Feds bust veteran law enforcement commander in gun-trafficking case

'It just got a little out of control'

SAN DIEGO — Federal agents on Friday arrested a former San Diego County sheriff's captain accused of running a gun trafficking business, and a lieutenant with access to weapons restricted for law enforcement pleaded guilty to helping him.

The arrest of former Capt. Marco Garmo, 52, at his home was the latest in a string of cases involving current and former law enforcement officers in Southern California accused of such illegal firearm sales.

Garmo pleaded not guilty at a hearing later in the day. Prosecutors said they have not found evidence so far that any of the firearms were used in a crime or landed in the hands of a convicted criminal. However, 27 of the firearms remained missing.

Prosecutors say Garmo acquired 146 weapons and sold at least 104 of them. Court documents say he was helped by sheriff’s Lt. Fred Magana, who purchased many of the “off roster” firearms, which aren’t available to the public but can be legally sold to law enforcement officers.


Magana pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in San Diego to charges of aiding Garmo’s business by making straw purchases of firearms.

Prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, a friend of Garmo, also pleaded guilty to aiding the operation. Prosecutors say he bought weapons while knowing they were illegally obtained.


Giovanni Tilotta, a federal firearms licensee and the owner of Honey Badger Firearms, remained at large after being accused of submitting falsified firearms records and selling firearms inside Garmo’s substation when he was a sheriff’s captain.

Neither Garmo nor the others could be reached Friday for comment.

Former Sheriff's Capt. Marco Garmo in San Diego in April 2016. (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Last Wednesday, two Los Angeles area police officers were convicted of making illegal gun sales, including one to a convicted felon.

In February, a former Pasadena police lieutenant was sentenced to more than a year in federal prison for illegally selling more than 100 guns.

Garmo previously told The San Diego Union-Tribune that he is a gun collector, did not have a gun business or know that he needed a federal firearms license to sell more than five guns a year.

“It was truly a hobby for me, and it just got a little out of control,” he told the newspaper.

The indictment says Garmo wanted to provide guns to people he believed could become donors and support his aspirations to run for sheriff. Prosecutors said they do not have a figure on how much money was made.

Garmo also is accused of tipping off his cousin’s marijuana dispensary to plans by law enforcement to search it and lying to federal agents when asked about it.


A 27-year-veteran of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Garmo resigned on Sept. 20 amid the investigation.

He had been on paid administrative leave since February, after agents with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives executed search warrants at several places, including his home and a sheriff’s substation he supervised.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Mazza, right, speaks during a news conference about the arrest of former San Diego County Sheriff's Captain Marco Garmo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

He was disciplined by Sheriff Bill Gore in 2017 involving gun purchases and sales but county prosecutors declined to file charges and he was issued a warning letter.

Magana remained on the payroll but was put on an administrative assignment amid the probe.

Businessman Waiel Anton pleaded not guilty Friday to helping buyers apply for permits to carry a concealed weapon as part of his business.