Case of San Juan County sheriff, accused of firing an unloaded gun at a deputy, is dismissed

(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.

The case against San Juan County Sheriff Richard Eldredge — accused of “dry-firing” a gun at a deputy in 2015 — was dismissed Wednesday.

Seventh District Judge George Harmond approved the defense’s motion to dismiss the case, based on lack of evidence presented at a preliminary hearing in August.

“We’re thrilled,” said defense attorney Tara Isaacson. “… This is a relief for all three defendants.”

Another defense attorney, Peter Stirba, said the dismissal “confirms what we have said all along: The charges were not sufficient in any way, shape or form.”

The Utah attorney general’s office, which prosecuted the case, is “reviewing the opinion and evaluating whether we will appeal,” said spokesman Daniel Burton.

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

The allegations stem from a 2015 confrontation in which then-Deputy Todd Bristol said Eldredge fired an unloaded gun pointed at Bristol’s back at a shooting range.

Eldredge was charged along with Chief Deputy Alan Freestone, who investigated after Bristol reported the alleged confrontation. Deputy Robert J. Wilcox — who was said to be standing next to Eldredge when the sheriff fired the unloaded gun at Bristol — was also charged.

During an August preliminary hearing, Bristol told his side of the story.

When he walked by Eldredge and Wilcox in the parking lot of a Blanding shooting range, he 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 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.”

In Wednesday’s order, Harmond questioned whether the attorney general’s office could provide evidence that the weapon Eldredge allegedly pointed at Bristol was loaded.

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

“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.

Harmond also dismissed the charge of retaliation against a witness, ruling that the state had not proved that Eldredge moved to have Bristol fired as a result of Bristol’s allegations.

In February 2017, Eldredge recommended Bristol’s termination. In a pretermination notice, Eldredge described problems related to the deputy, including his short temper with residents, his tardiness in court and his late filing of reports.

After an administrative law judge indicated that the sheriff’s allegations in the pretermination notice would likely be sustained, Bristol resigned from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office on April 21.

Harmond ruled that the termination recommendation could have resulted from other problems stemming from Bristol, stating that behavior issues with the officer dated back to 2011.

“Viewing the entire chain of events, not just the Attorney General 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 wrote.

When initially questioned, Wilcox and Eldredge said they did not recall the 2015 event. Harmond ruled that the lapse likely was because the confrontation occurred in May 2015, not October 2015 as Bristol had first reported.

After initially saying they had no recollection, Wilcox and Eldredge discussed the event and assisted the attorney general’s office with the investigation, Harmond wrote in his ruling. As a result, he dismissed the obstruction of justice charge, calling the state’s evidence “wholly lacking.”

The state also charged Eldredge and Freestone with official misconduct due to Freestone not recording interviews with Eldredge and Wilcox during the internal investigation. Bristol’s interview was recorded.

Isaacson, who represented Freestone in the case, said her client was “just doing his job” and as a result got treated to felony and misdemeanor charges from the state.

Freestone has been “in law enforcement for years and got involved in this case because he was trying to figure out what happened,” Isaacson said. “He was doing his job investigating the allegations.”

Stirba defended Eldredge’s character Wednesday night.

“I represented a sheriff with a great reputation; he’s a great individual,” Stirba said.

Harmond’s dismissal of the case is unusual because the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is so low. For a case to advance from such a hearing, a judge must find there was “probable cause” that a crime was committed — a much lower standard than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” required for conviction by a jury at trial. In addition, the court must also draw all reasonable inferences in the prosecution’s favor.

— Reporter Jessica Miller contributed to this story.