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San Juan commission blasts A.G. for 'political games' prosecuting sheriff

San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge
San Juan County Sheriff's Office

SALT LAKE CITY — San Juan County commissioners issued a blistering attack Tuesday accusing the Utah Attorney General's Office of playing "political games" in the now dismissed case against popular Sheriff Rick Eldredge.

Eldredge faced charges of retaliating against a witness, obstructing justice and official misconduct after he was accused of pointing an unloaded gun at a deputy's back and pulling the trigger, then firing the deputy for reporting the incident. Two others in the sheriff's office were also charged in the case.

Seventh District Judge George Harmond tossed the case in November, saying there was not sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial and that deputy Todd Bristol was clearly fired for his performance on the job, not for making allegations against the sheriff.

After announcing last month it would challenge the judge's dismissal, the attorney general's office said Monday it was dropping the appeal in a desire to not drain "limited resources" on both sides of the case.

The commission responded with a statement Tuesday calling the case "a complete slap in the face to our county."

"While we applaud their limits on wasting taxpayer dollars, we would hope that they would also recognize their limited facts and evidence. Had a proper and thorough investigation been done in the first place, no tax dollars would have been wasted in this witch hunt," the statement read.

In a statement announcing the decision to drop the appeal, Spencer Austin, the attorney general's chief criminal deputy, maintained that Harmond made "clear legal errors" in his decision and that the attorney general's office would have won at trial.

Austin asserted that Eldredge — as part of a deal with the Utah Attorney General's Office that it not pursue an appeal — admitted that he inadvertently pointed the gun at Bristol near a gun range. Eldredge also agreed to take gun safety and de-escalation training with the attorney general's office as part of the deal.

The office has claimed Eldredge misled investigators for over a year, telling them he couldn't remember such an incident. Austin said Eldredge would not have been charged if he had remembered the mistake earlier in the case and addressed it then.

In a preliminary hearing, Eldredge's attorney, Peter Stirba, said his client was unsure of what incident investigators were asking about because Bristol had provided the prosecutors with incorrect dates surrounding the incident, originally saying it happened in October 2015 rather than May of that year.

Stirba said Monday that the claims against Eldredge were unwarranted and the decision to drop the appeal was a "complete vindication" for his client.

"Myself and Sheriff Eldredge maintained from the beginning the charges were misguided and that we expected the sheriff's complete exoneration and vindication once he had his day in court. That is exactly what happened," Stirba said.

With the burden of the case removed from Eldredge and his family, Stirba said the sheriff looks forward to continuing collaborative work with other law enforcement agencies in the state, including the Utah Attorney General's Office.

In its statement, the commission claims that the county's close-knit community — and especially the families of Eldredge and his deputies — exerienced stress and "irreparable damage" under the "flawed decisions and political games of the attorney general's office."

San Juan County, according to the commission, is not the first to be pressed upon by the attorney general's office.

"When you do not have a case, but continue to aggressively destroy the lives of dedicated citizens on the taxpayer's dime, it is gross negligence and political barratry," the statement read. "It's time for all (counties) to stand together and demand that the A.G.'s office not be blinded by political motivations and instead focus on serving the taxpayer."