A retired San Diego County Sheriff's captain and a prominent San Diego jeweler are among five people indicted Friday for allegedly running an illegal firearm trafficking operation. Federal prosecutors said former SDSO Captain Marco Garmo sold those illegal firearms from his office at the sheriff’s Rancho San Diego station.
"The indictment alleges that Garmo abused his position of public trust as a Sheriff’s department Captain in charge of the Rancho San Diego division. In doing so, he purchased and sold over 100 firearms, dozens of which were off-roster handguns," said Peter Mazza, First Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California.
Law enforcement officials have recovered 64 guns registered to Garmo yet 27 of the guns registered under Garmo's name are still unaccounted for, as of Friday afternoon, according to Mazza. Take a look at the missing weapons list here.
Prosecutors said Garmo -- a 27-year veteran of the department who retired in September -- also violated drug laws by alerting owners of an illegal marijuana dispensary that law enforcement was planning to search their unlicensed storefront. That illegal dispensary, called “Campo Greens,” was co-owned by Garmo’s cousin, prosecutors said.
"Upon receiving the tip, as alleged in the indictment from Garmo, the owners of the dispensary which included Garmo’s cousin directed the removal of all marijuana, related paraphernalia and cash from the dispensary. It was shut down in a matter of hours," said Peter Mazza, First Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California.
Phone records also showed that Garmo reached out to his cousin when the operation was called off and the illegal dispensary was "back up and running in a matter of hours," added Mazza.
Garmo faces 19 charges including conducting firearm sales, providing false statements, and aiding and abbetting the posession of marijuana, according to the indictment.
Sheriff’s Lt. Fred Magana, San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, firearms dealer Giovanni Tilotta, and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton are accused of aiding and abetting Garmo’s illegal firearms business.
Lt. Magana and Hamel pleaded guilty to federal firearms charges Friday morning. The U.S. Attorney’s office said Magana and Hamel admitted they helped Garmo by illegally purchasing firearms on his behalf and creating false records to conceal those purchases.
"In his plea agreement, Magana admitted to writing the following to Garmo, ‘Give me a list of the stuff (guns) you want to sell and I’ll keep your name out of it until they are ready to pull the trigger'," said Mazza.
According to the indictment, Garmo engaged in the illegal purchase, transfer, and sale of firearms during his entire tenure as a Sheriff’s department captain.
“Today’s charges demonstrate we will not tolerate the abuse of public trust and those who abuse their positions of public trust, for their own personal gain. Law enforcement members who step outside the law are subject to the equal administration of justice no differently than anyone else in our community," said Mazza.
Lt. Magana and Hamel are expected to remain free on bond until their sentencing, which is scheduled for Feb. 21. Tilotta remains at large, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Garmo and Anton were arrested Friday morning and had their first federal court appearance later that afternoon. Both Garmo and Anton pleaded not guilty. Garmo's bail was set at $100,000 and the prosecutor asked for Garmo to surrender his passport and guns. Garmo and Anton are expected back in court on Jan. 10.
The SDSO said it first learned of misconduct allegations regarding Garmo in 2017, and followed up by launching an Internal Affairs investigation and notifying the California Department of Justice (CAL DOJ).
Garmo was found in violation of department policy and was given a written reprimand, according to the SDSO.
The CAL DOJ also investigated and submitted a criminal case to the San Diego County District Attorney's Office in early 2017. The DA did not file charges against Garmo, and instead sent him a letter warning him of his legal limits regarding firearm sales, the SDSO said.
The department said it stands by "the work done by our Internal Affairs Investigators, as well as our local and state partners."
The in June 2018, the SDSO began investigating claims Garmo was tipping off marijuana dispensaries prior to raids. The investigation revealed Garmo was still orchestrating firearm sales. The department then decided the investigation should be carried out by a federal agency and the FBI and the DOJ's Bureau of Firearms were contacted.
"Once these agencies took over the investigation, the Sheriff's Department fully cooperated by providing the information we obtained from our investigation," the SDSO said.
Former SDSO Commander Dave Myers, who ran for Sheriff in the last election and lost, said internal emails between him and his superior Mike Barnett, now the Undersheriff, prove the adminsitration was aware Garmo was involved in more than 150 firearms transactions as ealry as August of 2016.
"I was essentially shot down and was told the Sheriff said it was a human resources matter and was no longer my business," Myers said.
Myers was in charge of sensitive criminal investigations within the department at the time, so he found the response from his superiors odd.
SDSO Spokesperson Lieutenant Justin White told NBC7 Barnett didn't think it would be appropriate to have Myers investigate Garmo since the two were both running for Sheriff.
But Myers said Garmo was never a candidate.
"Never announced, never formed a commitee, nothing along this timeline. So it wasn't Dave against Marco. It was Dave against Bill Gore," Myers said.
Myers said he warned the department and Sheriff Gore about the criminal activity and Gore allowed it to continue.
"All the paperwork indicates Sheriff Bill Gore tried to sweep this under the carpet so if ever asked he could show he did something about it," Myers said.
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