Hearing for sheriff, two deputies
In a marathon preliminary hearing before Seventh District Judge George Harmond on August 25, attorneys for San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and two of his deputies submitted a motion to dismiss all charges against their clients.
The six-hour preliminary hearing included testimony from two witnesses: Special Agent Aaron Jones and former Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Bristol.
Jones led the Attorney General’s investigation, and Bristol initiated the allegations which led to the charges against the Sheriff, Chief Deputy Alan Freestone, and Deputy Rob Wilcox.
Charges include a single felony count each against Eldredge and Freestone, and several misdemeanor charges against Eldredge, Freestone, and Wilcox.
The felony charges are for retaliation against a witness, while misdemeanor charges include reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct.
After the witnesses provided testimony for the prosecution, the prosecution seemed to be on the defense as attorneys for the accussed put the witnesses through a blistering cross examination.
“We were happy to have our day in court,” said Peter Stirba, the attorney for Eldredge. “We eagerly await what the judge will do.”
Defense attorneys Stirba, Tara Isaacson, and Loni DeLand submitted a motion to dismiss all charges at the hearing.
In a preliminary hearing, the judge determines if there is probable cause to move the charges to trial. While preliminary hearings are generally brief and perfunctory, this one extended throughout the day before a packed courtroom.
Special Agent Jones spent more than two hours on the witness stand. Jones testified that he began his investigation in August, 2016.
The work by Jones eventually resulted in charges filed against the Sheriff and his deputies in May, 2017.
Bristol, the former sheriff deputy who was stationed in La Sal, spent nearly two hours on the witness stand.
Bristol currently lives in Pleasant Grove, UT. He worked for the San Juan County Sheriff’s office for approximately five years before submitting his resignation in April, 2017.
The incident which triggered the investigation was at a Sheriff’s department qualification shoot in May, 2015.
Deputies are required to complete a qualification shoot every six months. Deputy Wilcox was responsible for the event.
Bristol reports that he was walking to his vehicle when he heard the “click of a dry firearm.” He said he turned and saw Wilcox chuckling, and then looked further to the left and saw a rifle pointed at his back. Bristol said Sheriff Eldredge was pointing the rifle.
Testimony was also given concerning an incident several weeks before the qualification shoot, when Sheriff Eldredge stopped at the Bristol residence in La Sal.
Eldredge told Bristol that it was time for him to leave the department and move on to a new position. Bristol told the Sheriff that he was going to hire an attorney.
Both Bristol and Jones suggested that the qualification shoot incident may have been in retaliation for the event with the sheriff three weeks earlier.
Bristol did not report the incident to anyone for nearly a year. He attended the October, 2015 qualification shoot six months after the prior incident.
In March, 2016, Bristol was passed up for a promotion. After he failed to show up for the May, 2016 qualification shoot, Bristol told Deputy Freestone, “I didn’t feel comfortable because Rick Eldredge had pointed a gun at me.”
Bristol told Freestone he was not willing to file a formal complaint, but Freestone conducted an internal investigation of the incident.
In addition, Freestone contacted the Attorney General’s office and POST, the agency that provides standards, training, and certification to law officers in Utah.
In the investigation by Freestone, Bristol characterized the actions of Eldredge as “mirthful contempt” of the deputy.
Bristol stated to Freestone and in testimony on August 25 that he did not believed the incident was a criminal act.
Freestone’s report relied upon information from Bristol, who stated repeatedly that the incident had occurred in October, 2015.
Log records of the officers showed that Eldredge and Bristol were not together at the qualification shoot in October, 2015.
Freestone’s investigation came to the conclusion that there was no evidence to support the claim.
Afterwords, Bristol said that the incident at the shooting range had actually occurred in May, 2015.
After the correct dates were determined, Agent Jones testified that Eldredge admitted that an incident may have occurred at the May, 2015 qualification shoot.
Eldredge told Jones it would not be intentional and he would never intentionally point a gun.
The charges against Freestone are based largely upon how he conducted the investigation. Agent Jones testified that Freestone’s report included a number of errors and missed dates.
Jones also stated that Eldredge, Freestone, and Wilcox may have discussed the incident after he had told them to not discuss it with one another.
In January, 2017 another incident occurred in the halls of the public safety building in Monticello after a hearing in the San Juan County Justice Court.
In the incident, Bristol angrily and publicly accused a number of parties with inappropriate action, including the prosecutor, the sheriff’s department, the justice court judge, and the county attorney.
During the incident, Bristol told San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws, “I would like to punch that guy in the face.”
Utah County law enforcement investigated the incident and filed a report that found Bristol had violated policy and was guilty of insubordination. He was put on paid administrative leave.
After a series of hearings, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that the sheriff was justified in placing Bristol on leave and was justified in termination based upon insubordination.
At the ALJ hearing, Bristol told county officials that he intended to resign rather than be fired. Several days later, he submitted his resignation.
The initial court filings stated that Bristol was fired, when in fact he had resigned. Prosecutors submitted Bristol’s human resource file as evidence but admitted on cross examination that the file did not include the resignation letter.
Special Agent Jones testified that he did not know of the resignation until he met with San Juan County Human Resource Director Walter Bird on July 25, the day of the initial appearance of the defendants.
After the testimony of Bristol, the defense attorneys discussed their motion to dismiss, arguing that the charges against all three defendants are not justified and should be dismissed.
Stirba said the retaliation charges are not justified. “Nothing the sheriff did caused harm other than the proces to take care of a problematic employee,” said Stirba.
To have wreckless endangerment, Stirba said there must be substantial risk of death or bodily injury. He said it is impossible to have substantial risk with a dry fire gun and added, “Inadvertant cover is not a crime.”
Stirba said, “Eldredge does not do anything but call outside agencies and others. This is the kind of behavior we want in a sheriff.”
Arguing for Freestone, Isaacson said that the problem started with Bristol and was compounded by Bristol. She said Freestone “tried to get correct information to the AG office and was thanked with criminal charges.”
Arguing for Wilcox, DeLand said his client should not be charged with wreckless endangerment for chuckling and said it was a “quantum leap” to charge him with obstruction or misconduct.
The prosecutor from the Utah Attorney General’s office said he wanted to submit a response to the motion to dismiss in writing.
Judge Harmond said a response from the prosecutors should be submitted by mid-September.
The judge said he will issue a ruling as soon as possible after then.