Former sheriff’s captain accused of running illegal gun ring

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SAN DIEGO -- Former San Diego County Sheriff's Captain Marco Garmo has been arrested on suspicion of operating an illegal gun trafficking business aimed at building his personal wealth and aiding his political aspirations.

The FBI announced the charges in a news conference Friday.

Garmo, a nearly three-decade member of the department, was "engaged in the unlawful acquisition, transfer and sale of firearms during his entire tenure" as captain of the Rancho San Diego sheriff's station, federal agents claim.

A long-term investigation revealed that Garmo purchased and resold "off-roster" handguns, weapons that may be purchased by members of law enforcement but not the general public, investigators said.

Garmo's scheme was aimed not just at financial profit but also cultivating "future donors for his anticipated campaign for Sheriff of San Diego County," the FBI said.

Authorities said Garmo is suspected of running the gun sales operation with help from sheriff's Lt. Fred Magana, prominent San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel, firearms dealer Giovanni Tilotta and El Cajon resident Waiel Anton.

Magana and Hamel pleaded guilty Friday, admitting "engineering and engaging in straw purchases of firearms, creating false records to conceal those purchases, and offering to promote Garmo’s weapons," the FBI said.

Garmo was placed on paid leave in February for an at-the-time undisclosed investigation. On the same day, Hamel's sprawling East County estate was raided by members of ATF and FBI.

As part of a plea deal, the jeweler admitted purchasing a variety of the off-roster handguns from Garmo. Hamel also agreed to hand over more than 200 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition seized from him during the raid at his home.

Lt. Magana admitted purchasing a pair of the guns for Hamel at Garmo's direction, and to advertising the captain's services.

Anton, who was also arrested Friday, is accused of helping Garmo's buyers apply for permits to carry a concealed weapon in exchange for cash as part of his "consulting business." The FBI said Anton helped an undercover agent get one of the permits for $1,000, then urged the agent not to speak with investigators.

Tilotta, who had not been tracked down by agents as of Friday afternoon, is accused of accepting and submitting falsified records for Garmo as a Federal Firearms Licensee.

The former sheriff's captain is also accused of misconduct in policing unlicensed marijuana dispensaries. Ahead of a raid aimed at rooting out one of the illegal pot shops, Garmo allegedly tipped off his cousin, a part-owner. He is further accused of lying to federal agents about the tip-off.

Garmo was scheduled to be arraigned Friday afternoon.

“Law enforcement officers, at any level, who abuse their positions and the sacred trust placed in them by the communities they serve by aiding the criminal element will ultimately be brought to justice,” FBI Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge Todd Hemmen said during a news conference announcing the bust.

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