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Marco Garmo, a former San Diego County sheriff’s captain, pleaded guilty last week to dealing firearms without a federal license. The charge itself doesn’t do justice to what actually happened.
In the plea agreement, Garmo acknowledged that between 2013 and 2019 he made straw purchases of “off-roster” handguns and rifles that only members of law enforcement can possess, then transferred 98 of them to people he knew.
Federal prosecutors said Garmo’s gun-trafficking scheme, which included sales of high-capacity magazines, didn’t just bring in extra cash — it earned him goodwill among a class of donors he would need for a future run for sheriff.
Garmo’s bosses were made aware of his unusually large number of firearm transfers in 2016 around the same time the California Department of Justice got involved. A special agent for the state wound up producing a report for prosecution, but the San Diego County district attorney’s office decided against it. The Sheriff’s Department ended up reprimanding and warning Garmo instead.
The sheriff’s internal investigation is not public. But a report obtained by Voice of San Diego summarizing the reasons for discipline shows the ways in which law enforcement gives its own members the benefit of the doubt.
Police officers regularly argue — not always as a point of pride — that they’re held to a higher standard than the general public. At least in Garmo’s case, that’s not true. His supervisor made excuses for him.
On Feb. 1, 2017, after reviewing the internal affairs investigation, assistant sheriff Michael Barnett agreed that Garmo had broken a state law that essentially says a person without a license can only sell up to five handguns a year. The state’s Bureau of Firearms had identified at least 150 transactions attributed to Garmo, but Barnett’s report only cites 44.
When asked about them, Garmo told Barnett that he sold firearms as a hobby and that he’d been ignorant of the state law that he’d broken. He promised to be more diligent in the future.
Considering the factors that would go into any disciplinary actions, Barnett noted that Garmo, then a command-level law enforcement officer with more than 20 years’ experience, was perfectly capable of educating himself on the rules of firearm transfers. He seemed more upset by the attention.
“Garmo’s actions,” Barnett wrote, “have exposed his misconduct to outside law enforcement agencies and brought discredit upon himself and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. Simply stated, ignorance of the law is not an excuse.”
He quickly pivoted.
“On the other hand,” Barnett noted, “the laws in California surrounding firearms are complex and confusing.” Barnett said he believed that Garmo was engaging honestly “since he processed all his transactions through licensed dealers” and was a collector, not a profit-seeker. Garmo’s record was clear of any previous discipline.
“He has cooperated with this investigation and he is fully aware of what the ramifications of a criminal prosecution would be for his exemplary career,” Barnett wrote.
He concluded the report by personally vouching for Garmo and saying, “I have no doubt whatsoever now that Captain Garmo is aware of the law in regard to firearm transactions, he will never engage in this conduct.”
At the time, Garmo was in charge of one of the largest sheriff’s stations, so “a suspension from duty would not accomplish anything more than a formal reprimand other than depriving the people of San Diego County his valuable services for a period of time.”
The difference between Barnett’s report and the court documents filed by federal prosecutors years later is stark.
“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 U.S. assistant attorney Linda Frakes in a statement.
The single count that Garmo pleaded guilty to was connected to a transfer that began in November 2016 and was completed in March 2017 — weeks after the Sheriff’s Department had reprimanded him.
Garmo declined to comment for this story, but in 2018 told the Union-Tribune that he’s simply a “gun guy” and the mistakes he made were “probably common.” He went on to say: “My intentions were not to violate the law. The minute it was brought to my attention, it stopped happening.”
The case isn’t solely about guns, though. The plea agreement lists other abuses of power. In 2018, for instance, Garmo tipped off a cousin about a raid on an illegal cannabis dispensary so the business could move its supply and cash. He also acknowledged to the federal government that, during the same summer, he tried to help a landlord reopen a condemned piece of property through a pair of “consultants,” including another county employee.
The plea agreement goes on to note that Garmo made false statements to the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in December, according to court records.
Several other people have been charged with crimes as a result of the federal investigation, including Leo Hamel, a prominent jeweler, and Lt. Fred Magana, who worked under Garmo’s command. Magana pleaded guilty last year to one count of dealing in firearms without a license and immediately retired, the Union-Tribune reported.
Through the sheriff’s media office, Barnett declined an interview request.
“We don’t comment on personnel matters,” said Lt. Ricardo Lopez, a spokesman, in an email.
The person who alerted Barnett to the firearm transfers, however, contends that the internal investigation was biased from the start.
Emails show that Dave Myers, then a commander who later tried to unseat Sheriff Bill Gore, passed along the initial tip after another captain noticed that Garmo’s name kept coming up in background checks. As a matter of routine, she had been looking into the histories and records of people who applied to become members of the Honorary Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Many of those people also give to law enforcement campaigns. And Garmo had transferred guns to some of them, including Hamel.
“This could have all been stopped years ago,” Myers said.
One email strongly suggests that Barnett had already made up his mind about whether there was something worth pursuing.
On Aug. 26, 2016, six months before making the decision to reprimand rather than suspend or recommend prosecution for Garmo, Barnett wrote that “there is no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing and therefore no reasonable suspicion basis for the requisite criminal predicate to proceed further. Should that change, we will react accordingly.”