San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge must wait a few more weeks to see if he will stand trial for charges related to pointing an unloaded gun at a deputy.
After a lengthy preliminary hearing Aug. 25, Monticello’s 7th District Court Judge George Harmond said he will likely 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 are all charged in connection with the 2015 incident, where Eldredge allegedly pointed an assault rifle at then-deputy Todd Bristol during a firearms qualifications shoot.
Eldredge, 48, faces charges related to third-degree felony retaliation against a witness, as well as class-A misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.
Chief Deputy Alan Freestone, 57, initially investigated the matter for the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office. Freestone is charged with third-degree felony retaliation against a witness, as well as misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice and official misconduct.
Deputy Robert J. Wilcox, 46, who reportedly stood next to Eldredge at the time of the incident, faces misdemeanor reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.
Former deputy Bristol described the May 2015 incident during the Aug. 25 preliminary hearing.
As he walked across the parking lot of a Blanding shooting range, Bristol said he spotted Eldredge and Wilcox handling an assault rifle in the back of a department 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. “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 felt 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,’” Bristol said.
By the time the incident occurred, at the end of May 2015, Bristol said he knew Eldredge was not happy with him. Just three weeks prior, he said, Eldredge came to his house to tell him to “move on” from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department.
“… 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 sheriff’s office. He felt Eldredge’s eventual recommendation for his termination — in February 2017 — developed from the complaints he waged against fellow members of the department, including a 2012 complaint against Eldredge’s nephew, Sgt. Mike Palmer.
Bristol formally resigned from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department on April 21, after an administrative law judge indicated the sheriff’s allegations in his pre-determination notice would likely be sustained.
During the 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 pre-determination notice, Issacson said that Bristol repeatedly received “below standard” and “unsatisfactory” ratings for his interpersonal skills. That notice describes other issues with Bristol, including rising to anger with citizens, and 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,” Issacson 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 POST and directed Freestone to conduct an investigation.
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 Issacson argued 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 October, Issacson said Freestone concluded the incident never happened as 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.”
Isaacson noted that Freestone contacted the Attorney General’s office once his investigation was complete in order to request a review.
“Really, 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 will file a response to the defense’s motion to dismiss by mid-September. Judge Harmond is expected to rule on the motion shortly after.