Former Sheriff’s Captain Sentenced to Prison for Illegal Gun Deals and Corruption
Assistant U. S. Attorneys Nicholas Pilchak (619) 546-9709 or Andrew Haden (619) 546-6961
NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – March 12, 2021
SAN DIEGO – Former San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Marco Garmo was sentenced to two years in prison today for years of unlawful firearms transactions and for an array of corrupt conduct relating to unlicensed marijuana dispensaries operating in his former jurisdiction.
In pronouncing sentence, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said that Garmo’s conduct demonstrated arrogance reaching a level where Garmo was “almost becoming a mob boss of sorts” in picking winners and losers and dispensing unlawful favors to friends and family.
Garmo admitted in pleading guilty in September that he had acted as an unlicensed firearm dealer, buying almost 150 weapons and re-selling almost 100 over a period of roughly six years. A number of those transactions involved “straw purchases,” where Garmo acquired firearms for others by falsely claiming that they were for him. This was an important part of Garmo’s firearms dealing because California law limits the initial purchase of certain newer handguns to law enforcement officers only.
In his plea agreement, Garmo admitted that one of his goals in selling so many guns was profit, but another was to curry favor with prominent county residents whom he expected might support his planned run for Sheriff of San Diego County.
Garmo also acknowledged tipping off an illegal marijuana dispensary that he believed was about to be searched by Sheriff’s deputies, in order to give an advance warning to his cousin, who was one of the dispensary’s owners. The unlawful cannabis operation cleared its shelves of cash and valuable products the same night it received Garmo’s warning. And once the dispensary had reopened—after receiving the all-clear from Garmo the following morning—Garmo’s cousin sought his help again weeks later, after the premises was posted with an abatement notice. The warning would have required the dispensary to close its doors and cease its lucrative business, but Garmo forwarded it to an acquaintance employed at the county and asked “Can we push it back?” Garmo’s associate replied, “Yes you can.”
Court documents explain how Garmo also bent his public authority for his private gain by pitching a corrupt “consulting” arrangement to another property owner whose premises had been condemned for hosting a different unlicensed marijuana dispensary. While acting as the chief law enforcement officer in charge of eradicating such unlawful activity, Garmo suggested that the landlord hire Garmo’s co-defendant Waiel “Will” Anton along with Garmo’s associate at the County as outside “consultants” to reopen his property. According to his plea agreement and court filings, Garmo had secretly arranged with the County associate for Garmo to receive a 10 percent kickback on the fees. When the landlord declined the offer, Garmo told the County employee to have the County “piss on” him by way of retaliation.
“This investigation uncovered blatant and repetitive violations of the public trust by a senior law enforcement officer,” said Attorney for the United States Linda Frakes. “Garmo was sworn to uphold the law, but instead he abused his authority and the legal privileges he enjoyed as a police officer for his own personal benefit, and then lied to cover it up. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to ensuring that no public official is above the law.”
Garmo’s unlawful conduct persisted despite repeated warnings and admonitions from his superiors, the ATF, and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, according to court filings. Garmo’s firearms dealing resulted in a prior disciplinary warning and his near prosecution by state authorities in 2017, but nevertheless continued with only minor alterations designed to avoid further scrutiny. Garmo’s efforts to avoid answering for his conduct continued even after he was confronted by FBI and ATF agents in February 2019, when he lied repeatedly during an interview. As he admitted in his plea agreement, Garmo lied to agents about tipping off marijuana dispensaries, conducting straw purchases, and receiving money from Anton as part of a separate kickback scheme.
In that enterprise, Anton had set up a different “consulting” venture in which he offered services to applicants for permits to carry a concealed weapon from the County. In exchange for substantial fees, Anton would help his applicants submit their paperwork and secure an appointment with the civilian County staff that processed them. As set out in Court records, Anton’s services included an eight-month reduction in the wait time for the initial appointment with the County—a service that Anton could provide because he had built an unusual relationship with County staff. In particular, the indictment alleges that Anton made an illegal cash payment to a County clerk who ensured favored treatment for his clients. Garmo admitted in his plea papers that his role in Anton’s scheme was to refer “consulting” clients to Anton in exchange for kickbacks of $100 apiece.
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 local defense attorney Vikas Bajaj inside Garmo’s office. Garmo coordinated backdated paperwork to avoid the 10-day waiting period required by California law for handgun purchases, and Garmo supplied Bajaj with misappropriated San Diego Sheriff’s Department-issued ammunition. Garmo acknowledged that this sale violated California law, which requires firearms sales to be conducted at a handful of specific locations such as the dealer’s premises.
Bajaj entered his own guilty plea on December 9, 2020, to a misdemeanor charge of aiding and abetting Tilotta with the entry of false records during the unlawful October 28 sale. According to Bajaj’s plea agreement, he knew that the firearms transfer records were backdated and falsified, but signed the forms and went ahead with the transfer regardless. U.S. Magistrate Judge Jill L. Burkhardt sentenced Bajaj to one year of probation and ordered him to forfeit all four firearms involved in the transaction.
Garmo’s co-defendant and prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel pleaded guilty in November 2019 to aiding and abetting Garmo’s unlicensed dealing. Hamel admitted working with Tilotta to create falsified records to make Garmo’s 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. Former Sheriff’s Lieutenant Fred Magana pleaded guilty at the same time, acknowledging his role in the straw purchase of two handguns at Tilotta’s gun shop for Hamel.
The next hearing in the ongoing case against Anton and Tilotta is set for April 29, 2021 before Judge Curiel.
In total, approximately 297 firearms and 131,458 rounds of ammunition have been forfeited as part of this investigation. Garmo was also sentenced to pay a fine of $8,350.
Frakes praised the lead prosecutors on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nicholas Pilchak and Andrew Haden, as well as the talented and 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 mission of deterring illegal firearms trafficking and violent gun crime is best addressed through cooperative efforts with our partner law enforcement agencies,” said ATF Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge Monique Villegas. “This is an excellent example of working with multiple agencies to protect the public and increase public safety. ATF pledges an unwavering commitment to targeting, identifying and investigating trafficking schemes that divert firearms from lawful commerce into the illegal marketplace.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner said, “Former San Diego Sheriff's Department Captain Marco Garmo failed his department, his sworn oath, and the public trust. Today’s sentence demonstrates that no one is above the law – not even a high-ranking law enforcement official. This case demonstrates the FBI's commitment to investigating public corruption at all levels and highlights our dedication to preserving public confidence in law enforcement. SAC Turner further stated, “I want to commend the San Diego Sheriff's Department and the ATF for their partnership and commitment to fully investigating the corrupt actions by this former law enforcement officer.”
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.