Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman announced Friday he is taking a medical leave of absence and will not seek re-election next year as he had planned.
Wittman, 70, has served as sheriff since 1995, and until Friday's sudden announcement had said repeatedly that he would seek election to a sixth term.
He couldn't be reached Friday for comment, but last week he said he had been suffering from "an illness," while declining to reveal details. At the time, he said he planned to return to work this week and was looking forward to the upcoming campaign.
But in a statement posted on the department's Facebook page, Wittman said he is confronting a "medical issue that temporarily prevents me from fully discharging my obligations and duties as sheriff."
Undersheriff Mike Boudreaux, appointed in January to the No. 2 position, is succeeding him as acting sheriff.
Wittman's announcement means that two long-standing central San Joaquin Valley sheriffs are not seeking re-election next year. Madera Sheriff John Anderson, 73, said earlier this year he will not seek a fifth term.
Wittman's announcement followed several days of whispers in local law enforcement and political circles that he had a debilitating medical condition.
"I am expecting to make a full recovery," Wittman said in the message, but he did not know when he would return to work.
"I have made the difficult decision to not seek re-election," the message states.
Wittman's illness "is a private matter," Boudreaux said Friday, adding that Wittman is "up, walking and talking."
He said Wittman had been to the hospital twice under his own power, and by all indications had been on the road to recovery.
"There's stuff you don't see, and you have to make sure the stress level is low," Boudreaux said.
Boudreaux said that Wittman has been away from the office for about three weeks and that he became acting sheriff Friday in accordance with state law when the elected sheriff is unable to do the job.
Having Wittman bow out changes the dynamics of next year's sheriff's election.
David Whaley, 57, a retired undersheriff, has been campaigning for about a month and said Friday he will continue.
"I'm sorry to hear that he's ill," Whaley said. "I wish him the best."
Meanwhile, Boudreaux, 46, said Friday that he will seek election to the top job at the department where he has worked for 27 years.
"I feel like I represent the future," he said. "I'm starting to receive tremendous support from the men and women of this department."
Wittman said in his message that he has "full faith and confidence" in Boudreaux's ability to lead the department.
The filing period begins in January for the June primary election; more candidates could emerge.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Pete Vander Poel said he expects Wittman to return to work when he recovers.
If Wittman resigns, the board has the authority to appoint a successor.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, email@example.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.