Judge Don Torgerson heard more than eight hours of testimony in a marathon hearing in Seventh District Court on January 22.
The hearing was for a civil lawsuit filed by Blanding resident Kelly Laws which alleges that San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes is not a legal resident of Utah and thus, ineligible to serve as Commissioner.
Laws filed the lawsuit on December 28, 2018.
Spectators packed the courtroom and attended an eight-hour hearing before Judge Torgerson and left unsure of what he would rule.
Laws, being the petitioner of the lawsuit, was represented by Peter Stirba. Grayeyes, the respondent, had three attorneys, led by Steven Boos.
Boos kickstarted the courtroom hearing with a general objection to the case, stating that a ruling against Grayeyes would not only remove him from his elected position, but would attack his qualification to vote, given to him by the US Constitution.
Judge Torgerson did not grant Boos’ objection, stating there were factual issues that needed to be discussed and witness testimony taken in order to make a just and true decision.
Stirba asked the judge to excuse the witnesses from the room and only allow them to enter when they were called to the stand. This motion was granted.
Boos began the debate by telling the courts that according to Federal Indian Law (F.I.L.), a person’s residency is decided in their head and is a continuous choice to be made. He stated that the content of this issue would be based around whether Grayeyes changed his mind since March 9, 2018.
Boos stated that the case would be unlike any other Judge Torgerson had seen, because it involved F.I.L. and the State of Utah law. Boos then made the claim that Utah state law doesn’t apply on Indian reservation.
Boos said that Grayeyes has an Arizona drivers license and a house in Page, AZ but the home is not Grayeyes’ primary place of residence.
Stirba rebutted by saying that a candidate must be a Utah resident one year prior to the election. He also stated that Grayeyes did not establish his residency, making him ineligible for the county commission race.
Judge Torgerson declared that it was useful to ask questions outside of the one-year candidacy mark in order to declare if Grayeyes was a resident. He also stated that it was it critical to look at Native American cultural norms and Utah law.
Questions soon arose about camera footage taken by San Juan County Sheriff's Deputy Colby Turk. Turk has footage of interviews with members of the Navajo Nation and its accompanying transcript.
Turk had originally gone to Navajo Mountain in March, 2018 after a complaint was made that Grayeyes was not a resident of San Juan County. He began asking members of the Navajo Nation questions about Grayeyes in order to locate him.
Boos objected that the footage and transcript should not be allowed, based off hearsay.
Stirba countered by stating that a complaint was made by a San Juan County resident, so the Sheriff assigned his Deputy to investigate the case.
Boos also questioned if Turk had legal authorization on the Navajo reservation, which the judge declared he did not.
As a result, Turks body camera footage and it’s accompanying transcript was thrown out of the case.
However, the bodycam footage of Grayeyes remained in the case and Turk was allowed to take the stand as a witness.
Laws called his first witness to the stand, Patrol Sergeant Turk.
Turk discuss his investigation of Grayeyes in March, without using any hearsay information.
He visited the home of Blanding resident Wendy Black, who filed the complaint. Turk then followed directions to where he believed the Grayeyes house is located.
The Grayeyes declaration of candidacy stated he lived “17 miles east of the Chapter House.” Turk said he followed the directions to an empty lot, with only a shade hut, animal corral, and pond.
On April 4, 2018, Turk visited Grayeyes at Twin Rocks Café in Bluff. Turk discussed the concerns and allegations with Grayeyes.
Grayeyes explained that he was spending significant time at the home of his sister Ruth in Navajo Mountain.
After coordinates were changed by Grayeyes about his primary residency in April 2018, Turk returned to the new location on Piute Mesa on April 24, but he was unable to locate Grayeyes.
Delton Pugh was the second witness called to the stand.
Pugh is the Aging and Adult Services Case Manager for San Juan County, where he takes care of the elderly people. Pugh works on Piute Mesa, where Grayeyes claims to reside, attending to the needs of elderly citizens.
