friday that “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.”

— City News Service