Floyd Tidwell, the former sheriff of San Bernardino County, pleaded guilty Monday to four felony counts of concealing stolen property as investigators said he took at least 523 guns from evidence rooms during his eight-year tenure.
During his terms, from 1983 to 1991, Tidwell would walk through evidence rooms “as if shopping, to take his pick of weapons,” one sheriff’s official said. Among the weapons was a military M-2 carbine, a fully automatic assault weapon banned under state and federal gun control laws.
Under a plea agreement with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, Tidwell will pay a $10,000 fine and cooperate with investigators who are trying to recover the firearms. He will not serve any time in jail.
“Incarceration was never an option,” said Assistant Dist. Atty. Michael Risley. “He’s 74. He did serve the people well in many respects for many years. We wanted him to acknowledge his wrongdoing and to seek his cooperation in correcting this matter.”
Under state law, confiscated firearms must be returned to their owners, sold at public auction by the county or used for approved law enforcement purposes, such as target practice, Risley said.
“What you can’t do is take them,” Risley said.
Tidwell stashed boxes of guns in his garage in Phelan and would give them away to family and friends, his daughter-in-law told investigators.
Tidwell accepted the plea agreement to limit the stress of a trial on his ailing wife, according to his attorney, David Call.
“If I win a jury trial, but the result is his wife’s funeral, how do I win that?” Call said. “This was an opportunity for the sheriff to stand up and end this sorry mess.”
Call said Tidwell didn’t believe his handling of the guns was illegal, and that the number of guns Tidwell is accused of taking might be inaccurate.
“It used to be common practice for law enforcement officers to keep their guns,” Call said after the hearing. “This [case] is about different times, different eras and closed chapters.”
Tidwell first came under suspicion on June 25, when investigators with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department executed search warrants at the homes of the former sheriff’s two sons, Danial and Steve Tidwell. The brothers were under investigation for illegally soliciting business for their Fontana-based bail bond company.
During the searches, detectives found 24 guns at the brothers’ homes in San Bernardino and Phelan. The brothers, both former deputies, told the investigators that their father gave them most of the firearms while he was sheriff.
“Guess what?” Steve said to investigators as they searched his home, according to a district attorney’s memorandum. “Those were given to me by Floyd Tidwell, so you might want to talk to him sometime. You know how we get those, don’t you?”
Danial Tidwell allegedly told a sergeant that he stole one of the guns, an illegal 9-millimeter machine pistol, from a suspect while he was a deputy. Danial Tidwell said that “Floyd knew about the stolen department weapons and told Danial not to worry about it,” prosecutors alleged in court records.
Prosecutors considered charging the former sheriff with theft and embezzlement, but under the statute of limitations, those charges must be filed within three years of the alleged crime. Instead, Tidwell was charged with four counts of concealing stolen property, which included 14 firearms.
“His possession of stolen property was his ongoing crime,” Risley said.
In November, while the sheriff’s investigation was well underway, Floyd Tidwell turned in 89 rifles, shotguns and handguns worth an estimated $25,000. Among the guns was a military .30-caliber M-2 carbine and two tiny “wallet” guns, all of which are illegal, authorities said. At least 38 of the 89 guns were identified as missing from the sheriff’s property room.
Tidwell’s daughter, Robin, told detectives that the former sheriff is “an avid gun collector” who displays many guns at his Phelan home.
Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Baker, who worked in the property division during Tidwell’s tenure, told detectives that Tidwell liked “old western-type” guns and would often take the guns from the evidence room without filing the required documentation.
Sgt. Gary Eisenbiesz said Tidwell “used to go through the division, as if shopping, to take his pick of weapons.” Eisenbiesz said he ultimately decided to hide guns from Tidwell so “he would have something to sell at the [county gun] auctions.”
In one case, a couple who tried to retrieve their guns were told the guns were lost, according to the district attorney’s case summary.
Finding the missing firearms might be difficult. Tidwell’s daughter-in-law, Karole Tidwell, told a sheriff’s detective that the former sheriff “would frequently clean out his garage or storage areas and would have boxes full of firearms he gave away to friends and family.”
On Monday, Tidwell appeared in court in a gray suit and powder-blue tie, with a San Bernardino County sheriff’s pin in his lapel. The 38-year law enforcement veteran shook hands with a sheriff’s deputy serving as bailiff, and shook his head in disgust as the court hearing progressed. “Forty years of service for this,” Tidwell muttered to his family.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge J. Michael Welch asked Tidwell to answer the charges.
“Guilty, your honor,” he said.