Pugh was asked to draw at a map of Piute Mesa with all roads, houses. and names of clients that live there.
Pugh said that Grayeyes is not a resident of Piute Mesa nor had he ever seen him there. He also said that the house claimed as the Grayeyes residence is occupied by Harrison Ross.
The respondent attorney questioned Pugh on the number of times he had been to the house and how close is the nearest gas station, grocery store and a place for jobs.
Boos hinted that Grayeyes was not home because he travels for work.
Deputy Turk re-took the stand, where he was asked about his Navajo Nation police identification card and the law enforcement agreement between San Juan County and the Navajo Nation.
Stirba asked the judge to re-introduce Turk’s previous interviews, stating that he had jurisdiction on the reservation.
Judge Torgerson declared that Turk did not have jurisdiction because the incident was not a crime, but a civil investigation.
Kelly Laws took the stand, where he stated that he filed the lawsuit because he felt Utah state law was not being upheld. He claims it had nothing to do with his recent loss in the commissioner race.
Boos questioned why Laws had not originally filed a lawsuit back in March, when he first learned about the accusations against Grayeyes.
Laws said he did not want to overwhelm the courts because there was already a complaint in the works.
Boos followed up by asking if Laws is concerned about the cost to file a lawsuit.
“You’re damn right I’m concerned about the cost,” Laws said. He then went on to state he believed the Lieutenant Governor's office should take care of the case.
Boos then questioned Laws’ decision to wait until the end of a 40-day deadline to file the lawsuit, questioning if it was because he lost the race.
Laws responded that he was inside the 40 days granted to him by the state, so he was following Utah law.
Laws added that he visited the house claimed to be Grayeyes’ residence in September 2018 and January 2019. Laws said that Harrison Ross was the only one present on both occasions.
Alex Bitsinnie took the stand for the petitioner side, stating that he was born, raised and currently resides on Piute Mesa. Bitsinnie said he had served as president of the Navajo Mountain chapter house for ten years and had seen Grayeyes at chapter meetings, but not on Piute Mesa itself.
Boos questioned Bitsinnie about his drivers license and mailing box.
Bitsinnie responded that he held an Arizona drivers license because of convenience and that he had an Arizona mailing address because that was the only thing available.
Arizona apparently does not require a person to establish residency in order to issue a drivers license. As a result, a large number of Navajo Mountain residents have an Arizona drivers license. It is 180 miles from Navajo Mountain to the drivers license office in Blanding and 220 miles to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Monticello.
Brad Bunker was the final witness to take the stand for the petitioners. Bunker is a land surveyor and discussed the two different coordinate graphs used to locate a single point.
Stirba used this to show that the coordinates given to the county by Grayeyes fell within 200 feet of the coordinates found on photographs taken by Turk during his investigation.
Following the five witnesses for the petitioners, Boos advised Judge Torgerson to make a decision in favor of Grayeyes without hearing more witnesses.
Boos claimed there was no evidence provided by the petitioners that Grayeyes was not a resident of Utah. He also asked the judge to not allow the possibility of summary judgment.
Boos also stated that Laws was aware of Grayeyes’ situation since March 2018 but didn’t want to spend the money and waited until the last possible day to file a lawsuit.
Stirba rebutted by saying there was no livable structure at Grayeyes’ first stated location. He also stated that under oath, Grayeyes claimed his residency to be the home occupied by Harrison Ross. Stirba also stated that Grayeyes’ bought a house in Page, AZ where his children attended high school and that Grayeyes did not own any other property.
Stirba claimed that under Utah state law, one must have a Utah drivers license in order to be considered a resident.
Judge Torgerson declared he would hear both sides of the case before making a decision.
Lena Fowler was the first witness for the respondent panel to take the stand. Fowler explained that she is the representative for the Arizona 5th District, which includes the Arizona portion of Navajo Mountain.
