Prominent San Diego Jeweler Leo Hamel Admits to Aiding Former Sheriff's Captain's Illegal Firearms Business

Federal officials said Friday that Leo Hamel, 62, is tied to an unlicensed firearms ring operated by retired San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Marco Garmo

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Ryan Cowen

When FBI agents raided the showroom of prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel nine months ago, they found more than 200 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition inside the store. Prosecutors now allege the businessman had been aiding an illegal firearms ring led by a former San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy.

At a news briefing Friday in downtown San Diego, federal prosecutors announced the indictment of former SDSO Capt. Marco Garmo, 52, for gun trafficking, airing marijuana distribution and lying to federal agents.

Hamel, 62, was named as a co-defendant in the federal grand jury indictment, along with SDSO Lt. Fred Magana, 42, as well as firearms dealer Giovanni Tilotta, 38, and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton, 35.

All four co-defendants are charged with aiding and abetting Garmo’s illegal firearms trafficking business – a business Garmo allegedly ran at several locations, including his office at the SDSO’s Rancho San Diego Station.

Hamel and Magana pleaded guilty in federal court Friday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard G. Skomal. They admitted helping Garmo with his firearms ring by “engineering and engaging in straw purchases of firearms, creating false records to conceal those purchases, and offering to promote Garmo’s weapons,” federal officials said.

Hamel was granted a $250,000 bond secured by a lien on a piece of property. As part of his guilty plea, the jeweler agreed to forfeit the 200+ weapons and ammunition seized by law enforcement from his business on San Diego Avenue on Feb. 13.

Eleven of the firearms seized from Hamel that day were registered to Garmo, said Peter Mazza, first assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California, at Friday’s briefing.

In addition to raiding Hamel’s showroom that day, officials with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives executed multiple federal search warrants at several locations around San Diego, including Hamel’s sprawling home in Jamul.

At that time, officials told NBC 7 the raids were part of an investigation into a suspected firearms trafficking case.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said both Hamel and Magana are set to be sentenced on Feb. 21, 2020.

In his guilty plea, Hamel admitted he bought a variety of “off roster” handguns from Garmo – guns that may be legally purchased by members of law enforcement but not members of the public.

Federal authorities said law enforcement officers are not prohibited from selling “off roster” guns in some cases, but excessive resales of these firearms for profit could violate federal law.

SkyRanger7 captured this aerial view of Leo Hamel's home in Jamul. The property was raided by FBI and ATF officials on Feb. 13, 2019.

Prosecutors said ATF agents had given Garmo an "explicit warning" that excessive resales of these firearms for profit could violate federal law.

According to the indictment, Garmo had acquired roughly 146 firearms between March 2013 and February 2019. Of those firearms, he allegedly re-sold or transferred 104 of them. 

In his plea, Hamel admitted he had bought or acquired 18 “off roster” handguns from Garmo. He also engineered a series of “straw purchases” in which Garmo would falsely certify that he was acquiring one of these firearms for himself when, really, he was buying them for Hamel.

“In truth and fact, Mr. Hamel was always the intended recipient of those firearms,” said Peter Mazza, first assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California, in Friday’s briefing. “Again, these transactions exclusively involved off-roster firearms which on the primary market were only available to law enforcement officers like Mr. Garmo.”

The FBI and ATF raided the Jamul home and San Diego store of prominent local jeweler Leo Hamel in connection with a firearms trafficking investigation. NBC 7's Audra Stafford reports.

“Hamel further admitted that he acquired several firearms from Garmo without proper documentation through bogus, long-term firearm ‘loans’ in exchange for money—which were sales in all but name,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. “Hamel agreed in his plea to conducting straw purchases with Garmo and Lt. Fred Magana, and to planning with Garmo and Tilotta to construct a false paper trail to make it appear that the straw purchases were legitimate.”

Mazza said some of Hamel’s dealings with Garmo would take place via email.

“For example, in one email contained in Mr. Hamel’s plea, Mr. Hamel told Mr. Garmo ‘I’ll stop by Saturday and drop off the money and pick up the guns. If you want to hand write a letter stating I’m borrowing them, that would be good,’” Mazza explained. “Mr. Hamel added, ‘The letter should include a serial number for the guns but no date.’”

Mazza said Hamel admitted that part of his dealings with Garmo was that, in exchange for the firearms, Hamel would support Garmo in his anticipated campaign for Sheriff of San Diego County.

Garmo was placed on paid leave back in February as he became the subject of this federal investigation. He was a 27-year veteran of the sheriff's department. 

Read more about Garmo’s firearms ring here.

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