Federal courthouse
Federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

A San Diego gun store owner convicted of assisting former San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Marco Garmo in his side business of unlawful firearms sales was sentenced Friday to six months in prison, plus six months of home confinement.

Giovanni “Gio” Tilotta, 41, owner of Honey Badger Firearms in Kearny Mesa, was found guilty during a jury trial last year of three felonies, in what the U.S. Attorney’s Office said was believed to be the first federal criminal conviction of a civilian retail gun store owner in more than two decades 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,” or falsely claiming to be the buyers of firearms while actually purchasing the guns on behalf of others, including prominent local jeweler Leo Hamel.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Tilotta instructed Garmo and Hamel to make sham emails in order to hide that straw purchases were conducted at his store and that he conducted those sales despite a specific warning from the California Department of Justice advising him against allowing straw purchases at his business.

He also accepted backdated firearms transfer records for customers and would answer questions on those 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 in Garmo’s sheriff’s office to local criminal defense attorney Vikas Bajaj, who 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 his illegal sales of “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 conducted the gun sales to create goodwill among potential donors for his planned campaign to run 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.