Judge George Harmond of the Seventh District Court in Price released a ruling on November 15 in which he dismissed charges against San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and deputies Alan Freestone and Rob Wilcox.
The three top law enforcement officers in the county had been charged with a host of serious charges by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, including retaliation against a witness, reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.
Even though the charges were filed in May, 2017 and it took six months to come to the conclusion, the case was dismissed early in the process. Judge Harmond’s ruling comes after a preliminary hearing on August 25 where preliminary evidence was presented on the case.
Generally a preliminary hearing has a low burden of proof to move the case to the next stage. The standard is not quite as high as in a trial itself. As a result, dismissing charges this early in the process only occurs on an occasional basis.
The allegations have to do with the actions of Eldredge, Wilcox and Freestone regarding former Deputy Sheriff Todd Bristol, who resigned his office in April, 2017.
Bristol stated that Sheriff Eldredge pointed a gun at him at firearms training in October, 2015. Eldredge asked Freestone to conduct an internal investigation and notify POST.
In his ruling, Judge Harmond stated that the Attorney General’s office had been notified of the investigation at different points in the investigation.
Eldredge initially said he didn’t remember the incident and records showed that Eldredge and Bristol were not at the training at the same time.
Bristol told investigators, including Freestone and the Attorney General’s office, that it had happened in October, 2015.
About a year into the investigation, Bristol said he realized that the incident occurred in May, 2015. The Sheriff, at that point, began to have some recollection of the incident.
Eldredge and Wilcox were together with a number of deputies, including Bristol, at the firearms training. Bristol testified that Eldredge pointed a gun at him and clicked the trigger. That was the basis of the reckless endangerment charge.
The retaliation against a witness charge was related to the process that resulted in Bristol resigning from his position. The original court filing from the Attorney General’s office stated that Bristol had been “terminated” from his position in retaliation for reporting a complaint.
The obstruction of justice charges were related to the actions of Freestone, Wilcox and Eldredge in investigating the incident. The charges stated that the officials did not conduct a fair investigation into the incident
The official misconduct charges basically stated that the local law enforcement officials did not act according to the standards of the office.
A motion to dismiss the charges was made at the August 25 preliminary hearing. After prosecutors responded to the motion to dismiss, Judge Harmond took a full two months to make the determination and dismiss all charges against all three men.
Regarding the retaliation against a witness charge, the judge said it was clear that Bristol was terminated for his performance as a deputy and not for reporting the alleged incident with Eldredge.
The deputy actually resigned from his position and was not terminated from his employment. Bristol’s decision to resign came after a lengthy process, operated by the county human resource office and not by the sheriff. The process included an investigation by the Utah County Sheriff and a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ stated that there was justification to charges against Bristol.
Less than one month after the resignation of Bristol, charges were filed against the officers by the Attorney General.
Regarding the reckless endangerment charges, the judge stated “the mere pointing of a weapon cannot create a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury without proof that the firearm was loaded and capable of discharging.”
The judge has his strongest words about the obstruction of justice charges. Judge Harmond writes that “the evidence is wholly lacking to proceed on this charge” and summarily dismissed ther charges.
Regarding the official misconduct charges, the Judge writes, “The State has not met its burden at preliminary hearing and further, based on applicable law, the court declines to bind over Eldredge, Freestone and Wilcox for trial. The case is dismissed.”
With the ruling, the three officers will continue to work. The San Juan County Commission kept the men on active duty during the legal process. In a larger department, they probably would have been placed on paid administrative leave.
Commissioners said that because the Sheriff’s office has only eleven road deputies, taking the three top officers off the road and off work for a lengthy process would place significant pressure on the office.
After Harmond’s ruling, Commissioners released a statement expressing thesupport for the officers.
The Commission statement said, “Sheriff Eldredge, Chief Freestone, and Sergeant Wilcox have been examples of selfless service and upstanding character. We want to express our support and gratitude to them as they work tirelessly to keep our community safe.
“We could not be more pleased with the decision of Judge Hammond to dismiss these charges. This investigation was based on the agenda of a disgruntled former employee. For us, it is time to pick up the pieces, move forward and provide an opportunity for healing.
“This investigation was poorly handled from the start. We hope that the Attorney General’s office will not prolong this nightmare but put a quick end to it and change any policies that continue to hurt innocent people’s reputation and destroy their lives.”
It is anticipated that the attorneys defending the law enforcement officers will seek payment of fees from the office of the Attorney General.
A spokesman for the Attorney General stated that they are considering whether or not to appeal the ruling of Judge Harmond.