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From inside his High Desert ranch home, decorated with steer horns and well-stocked with firearms, former San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell on Wednesday said that his safety may be at risk if prosecutors pursue felony gun charges against him.
If the felonies stick, Tidwell could face jail time and would be stripped of his right to bear arms – both of which Tidwell says would put him in grave danger.
“I’ve put a lot of people away,” Tidwell, 74, said.
Tidwell, sheriff from 1983 to 1991, pleaded guilty in May to four felony counts of concealing stolen property for stealing an estimated 523 guns from evidence rooms. He agreed to a $10,000 fine, and prosecutors agreed to reduce the felony charges to misdemeanors if Tidwell cooperated with law enforcement in searching for the missing guns.
San Bernardino County district attorney officials say Tidwell did not keep his end of the bargain. Tidwell insists he did. Today, Superior Court Judge J. Michael Welch is scheduled to decide who’s right.
“I’m not guilty of anything, dang it,” Tidwell said. “I’ve turned in every gun I had. The others have either been destroyed or distributed, and I gave a list of those [distributed guns] to the Sheriff’s Department, and they said they’d contact those people. What else can I do?”
Prosecutors allege Tidwell stole the guns while he was in office, keeping some to beef up his private collection and handing out others as gifts to friends and volunteer reserve deputies.
Tidwell turned over 89 of the missing guns before striking the plea bargain, and he’s provided 30 to 40 more since May, prosecutors said. The judge’s decision is critical to Tidwell because he wants to remain well-armed, said his attorney, David Call.
“[Tidwell] knows you can’t keep firearms if you’re convicted of a felony,” Call said. “He wants to be able to protect himself and his family. He lives in the middle of nowhere.”
With a picturesque view of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains from his home, the retired Tidwell said he spends his time caring for his ailing wife, Janet, and that he picked the remote desert location for his home to ensure the couple could spend their final years quietly.
“[Tidwell] has people who hate him,” Call said.
“There are people out there who would love to kill the ex-sheriff, even if it’s a gang member doing it for no other reason than to make his bones
However, with nearly 400 of the 523 missing guns still unaccounted for, sources in the district attorney’s office say Tidwell has not cooperated enough.
Prosecutor Cheryl Kersey is expected to argue that the convictions should remain felonies because the missing weapons remain a threat to public safety.
“Who wants a felony? Not me,” Tidwell said. “I served the county 40 years. I’ve never been arrested in my life. There’s no reason for all this.”
Call said Tidwell did not deserve jail time.
“How would you like to be Colonel Sanders and be put in the chicken coop?” Call said. “He doesn’t need to be punished any more than he has. His pride is shattered. His wife is terribly ill. And the mistress of his life, the Sheriff’s Department, has a black eye because of his actions.”
Tidwell’s legal trouble began in June 2003, when detectives conducted an investigation into alleged bail solicitation of jail inmates and searched the homes of Tidwell’s sons, Danial and Steve. Detectives found 24 guns at the homes, and the Tidwell brothers told detectives their father either gave them the guns or was aware they had stolen some.
Described by his daughter as an avid gun collector, Floyd Tidwell turned in the 89 guns valued at an estimated $25,000, including three illegal weapons, last November.
Tidwell says that even before his sons’ homes were searched, he contacted former Sheriff Dick Williams and current Sheriff Gary Penrod to inform them of his possession of the weapons.
A spokeswoman for Penrod said Tidwell was told to either arrange for the guns to be picked up or to bring them in personally. Neither happened, the spokeswoman said.
“They’ve had my phone number and my address for 55 years – they’ve known how to get a hold of me,” Tidwell said.