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Tribune Editorial: Sheriff, commission undermine public trust in San Juan County

Published May 17, 2017 5:18 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Allegedly, San Juan County Sheriff Richard Eldredge pointed an assault rifle at an office employee he had "previously confronted." He pulled the trigger, and it clicked. He likely had a huge, dumb grin on his face. His deputy, Robert J. Wilcox, certainly did. He laughed at the dry fire.

To make matters worse, Eldredge assigned his chief deputy, Alan Freestone, to investigate the allegation against him. What happened next amounts to a sham investigation, a cover-up and someone out of a job.

But not the sheriff, or his deputies. Who lost their job? The witness who was the subject of the incident.

Charges for the three of them include felony counts of witness retaliation, as well as misdemeanors reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice, official misconduct and reckless endangerment.

To compound the issue even further, the three-member San Juan County Commission announced the sheriff and his deputies would remain on the job until after the legal proceedings conclude. On the job, in leadership. Not paid administrative leave.

It is indisputable that the sheriff and his officers are innocent until proven guilty. But they have been charged with crimes that relate directly to their employment. Granted, the charges don't involve murder or rape, but they do go directly to their fitness to be law enforcement officers.

There is also an open question as to whether the commission violated the state open meetings law when it decided whether the sheriff and his deputies would remain on the job during a meeting that did not include the issue on its agenda.

Commissioner Phil Lyman tried to mince words by saying an open meeting notice was not required because the commission did not eventually change the sheriff and deputies' job status, and "to do nothing doesn't violate the open meetings act."

So under Lyman's reasoning, the commission did not even consider whether to put the sheriff and his deputies on leave. That's some close-knit brotherly love right there. Not to mention the fact that it contradicts the commission's own news release that they had "chosen" to keep the officers in their positions.

Maybe this was just boys playing in the backyard with guns. But it seems, as often happens, the cover-up is worse than the crime. With the recent increase of unexplained or avoidable deaths and other questionable activity in our rural jails, our rural law enforcement offices are in jeopardy of losing all credibility.

Placing these officers on leave may cause a budget crunch or some overtime, but it would be worth it. There should also be a way for a city or county in such a crunch to call in help from neighboring jurisdictions, or from the state.

The County Commission defends its decision as being in the interest of public safety. What about the interest of public trust?




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