San Diego sheriffs deputies placed on leave after accusations of illegal gun buys

AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane

Last week we reported on an investigation in Los Angeles County centered around the issuance of concealed carry licenses and whether or not donors to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s campaign received preferential treatment when applying for a concealed handgun permit. As I said at the time, part of the problem in California and other “may issue” states is that issuing authorities have almost unlimited discretion in deciding who gets approved, which opens the door to graft and corruption.

That’s not the only California gun control law that may tempt law enforcement officers into breaking the law for financial gain, however. Police in the state are allowed to purchase “off-roster” handguns and semi-automatic rifles that are banned for civilian use, and in San Diego County several members of the sheriff’s department have pled guilty to illegally selling firearms with the help of a local gun store. Now the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the rot in the sheriff’s office may be bigger than first thought.

When a San Diego gun store owner was tried and convicted earlier this month in federal court, new evidence emerged suggesting that illegal firearm sales at the Sheriff’s Department’s Rancho San Diego substation was a deeper issue than previously known.

While the former captain of that station, Marco Garmo, and one of his top lieutenants, Fred Magana, had already pleaded guilty to charges related to illegally selling guns, evidence at the trial alleged a sheriff’s detective and deputy had also been involved in unlawful gun purchases.

Both have since been placed on administrative assignment, and the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement Friday that it is “moving aggressively to identify any misconduct or criminal activity and we will take actions that are appropriate.”

The detective and deputy allegedly bought AK-47-style rifles at an unauthorized location — Garmo’s office — without waiting the mandatory 10 days and without filling out the proper paperwork, according to evidence at trial.

Instead, they signed documents that had been filled out and backdated by the gun store owner, Giovanni Vincenzo Tilotta, according to evidence at trial that included the actual firearms transfer records.

The allegations of the two additional deputies’ involvement in the broader gun-selling scheme was the latest revelation in what prosecutors called a “long-term corruption investigation” that largely centered around the sheriff’s Rancho San Diego substation. The unusual, winding case, which involved prominent local jeweler Leo Hamel and thwarted Garmo’s plans to run for sheriff, resulted in what prosecutors said was the first federal conviction of a San Diego-area gun store owner in at least 15 years.

Marco Garmo was sentenced to two years in federal prison for his role in the gun purchasing scheme, which prosecutors say was meant to not only put money in his pockets but to help him get on the good side of wealthy individuals like Hamel who could have been valuable resources for Garmo’s campaign to become county sheriff. Four other individuals, including Hamel, are expected to be sentenced later this year, and the Union-Tribune is hinting that there could be more charges to come against the previously unidentified deputies.

Prosecutors and Tilotta’s defense attorney entered a stipulation during the trial that the detective and deputy had received AK-47-style rifles from Tilotta in Garmo’s office the same day an attorney also made an illegal gun purchase there. According to the stipulation, the detective and deputy used backdated paperwork completed by Tilotta to acquire the guns they were purchasing rather than go through the proper paperwork and waiting-period procedures.

The stipulation identified the two as Detective Francisco Acero Jr. and Deputy Alan Campagna.

Neither returned phone calls seeking comment Friday, and it was unclear if either had retained an attorney.

So far, neither deputy has officially been charged in conjunction with the case, but the ATF says the investigation is “ongoing,” which suggests that there might be more arrests to come.

While the individuals involved in this scheme are responsible for their own actions, it also has to be noted that the state’s gun control laws have created a two-tiered system that fuels this kind of corruption by allowing police to purchase firearms that are commonly owned across much of the country but are banned for law-abiding citizens in California. If there was simply one rule for all gun buyers then guys like Garmo wouldn’t have the opportunity to pad their wallets in exchange for facilitating illegal gun sales.

Thankfully, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s handgun roster is was filed last month, and hopefully the California Rifle & Pistol Association will be successful in taking this law off the books. Not only would that help ensure that Californians aren’t being unlawfully deprived of their right to purchase arms in common use, but it could put an end to the graft and corruption that inevitably results from a system that gives law enforcement so much arbitrary power (not to mention a profit motive) over an individual’s constitutional rights.