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Former San Diego sheriff’s lieutenant sentenced in gun dealing case

When former San Diego Sheriff’s Lt. Fred Magaña was asked by his supervisor in 2017 to break the law, he didn’t think much of it, he told a judge Friday in a federal courtroom.

That wasn’t because he took lightly the act of committing a crime — in his case, engaging in firearm dealing without a license — but because he trusted his boss, he said. That man, former sheriff’s Capt. Marco Garmo, was a powerful figure in the department with influential friends and political aspirations.

Magaña described Garmo as witty and charming and said the captain escaped previous investigations into his gun dealing with a slap on the wrist. So when Garmo asked him a few months later to buy two 9 mm Walther PPS M2 pistols in his name for prominent local jeweler Leo Hamel, Magaña didn’t second guess the favor.

He admits now that he should have, since those were guns that can typically only be purchased in California by law enforcement officers. Garmo has admitted that for years he used his law enforcement privilege to sell such guns.

“I failed to see the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Magaña said Friday, shortly before U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel gave him a sentence for time already served and released him from supervision.

The judge said Magaña was also to blame for convincing himself that Garmo’s gun-selling conduct wasn’t that bad.

“You deluded yourself,” Curiel told Magaña. “You deceived yourself.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Haden said Magaña initially lied to investigators when confronted in 2019 about his role in the illegal gun-selling case that brought down Garmo and is now nearing its conclusion. But a few months later, Magaña had accepted responsibility, pleading guilty to one felony count on the same day prosecutors unsealed the indictment that charged him, Garmo, Hamel and others.

Curiel agreed with defense attorney Ezekiel Cortez that the destruction of Magaña’s 19-year Sheriff’s Department career was punishment enough. Curiel said the extent of Magaña’s participation in Garmo’s scheme was “straw” purchasing two guns for Hamel.

One of the main motivations behind the gun-selling scheme was to curry favor with prominent local individuals such as Hamel.

Garmo finished a two-year prison sentence last month, though Curiel remarked in November that he would have sentenced the former captain to a longer term if he knew the extent of his illegal conduct — including tipping off cannabis dispensaries to impending raids — at the time of his sentencing.

Waiel “Will” Yousif Anton, a political fundraiser who was part of the scheme, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Curiel sentenced Hamel to 100 days of house arrest and one year of probation for his role in aiding and abetting the scheme. Criminal defense attorney Vikas Bajaj, charged in a separate case, was sentenced to one year of probation after pleading guilty to falsifying paperwork on firearms purchases.

A jury in September convicted gun-store owner Giovanni Vincenzo Tilotta for his role in facilitating the gun transfers. Tilotta had sought a new trial, but Curiel denied his request in a separate hearing Friday afternoon.

As for Magaña, he told the judge Friday that he accepted “100 percent culpability.” He said that when Garmo asked him to make the straw purchases for Hamel, he didn’t do it in a hushed tone and a dark alley, but in his office at the Rancho San Diego substation with the door open.

But Magaña conceded that if someone else had made the same request of him, it would have raised red flags.

The judge noted that the former lieutenant did not plan or organize the gun-selling scheme, and his role was relatively minor — except for the fact that he was a law enforcement officer.

“It was the badge that allowed him to participate in this conspiracy,” Haden, the prosecutor, said.

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