Fowler discussed her Native American beliefs that the umbilical cord should be buried in the birthplace of a Native American infant. Thus, the burial ground of said umbilical cord will forever be the home and primary place of residency of the individual.
Fowler explained that she had known Grayeyes for quite some time and his umbilical cord was buried on Piute Mesa. She believed that Grayeyes was and always has been a permanent resident of Utah.
Johnson Dennison, a medicine man, took the stand following Fowler and discussed similar beliefs.
Denison stated that wherever the umbilical cord is buried is home. He also stated that livestock played a major role in the Navajo traditions.
Dennison claimed that animals of an individual could only reside in the area of the individual’s buried umbilical cord, thus being their home. Someone could not get an animal lease at their wife's birthplace because it is considered disrespectful or rude.
Herman Daniels is currently serving as a delegate for the 24th Navajo Council and represents Navajo Mountain.
Daniels has known Grayeyes for many years and claimed to have visited Grayeyes’ home on Piute Mesa. However, Grayeyes was not home at the time.
Stirba question Daniels on what Grayeyes’ house looked like.
Daniels responded that he did not enter the home, so he was unaware.
Stirba followed up by showing Daniels a picture of a house. Daniels identified it as Grayeyes home on Piute Mesa. However, the picture shown to Daniels by Stirba is not the house Grayeyes identified as his own.
A previous President of the Navajo Nation, Peterson Zah, testified on the stand.
Zah served the Navajo Nation for a significant number of years and in several positions. He first met Grayeyes when they attended boarding school when they were younger.
Zah shared similar opinions as Fowler and Dennison regarding the umbilical cord ceremony and livestock housing. He said that the umbilical cord ceremony is sacred to Native Americans and is taken very seriously.
Zah shared a lengthy experience of touring with some guest from the East Coast, five years prior. He came to Navajo Mountain High School to speak to students and asked one of them to take him to visit his friend Grayeyes.
Zah discussed visiting Grayeyes at his home on Piute Mesa, where they engaged in conversation with Grayeyes and his relatives.
Russell Smallcanyon is the current district and grazing official for Navajo Mountain and was the fifth person to represent Grayeyes on the stand.
At the time, Boos provided the court with Mr. Grayeyes’ lease agreement for the land of Navajo Mountain.
Smallcanyon explained that he had visited Piute Mesa in 2017 and had documented Grayeyes’ animals. At the time, he had 12 of his allotted 15 points. (1 point for every sheep and 4 points for every cow).
However, he did not speak with Grayeyes personally during the examination.
Grayeyes’ eldest two daughters were the final witnesses to take the stand in their father’s defense.
Both adult women explained that Grayeyes bought a home in Page, AZ so they could attend school while living with their mother. Their father, Willie, stayed in Navajo Mountain to work.
Both girls explained that their father only moved into the Page home for two years after their mother died in the late 1980’s. Afterwards, Grayeyes left Page and returned back to living in Navajo Mountain.
The daughters lived in the Page home until they graduated and each attended college.
Both daughters explained that their father owned the Page home but had not lived there since 1988. The home had recently been gutted for remodeling due to inability to live there.
During a majority of all respondent witness testimonies, Stirba argued that cultural beliefs are not relevant to the residency statute and should not be allowed. However, his objections to the testimonies were overruled on all occasions.
Judge Torgerson said he believed that he understood where both parties would take their closing arguments, thus advising them to prepare and submit briefs three days later.
Both Stirba and Boos agreed, ending the courtroom hearing.
“It went very well, and that would require some highly technical explanation as of the burden of proof that Mr. Laws had,” Boos said following the hearing. “I suspect that there is no way the Judge is going to agree that he met his burden of proof, and this will be done.”
Boos went on to say that he felt the situation was handled in an “incredibly stupid way”.
Although a decision has not been made regarding fees, Mr. Boos is looking to “figure out a way of shifting [Grayeyes’] fees onto Mr. Laws.”
Stirba, Laws attorney, declined to comment.