Eldredge off the hook in San Juan gun allegations
All charges dismissed by Seventh District Court judge
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Nov 23, 2017 | 885 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Seventh District Court judge has dismissed all charges against San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and two other deputies implicated in a gun-related case.        File photo
A Seventh District Court judge has dismissed all charges against San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and two other deputies implicated in a gun-related case. File photo

San Juan County Sheriff Richard Eldredge will not stand trial for allegations related to pointing a gun at a deputy in 2015.

In an order issued Wednesday, Nov. 15, Monticello’s Seventh District Court Judge George Harmond dismissed all charges against Eldredge and two other deputies implicated in the case. He stated that the Attorney General’s Office did not meet their burden of proof to hand the defendants over for trial.

Eldredge’s lawyer, Peter Stirba, told The Times-Independent that the defense counsel considered the prosecution “ill advised and unwarranted given what was evident in the facts.”

“Sheriff Eldredge is very pleased with the Court’s ruling,” Stirba added. “I think it is vindication for all of the defendants.”

In May, Eldredge was charged with retaliation against a witness, a third-degree felony, as well as class A misdemeanors of reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct. The allegations stem from a 2015 confrontation in which then-Deputy Todd Bristol said Eldredge pointed an unloaded assault rifle at his back at a shooting range. Eldredge was charged along with Chief Deputy Alan Freestone, who investigated the incident after Bristol reported the alleged confrontation. Deputy Robert J. Wilcox — who was said to be standing next to Eldredge when the sheriff pointed the gun at Bristol — was also charged.

In a statement, Daniel Burton, spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said the state is currently evaluating the judge’s order and will make a decision regarding an appeal “once we have completed our review.”

“The Attorney General’s Office would not have filed these charges if we did not feel strongly about the case,” Burton said.

Former deputy Bristol described the 2015 incident during a preliminary hearing this August. According to his account, Eldredge and Deputy Robert J. Wilcox were handling an assault rifle in the back of a San Juan County Sheriff’s Office truck during a firearms qualification shoot as Bristol walked across the parking lot.

Once he passed the officers, Bristol said he heard “the click of a dry firearm.”

“I heard what I thought was a click, the click of a dry firearm,” Bristol said. “I turned and looked to see what I had heard, and I saw Robert Wilcox. And I heard him chuckle. And then I saw a rifle pointed at my back … I saw Rick Eldredge’s eyes on my back, on the front side of the gun.”

Wilcox told investigators that he had unloaded it, and, despite the sheriff not checking whether the gun was unloaded before pulling the trigger, Harmond ruled that it was not a deadly weapon at the time.

In his order, Harmond questioned whether the Attorney General’s Office could provide evidence that the weapon Eldredge allegedly pointed at Bristol was actually loaded if the case proceeded to trial.

“As a matter of law, the mere pointing of the weapon cannot create a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury without proof the firearm was loaded and capable of discharging,” Harmond stated, dismissing the reckless endangerment charge.

In February 2017, Eldredge recommended Bristol’s termination, two years after the shooting range incident. Eldredge’s pre-termination notice described many issues he related to Bristol, including a shortm temper with residents, as well as failing to show up for court or make reports in a timely manner. Bristol resigned from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office on April 21, after an administrative law judge indicated that the sheriff’s allegations in his pre-termination notice would likely be sustained.

Harmond found that Bristol had a history of issues with the sheriff’s department dating back to 2011, and that the sheriff’s recommendation for his termination stemmed from his performance as an officer.

“Viewing the entire chain of events, not just the Attorney General's investigation, it is clear that Bristol was terminated for his performance as a deputy, and not for his reporting the alleged incident with Eldredge,” Harmond stated.

According to the defense team, when Eldredge learned of Bristol’s allegations approximately one year after the incident, he immediately notified the state Peace Officer Standards and Training office and directed Freestone to investigate.

Wilcox and Eldredge first told investigators they did not remember the incident. But Harmond said the defendants’ initial inability to remember the event stemmed from the fact that it occurred in May 2015, not October 2015 as Bristol had originally indicated.

Dismissing the obstruction of justice charge, Harmond found no suggestion that the three defendants attempted to prevent any investigation into the 2015 incident.

“All three defendants cooperated in the Attorney General investigation, and when the correct date was finally ascertained, provided information to confirm the date of the incident,” Harmond said.

The state also charged Eldredge and Freestone with official misconduct due to Freestone not recording interviews with Eldredge and Wilcox during his internal investigation. Bristol’s interview, however, was recorded. Freestone “should” have recorded the interviews, Harmond said, but there is no law or policy that states he must, and therefore failure to record those was not an illegal act.

Defense attorney Loni DeLand said the state’s charges levied against the three San Juan County officers was simply “not a good case.”

“I believe the Attorney General’s Office had an improvident prosecution,” DeLand told The Times-Independent. “But I think [Judge Harmond] did a remarkable job, he made the right decision.”

The Attorney General’s Office has until mid-December to decide whether they will appeal Harmond’s decision.

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