CEDAR CITY — Iron County Sheriff David "Dude" Benson pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges during a preliminary hearing Monday in 5th District Court.
The jury pool for Benson's trial, however, is likely to come from another Utah county — if Judge G. Rand Beacham grants the prosecution's motion for a change of venue. A decision on the motion isn't likely for at least five weeks.
Benson, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Thursday, is charged with six felonies and three misdemeanor counts that include theft, misuse of public funds, witness tampering, altering or destroying public records and obstruction of justice.
"This is obviously a very important day for me," said Benson, with his wife of 16 years, Janalee, at his side. "The wheels of justice turn slowly. But I'm confident that things will ultimately be as they should."
Benson's attorney, Salt Lake lawyer Ed Brass, said he did not plan to present evidence or witnesses at the hearing.
"Given the nature of the proceeding today, I advised him not to make a statement," Brass told Beacham.
Benson's wife and four siblings sat in the courtroom, flanked by other friends and supporters.
Benson placed himself on paid administrative leave earlier this year after the Utah Attorney General's office began its investigation into missing county funds.
Benson's second-in-command, Undersheriff Lt. Chuck Mitchell, pleaded guilty in August to a class A misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in a related case and said he would testify truthfully in Benson's upcoming trial. Mitchell also resigned from his job as part of his plea agreement.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Michael Wims summarized the evidence against Benson during Monday's hearing. Beacham was handed a thick binder packed with affidavits from numerous witnesses and other evidence gathered by state investigators, which he returned at the end of the hearing.
The evidence, said Wims, shows Benson interfered with a DUI arrest, lied about taking public funds, threatened a deputy sheriff with losing his job, was purposefully deceptive with investigators, took firearms from the county evidence room and used public money to fix his personal vehicle after supposedly pulling a man's truck out of the mud.
"To this date there is no evidence of the existence of Mr. David Hentish," said Wims, referring to the name of the man Benson said he helped one night.
Benson also met with the leader of the Iron County/Garfield Narcotics Task Force to set up a sting operation, which never occurred, said Wims.
"Dude said he personally was doing the sting operation because he didn't want to alarm the other deputies," said Wims. "Dude was given a bottle of 500 Soma pills. Since that date, Dude hasn't talked to the head of the narcotics task force at all about the so-called sting operation. To this date, the Soma tablets are missing."
Benson is accused of taking several firearms from the evidence room and telling investigators a fictitious man later sold him the guns.
"All of the original documents are missing, including the bill of sale and the photo ID of a Mr. Scott Kensington," said Wims. "Kensington's name was run through the same ID systems as Mr. Hentish. The investigators were unable to locate any human being with that name."
Computerized records of the missing firearms also were deleted from the county system at the request of Benson, said Wims.
Iron County auditors also found Benson cashed 32 federal and state checks issued to the Iron County Sheriff's Office that totaled $18,544.08, he said.
"All of the checks were either stamped with the Iron County Sheriff's Office stamp or signed by Benson," said Wims. "Only the sheriff cashed the checks."
Neither side called witnesses during the preliminary hearing, and a trial date has yet to be set.
"The jury will find and hear what I believe to be facts that they didn't hear today," said Benson, outside the courthouse. "I will reserve any comment for the trial phase. It's up to the jury and up to the judge to do what's fair."