A San Bernardino County judge on Tuesday sentenced former Sheriff Floyd Tidwell to three years’ probation for concealing guns that he took from evidence rooms while in office, ruling against a prosecutor’s request to send the ex-lawman to prison.
Tidwell took 523 guns during his tenure as sheriff, which ended in 1991, and in May pleaded guilty to four felony counts of concealing stolen property related to the thefts. Prosecutors agreed to reduce those charges to misdemeanors and not seek a prison sentence if Tidwell cooperated with investigators to recover the weapons. More than 100 guns were returned.
Prosecutors could not charge Tidwell with theft or embezzlement because the statute of limitations on those crimes had expired. Instead, he was charged with concealing stolen property because he kept some of the missing firearms.
Tidwell, 74, returned 89 guns earlier this year, and then surrendered more than 30 others after his guilty plea. Most of the other guns had been given to Tidwell’s friends or volunteer reserve deputies and have not been recovered.
Judge J. Michael Welch ruled that Tidwell fulfilled the terms of a plea bargain, even though prosecutors argued that he was uncooperative and an investigator testified that Tidwell had sought preferential treatment from the current sheriff, Gary Penrod.
“What more could be done that hasn’t been done?” Welch asked during the sentencing hearing. “The investigation is over. There was cooperation.”
Along with probation, The judge also fined Tidwell $10,000.
David Call, Tidwell’s attorney, told the judge that his client pledged to find the more than 400 firearms still missing “whether it stretches from 10 years to forever ... [Tidwell] recognizes he has given the system a black eye, and he accepts probation.”
San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision.
“Justice was not served in this case,” Ramos said. “We felt it was felony misconduct to begin with. We thought he would cooperate with us, as he was a former law enforcement officer. This was not appropriate cooperation.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Kersey said that in addition to providing too little help to investigators searching for the missing guns, Tidwell also refused to admit wrongdoing.
Kersey also had reminded the judge that Tidwell took weapons from the department evidence rooms even when some of the rightful gun owners had court orders to have the guns returned.
“This was not only poor record-keeping, but an attempt to cover up the tracks of those weapons,” Kersey said. “Mr. Tidwell [also] did not make his best effort to return these weapons. This was a destruction of the public trust.”
Outside the courtroom, Tidwell said he was happy to have the charges reduced. If convicted of the felonies, Tidwell would have been stripped of his right to own firearms. Tidwell has said that would put him in danger because of possible retaliation by people he helped send to prison.
Sheriff’s detectives uncovered the theft of the firearms during an investigation of a Fontana-based bail bond company owned by the former sheriff’s sons, Danial “Boone” Tidwell and Steven Wayne Tidwell.
The company was being investigated for allegedly paying jailed inmates to refer others in custody for bail business, which is illegal.
When detectives searched the brothers’ homes, they found 24 guns, and the two told them their father either gave them the guns or was aware that they had taken some of them.
A check of Sheriff’s Department records determined that former Sheriff Tidwell had checked out, but never returned, hundreds of weapons, investigators said.
When the former sheriff learned that detectives were seeking a warrant to search his High Desert home, he packed up 89 firearms and delivered them to the current sheriff, Gary Penrod, according to testimony.
The search of Tidwell’s home was canceled.
During the hearing earlier this month, Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Elvert testified that Tidwell had refused to be interviewed about the missing weapons because he was angry at Elvert for his role in investigating the bail bond company.
Elvert testified that Tidwell instead arranged for personal meetings with Penrod, and, with his attorney’s help, asked for someone else to conduct the questioning about the firearms.
Tidwell’s attorney made no apology for taking the matter directly to Penrod. “That’s what I get paid for,” Call said.