San Diego, California - Former San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Marco Garmo pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to illegally trafficking in firearms from his office in the Rancho San Diego Station and committing other corrupt acts spanning close to a quarter of his 27 years in the department.
As part of his plea, Garmo also admitted that he tipped off a marijuana dispensary that was about to be searched by Sheriff’s officials – part-owned by his cousin – and pressured another illegal dispensary to hire his friend and co-defendant Waiel Anton as a “consultant,” along with another individual who had agreed to pay Garmo a kickback.
In the plea agreement, Garmo admitted that he engaged in the business of dealing in firearms for profit without a license, which he knew was against the law. He acknowledged acquiring 144 firearms in less than six years, and selling or transferring 98 of them. His unlawful business provided Garmo several forms of compensation. In some transactions, he received a financial profit. In others, Garmo engaged in firearm sales to build good will for future favors related to his anticipated campaign for Sheriff of San Diego County. The charges against Garmo include a series of “straw purchases” in which Garmo falsely told dealers that he was acquiring handguns for himself, when in truth he was sourcing them for associates who could not buy them directly under California law.
Garmo admitted in his plea agreement that as a law enforcement officer, he occupied a position of public trust that he abused to commit these offenses. Specifically, California law provided Garmo with a series of special firearms privileges—like the ability to purchase an unlimited number of handguns per month, and the right to purchase newer-model “off-roster” handguns not approved for initial sale to civilians—and Garmo abused these privileges to conduct his unlicensed firearms dealing.
Garmo also abused his position of trust as the chief law enforcement officer in charge of the Rancho San Diego Station to tip off his cousin—a partner in an illegal marijuana dispensary known as “Campo Greens”—by providing information he had received about an impending search of the cousin’s dispensary.
Garmo admitted lying to federal agents when asked about the tip-off during an interview, saying he would never put his fellow deputies “in harm’s way” by notifying the targets of a search warrant. In the plea, Garmo specifically acknowledged that he provided this information in order to help his cousin and Campo Greens evade law enforcement officers and avoid the seizure of the dispensary’s inventory and cash proceeds. Indeed, as alleged in the indictment, Campo Greens staff heeded Garmo’s secret warning by emptying the store of its valuable products and cash proceeds in advance of the impending search.
According to the indictment, Garmo continued his efforts to unlawfully assist his cousin weeks later, by seeking help from a San Diego County employee when Campo Greens was served with a nuisance abatement letter by County Code Enforcement that would force the illegal dispensary to cease operations. Having received a copy of the letter from his cousin, Garmo texted the County employee to ask “can we push it back?” The County employee answered, “Yes you can.”
As part of today’s guilty plea, Garmo admitted that he also sought to profit from a second unlicensed marijuana dispensary, when the County condemned the property housing the dispensary. In the summer of 2018, Garmo recommended that the dispensary’s landlord hire co-defendant Waiel Anton and another individual—then working for the County—as “consultants” to help get the condemned property reopened. According to Garmo’s plea agreement, Anton would pretend to rent the landlord’s property. In exchange for recommending the County employee as a “consultant,” the employee agreed to pay 10 percent of their fee to Garmo as a kickback. Garmo admitted that, when the proposal fell through and the landlord declined to hire Anton and the County employee, Garmo retaliated by telling the employee to have the County “piss on” the landlord.
According to the indictment, Garmo was a Sheriff’s deputy for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for almost 27 years until September 20, 2019. In his plea, Garmo admitted that he was engaged in the unlawful acquisition, transfer, and sale of firearms during his entire tenure as the Captain of the Rancho San Diego Station.
In fact, one of Garmo’s firearms transactions involved a brazen sale inside the Captain’s Office of the Rancho San Diego Station on October 28, 2016. Garmo admitted that on that date, he and co-defendant Giovanni Tilotta (a licensed San Diego gun dealer) sold a Glock handgun, an AR-15 style rifle, and a Smith & Wesson handgun to a local defense attorney inside Garmo’s office. Per the plea agreement, Garmo coordinated backdated paperwork to avoid the 10-day waiting period required by California law for handgun purchases, and Garmo supplied the attorney with San Diego Sheriff’s Department-issued ammunition. Garmo expressly admitted that this sale violated California law, which requires firearms sales to be conducted at the dealer’s premises, a gun show or special event, or at the buyer or seller’s home.
