Ex-deputy tells of ‘the click of a dry firearm’ that the San Juan County sheriff allegedly pointed at him

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge leaves the courtroom after a preliminary hearing in Monticello, Friday August 25, 2017.

Monticello • Charges against San Juan County’s sheriff — accused of pointing an unloaded gun at a deputy in 2015 — may be dismissed before going to trial.

After a lengthy preliminary hearing Friday, 7th District Judge George Harmond said he likely will make his decision in September on whether to grant the defense’s motion to dismiss all charges against the sheriff and two sheriff’s deputies.

The three public safety officers are charged in connection with the 2015 incident, involving Sheriff Richard Eldredge allegedly pointing an assault rifle at then-Deputy Todd Bristol during a firearms qualifications shoot.

Eldredge, 48, faces charges of retaliation against a witness, a third-degree felony, and class A misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.

Chief Deputy Alan Freestone, 57, initially investigated the matter in the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department. Freestone is charged with retaliation against a witness, as well as misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice and official misconduct.

Deputy Robert J. Wilcox, 46, who was said to be standing next to Eldredge at the time of the alleged incident, faces misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.

On Friday, Bristol described what happened that May 2015 day.

As he walked across the parking lot of a Blanding shooting range, Bristol said he saw Eldredge and Wilcox handling an assault rifle in the back of a Sheriff’s Office truck. As he passed the two officers, Bristol told the court he heard the click of a rifle and turned to see the sheriff pointing one at his back.

“As I took a few more steps, 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 seen, 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.”

At the time, Bristol said he was scared. He told the court that Eldredge apologized as he lowered the weapon, to which Bristol responded with sarcasm.

“[I said] ‘no it’s all my fault’ as if to say ‘excuse me for living,’” he said.

By the time this incident occurred at the end of May 2015, Bristol said he knew Eldredge was not happy with him. Three weeks prior, he said, Eldredge came to his house to tell him to “move on” from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.

“He said, ’I think it’s time you move on. … He wanted me to terminate my employment and go elsewhere to a different department,” Bristol said. “… He told me that I didn’t get along with my sergeant, that nobody in the department liked me. … [He] was just telling me that I wasn’t what he wanted to be there.”

Bristol said he often felt ostracized within the department. Eldredge’s eventual recommendation for his termination — in February 2017 — developed from the complaints he waged against fellow members of the office, Bristol said, including a 2012 complaint against Eldredge’s nephew Sgt. Mike Palmer.

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 pretermination notice likely would be sustained.

During Friday’s preliminary hearing, defense attorney Tara Isaacson described a long history of issues related to Bristol’s tenure at the Sheriff’s Office.

Referencing Eldredge’s pretermination notice, Isaacson said that Bristol repeatedly received “below standard” and “unsatisfactory” ratings for his interpersonal skills. That notice describes other problems with Bristol, including rising to anger with residents, as well as failing to show up for court or make reports in a timely matter.

“What is the sheriff … supposed to do when a deputy isn’t showing up to court, when a deputy is losing it in the lobby, when a deputy is raising their voice, sharing documents with people they shouldn’t?” Isaacson said. “… You can see in the pre-termination notice a long list of problems from the very beginning. This is someone who — as you hear in his own testimony —  [thinks] everyone else is corrupt. The county attorney, the public defender, the justice court judge — he was making accusations against everyone.”

According to the defense, once Eldredge learned of Bristol’s allegations regarding the assault rifle in May 2016, he immediately notified the state Peace Officer Standards and Training office and directed Freestone to investigate.

Probable-cause statements given by the state’s investigator call Freestone’s investigation problematic, with incorrect dates, “missing or no audio interviews” and a conclusion that the assault rifle incident never happened.

But Isaacson argued Friday that Freestone’s mistakes were inadvertent, and that he came to this first conclusion in part because of Bristol.

At the time, Bristol was adamant that the incident occurred at the October 2015 qualification shoot, not in May as later revealed. When reviewing the qualification logs for the October event, Isaacson said Freestone concluded that the incident never happened because Bristol and Eldredge attended on different days.

“The problem started with Bristol — Bristol’s insistence in the report that it happened in the fall,” she said. “That’s where the mistakes started, and then that’s where the mistakes were compounded. But my client acted in good faith.”

In fact, Isaacson noted that Freestone contacted the attorney general’s office once his investigation was complete, in order to request a review.

“The reason why we’re here is because the sheriff and these gentlemen were doing their best to try to figure out what happened,” Isaacson said. “… They go to great lengths to get information to the [attorney general’s investigator], and they are thanked with criminal charges.”

The state is set to file a response to the defense’s motion to dismiss by mid-September. Harmond is expected to rule on the motion shortly after.

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