Tilotta gun store owner Sheriffs Hamel
The Sheriff’s Rancho San Diego station, where prosecutors said some of Garmo’s sales took place with Tilotta’s aide. Photo credit: Screen shot, www.nbcsandiego.com/

A federal jury has convicted a local gun store owner of assisting former San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Marco Garmo in his side business selling unlawful firearms.

Giovanni “Gio” Tilotta, 41, owner of Honey Badger Firearms in Kearny Mesa, was found guilty Thursday of three felonies.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the conviction is believed to be the first in federal court of a civilian retail gun store owner in at least 15 years in the Southern District of California, which comprises San Diego and Imperial counties.

Prosecutors say Tilotta worked with Garmo and others to make “straw purchases,” false claims of buying firearms. In fact, they were purchasing the guns on behalf of others, including prominent local jeweler Leo Hamel.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Tilotta instructed Garmo and Hamel to send sham emails to hide that the fake transactions were conducted at his store.

He also accepted backdated firearms transfer records for customers and would answer questions on the forms on the customer’s behalf. Prosecutors say those questions are aimed at determining whether a purchaser might be prohibited from buying a gun, such as whether they are the subject of a restraining order.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in one instance, Tilotta used backdated paperwork to sell a handgun and a rifle to local criminal defense attorney Vikas Bajaj. The sale took place in Garmo’s office at the sheriff’s department.

The attorney later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of aiding and abetting the false entry of dealer records.

Tilotta was also convicted for assisting Garmo, the former captain of the sheriff’s Rancho San Diego station, in illegally selling “off-roster” handguns to private citizens, despite the guns only being intended for law enforcement.

In addition to receiving cash for the firearms, federal prosecutors say Garmo pursued the gun sales scheme to create goodwill among potential donors for his planned campaign for San Diego County Sheriff.

Garmo retired from the sheriff’s department shortly before he and four others – including another San Diego County sheriff’s deputy, Fred Magana, who assisted in straw purchases – were indicted.

After pleading guilty in 2020, Garmo was sentenced last year to two years in prison.

Tilotta is slated to be sentenced later this year, along with Magana, Hamel and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton, who helped people secure concealed carry permits quicker than usual through illegal means.

– City News Service