“This case involved stunning and sustained violations of the public trust by a high-ranking law enforcement officer who bent his public position to his private gain,” said Attorney for the United States Linda Frakes. “This office will not hesitate to hold accountable anyone who thinks that their badge or office is a license to break the law. All of the honorable men and women serving their communities in law enforcement deserve no less.”
Part of Garmo’s unlicensed firearms dealing operation involved directing his immediate subordinate, co-defendant Fred Magana, in completing a straw purchase of two firearms for co-defendant Leo Hamel, when Magana was serving as a Lieutenant under Garmo’s command. Magana entered a guilty plea on November 22, 2019 to aiding and abetting Garmo’s firearms trafficking by participating in that transaction. For his part, local jeweler and businessman Leo Hamel pleaded guilty the same day to aiding and abetting Garmo’s unlicensed firearms dealing. In his plea agreement, Hamel admitted working with Tilotta to create falsified records to make firearms straw purchases appear legitimate. Hamel also acknowledged that Garmo benefited from his arrangement with Hamel by securing Hamel’s future support for Garmo’s anticipated campaign for Sheriff of San Diego County.
According to the indictment, Waiel Anton aided and abetted Garmo’s unlicensed firearms dealing by helping Garmo’s firearms buyers apply for permits to carry a concealed weapon (“CCW”) as part of Anton’s “consulting” business. Anton’s “consulting” arrangement secured early CCW appointments for his clients to avoid a months-long backlog at the licensing desk—a benefit that Anton provided by leveraging his relationship with a member of the licensing staff to whom he had made an unlawful cash payment. In his plea today, Garmo admitted Anton’s role, and acknowledged that Anton would pay Garmo a kickback of $100 per CCW applicant that Garmo referred to Anton. Garmo expressly admitted receiving such a kickback in early February 2019 in exchange for referring an undercover ATF agent to Anton for his “consulting” services, and then lying to federal agents asking about money Garmo had received from Anton.
Anton is also charged with obstruction of justice for repeatedly urging one of his “consulting” clients—in reality, an undercover agent—to lie to federal investigators following the search of Anton’s residence in February. Per the indictment, Anton exhorted the undercover agent not to tell investigators about the $1,000 in cash Anton had charged the undercover agent to fast-track his CCW appointment, and to claim instead that Anton was helping him with his application because they were friends.
Garmo is set to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel on December 9, 2020 at 8:30 a.m. The next hearing in the ongoing case against Anton and Tilotta is set for October 8, 2020.
Garmo agreed to forfeit 58 firearms and 5,385 rounds of ammunition as part of his plea agreement. In total, approximately 291 firearms and 131,458 rounds of ammunition have been forfeited as part of this investigation.
Frakes praised the lead prosecutors on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nicholas Pilchak and Andrew Haden, as well as the dedicated investigators from the ATF and FBI. Frakes added that the U.S. Attorney’s Office wishes to extend its sincerest gratitude to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for initiating this investigation, and for their assistance and support throughout its course.
“ATF’s committed to investigating and preventing firearms trafficking, and ensuring federal firearms laws are followed so criminals do not acquire guns,” said ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Monique Villegas. “ATF will hold those who sell guns illegally accountable. ATF strives to keep our communities safe from gun-related crime.”
“Rather than fulfill his sworn duty to uphold the law, former San Diego Sheriff's Department Captain Marco Garmo used his position to benefit himself and those he sold weapons to in his unlawful firearms business,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner. “Garmo wore the badge, but ultimately, he failed his department and the public’s trust. Today’s plea demonstrates that no one is above the law – not even a high-ranking law enforcement official. At a time when many in the public are questioning their confidence in law enforcement, the FBI remains committed to vigorously pursuing corrupt and unlawful actions by those who wear the badge. Public confidence in law enforcement and upholding the integrity of dedicated law enforcement officers who honorably serve each and every day is a priority for the FBI.”
U.S. v. Garmo, et. al, 19-CR-4768-GPC
Morad Marco Garmo, 52 years old
Leo Joseph Hamel, 62 years old
Giovanni Vincenzo Tilotta, 38 years old
Fred Magana, 42 years old
Waiel Yousif Anton, 35 years old
Summary of Charges
Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 922(a)(1)(A) – Engaging in the Business of Dealing in Firearms Without a License
Maximum Penalty: Five years in prison
Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms & Explosives (ATF)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations. The defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.