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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, September 9, 2022

Local Gun Dealer Convicted of Illegally Trafficking Firearms and Conducting Straw Purchases

Assistant U. S. Attorneys Nicholas Pilchak (619) 546-9709 or Andrew Haden (619) 546-6961

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – September 9, 2022

SAN DIEGO – Giovanni “Gio” Tilotta, the proprietor of local firearms dealer Honey Badger Firearms, was convicted yesterday of assisting with unlicensed firearms dealing and conducting straw purchases with former San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Marco Garmo and others.  A federal jury found Tilotta guilty of three felony counts following a six-day trial.

This conviction is believed to be the first federal criminal conviction of a civilian retail gun store owner in the Southern District of California in at least 15 years.

Tilotta was convicted of conspiring with Garmo, San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, and others to make false statements in the acquisition of firearms. According to evidence presented at trial, Garmo and another Sheriff’s deputy falsely claimed to be the actual purchasers of new handguns, while really intending to transfer the weapons to other individuals who were the true buyers—notably including Hamel.  Tilotta was also found guilty of aiding and abetting Garmo’s unlicensed firearms trafficking enterprise, in which Garmo bought and resold dozens of firearms both for profit and to bank favors for Garmo’s anticipated campaign for Sheriff of San Diego County.

Garmo pleaded guilty to engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license on September 15, 2020, and is currently serving a prison sentence. Hamel pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting Garmo’s unlicensed dealing on November 22, 2019, and is presently awaiting sentencing.  

Tilotta committed these crimes through his licensed firearms dealer, Honey Badger Firearms in Kearney Mesa, despite an explicit warning he received from the California Department of Justice in December 2015 advising him to avoid allowing straw purchases at his business.  Emails admitted at trial indicated that, instead, Tilotta directed Hamel and Garmo to create sham emails to cover up the straw purchases they conducted at Honey Badger.

The jury deadlocked on a fourth felony count, which alleged that Tilotta conducted a firearms transfer in violation of California law, and U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel declared a mistrial on that count.

According to evidence presented at trial, Tilotta’s specific conduct went beyond knowingly accepting false records for straw purchases. He also backdated firearms transfer records for certain customers without requiring them to present themselves at his business to begin a firearms transfer. As part of this process, Tilotta would himself answer questions designed to determine if a firearms recipient was prohibited from receiving a gun—such as whether they were the subject of a restraining order. Records introduced at trial showed that, rather than requiring certain customers to answer these questions, Tilotta answered them himself, including on behalf of local criminal defense attorney Vikas Bajaj, whom he had never met. 

As part of the same transaction, Tilotta sold Bajaj a handgun and an AR-15 style rifle inside Garmo’s Sheriff’s Department office using backdated paperwork.  Bajaj pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for his role in that transfer on December 9, 2020.  At Tilotta’s trial, the parties stipulated that two San Diego Sheriff’s deputies also received AK-47 style rifles from Tilotta the same day. Tilotta acknowledged delivering those rifles to the deputies inside Garmo’s Captain’s office, in a transfer using backdated paperwork. 

“Our firearms laws depend on dealers to act as trusted gatekeepers,” said Attorney for the United States Rebecca G. Church. “Instead, this defendant violated the laws and falsified transfer records. This office will not hesitate to enforce the firearms laws against anyone who seeks to subvert them, including licensed dealers who intentionally break the law.”    

Tilotta is set to be sentenced by Judge Curiel on December 5, 2022. Sentencings for the remaining defendants are set on October 3, 2022, for former Sheriff’s Lieutenant Fred Magana; October 24, 2022, for Leo Hamel; and November 7, 2022 for Waiel “Will” Anton. 

Church thanked prosecution team as well as the dedicated investigators from the ATF and FBI, for their excellent work on this case.  Church 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.

“A vast majority of federal firearm licensees (FFL) operate their businesses in compliance with federal laws,” said ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Monique Villegas. “However, when an FFL intentionally chooses to violate those laws, ATF will investigate, as was the case with Giovanni Tilotta and Honey Badger Firearms. This conviction should serve as a deterrent to any other licensee choosing not to follow federal firearm laws.”

“For over three years, Tilotta misused his privilege as a federally licensed firearms dealer to subvert the system and obtain dozens of firearms for individuals who were unable to buy them legally,” said Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy of the FBI San Diego Field Office. “Today's guilty verdict stops many more illegally purchased guns from getting into the wrong hands. The FBI and our law enforcement partners will continue to aggressively investigate any corrupt individual who ignores the law for their personal profit to ensure justice is served and our communities are safe.”

U.S. v. Tilotta, et. al, 19-CR-4768-GPC

Defendants

Morad Marco Garmo, 54 years old

Leo Joseph Hamel, 65 years old

Giovanni Vincenzo Tilotta, 41 years old

Fred Magana, 45 years old

Waiel Yousif Anton, 38 years old

Summary of Charges

Title 18, U.S.C., Secs. 371, 924(a)(1)(A) – Conspiracy to Make False Statements in the Acquisition of a Firearm

Maximum Penalty: Five years in prison, $250,000 fine

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, $250,000 fine

Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 924(a)(1)(A) – Making a False Statement in the Acquisition of a Firearm

Maximum Penalty: Five years in prison, $250,000 fine

Investigating Agencies

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF)

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Topic(s): 
Firearms Offenses
Press Release Number: 
CAS22-0909-Tilotta
Updated September 9, 2022