San Diego County Sheriff patch
A San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy’s patch. Courtesy of the department

A former San Diego County sheriff’s captain pleaded guilty Tuesday to running an illegal arms trafficking operation, in which he bought and resold guns available only to law enforcement for both financial and professional gain.

Marco Garmo, 52, the former captain of the sheriff’s Rancho San Diego station and a 27-year member of the department, illegally purchased and resold “off roster” firearms, which may be purchased by members of law enforcement, but not the general public, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In addition to receiving cash for the firearms, federal prosecutors say that between March 2013 and February 2019, Garmo conducted the gun sales to create goodwill among potential donors for his planned campaign to run for San Diego County sheriff.

Prosecutors said Garmo made a series of “straw purchases,” in which he told gun dealers he was purchasing guns for himself, when in reality, he was buying them for people who could not directly buy the firearms under state law.

He acquired around 144 firearms during that time and transferred 98 of them to others, all while lacking the required license to do so, according to prosecutors.

The federal charge of engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and a supervised release term of up to three years, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sentencing is slated for Dec. 9.

Garmo, who retired shortly before he and four others were indicted last November, also agreed to forfeit 58 guns and 5,835 rounds of ammunition, per the plea agreement. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said a total of 291 firearms and 131,458 rounds of ammunition were forfeited throughout the investigation.

Fellow former sheriff’s deputy Fred Magana, 42, and prominent local jeweler Leo Hamel, 62, pleaded guilty last year to aiding and abetting the operation and await sentencing.

Firearms dealer Giovanni Tilotta, 38, and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton, 35, still face charges and a pending trial.

According to the indictment, Magana, who served as a lieutenant under Garmo’s command, helped facilitate some of the gun sales, while Hamel purchased a number of firearms from Garmo without proper documentation. Investigators seized more than 200 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from Hamel, including 11 firearms registered to Garmo.

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

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.

In addition to the firearms scheme, Garmo was charged with tipping off his cousin that a warrant search was imminent at the relative’s illegal marijuana dispensary. The dispensary closed up shop on the day the search was supposed to occur, and then immediately reopened after Garmo informed the owners that the search had been called off, according to the indictment.

Garmo admitted to warning his cousin, as well as seeking profits from a second unlicensed marijuana dispensary by recommending its landlord hire Anton and another person who worked for the county as “consultants” to get the property reopened after the county condemned it.

“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,” said Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Frakes. “This office will not hesitate to hold accountable anyone who thinks that their badge or office is a license to break the law. All of the honorable men and women serving their communities in law enforcement deserve no less.”

— Story updated at 6:21 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

— City News Service