SALT LAKE CITY — A judge has tossed a case against the San Juan County sheriff accused of pointing an unloaded rifle at his deputy and pulling the trigger and then firing the officer in retaliation for reporting the incident.
Seventh District Judge George Harmond in a Wednesday ruling wrote that there is insufficient evidence for San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge to stand trial on the charges stemming from a report by his former assistant, Todd Bristol.
"Viewing the entire chain of events ... 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 in his decision.
The judge also dropped charges against two other deputies — one who was with the sheriff at the time of the incident and another who led an internal investigation.
"It's the complete vindication of what we've been saying all along," Eldredge's attorney Peter Stirba said, adding he believes the case caused a "momentary glitch" in his client's strong reputation.
A spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office on Wednesday said prosecutors are considering an appeal and feel strongly about the case.
Bristol did not return a message left at number believed to be his.
At an August preliminary hearing, Bristol testified that he was walking to his truck on the day of a firearms certification in 2015 when he passed the sheriff, who was examining a rifle with the firearms range master Sgt. Robert Wilcox.
After a few more steps, Bristol heard "a click of a dry firearm," then turned around and saw "a rifle pointed at my back" in the sheriff's hands, he testified. He also spotted Wilcox, who appeared to be chuckling. Eldredge said "sorry," and lowered the weapon, Bristol said in court.
But under Utah code, the weapon has to be loaded to meet Utah's statute for threatening with a dangerous weapon, the judge wrote Wednesday.
By the time of the gun episode, Bristol testified in August, his relationship with his boss had largely deteriorated. Days earlier, Eldredge came to his home to tell Bristol he was underperforming and was unliked by his fellow deputies, Bristol told the court.
He reported the gun incident a year later, in May 2016, according to court documents. Chief Deputy Alan Freestone investigated, but in order "to protect the sheriff, did not conduct a proper investigation," the Utah Attorney General's Office argued in court documents, saying he failed to follow department and record interviews during the probe. But that "does not rise to a violation of law," the judge wrote Wednesday.
Defense attorneys argued that Bristol had "an ax to grind" and made the report shortly after he was passed over for a promotion. They said he performed poorly on the job and had "interpersonal problems" with people in and outside the department, among other issues.
The judge in his ruling noted that Bristol resigned after an outside review by the Utah County Attorney's Office that found he had violated San Juan County policy in a separate incident in January 2017, when he confronted the county's attorney in San Juan's courthouse and shared a police report with an attorney in Salt Lake City who wasn't involved in that case. A county administrative judge upheld the finding, so the sheriff "was justified ... to seek Bristol's discipline," Harmond wrote.
Bristol gave incorrect dates of the sheriff's visit to his house and the firearms certification, originally saying they happened in October 2015 rather than May, according to court filings, throwing off course an investigation by the attorney general's office. Prosecutors said the deputies made false representations in saying they didn't remember the incident on the given dates. But that was because they were being asked about the wrong certification, defense attorneys said.
Harmond ruled there was no evidence the deputies provided false information or hindered, delayed or tried to block the probe.Comment on this story
Eldredge said Wednesday he was "feeling really good" and was grateful for the ruling. He said he had paid his own attorney fees and was confident "that's going to change now that we've been exonerated," but said he didn't know if the county or insurance would cover the bill.
Eldredge and Freestone were originally charged with retaliation against a witness, a third-degree felony; obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor; and official misconduct, also a misdemeanor.
Eldredge and Wilcox each initially faced a separate reckless endangerment charge. Wilcox fought additional obstruction of justice and official misconduct counts.
Contributing: McKenzie Romero