Marathon hearing to discuss residency of Commissioner Willie Grayeyes
The residency of San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes was the topic of a lengthy hearing on January 22 before Judge Don M. Torgerson in Seventh District Court in Monticello.
The court received eight hours of testimony from both sides of the civil dispute between Grayeyes and Blanding resident Kelly Laws.
Briefs will be filed in coming days and Torgerson said he will issue a ruling by January 28.
Laws filed the lawsuit challenging Grayeyes’ residency and eligibility to serve as San Juan County Commissioner, stating that Grayeyes does not live in Utah. The hearing was conducted before a packed courtroom and did not adjourn until 6:20 p.m.
Five witnesses testified for Laws, while seven witnesses testified for Grayeyes. Grayeyes is represented by attorney Steven Boos and Laws by Peter Stirba.
In general, witnesses for Laws testified about technical definitions of residency, while witnesses for Grayeyes testified about cultural definitions of residency.
The technical testimony included information that included GPS coordinates, law enforcement investigations, and the current occupants of homes.
In contrast, the cultural testimony included information about birth place, cultural ceremonies, the burial of umbilical cords, grazing rights, and childhood reminiscences of “home”.
Testimony stated that the home on Piute Mesa listed by Grayeyes as his residence is currently occupied by a distant cousin, Harrison Ross, as a result of a family dispute over the residence.
Testimony on behalf of Kelly Laws
San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Colby Turk testified twice during the day.
Turk conducted an investigation into Grayeyes’ residency in April, 2018 after an initial residency complaint was filed by Blanding resident Wendy Black.
Turk testified of the process he followed during the investigation. There were a number of questions about Turk’s authority to even conduct an investigation on the Navajo Nation.
Delton Pugh, a social services worker who covers the area, testified that the house listed as Grayeyes’ residence is occupied by Harrison Ross.
Kelly Laws also testified, outlining his reasons for filing the lawsuit and stating that he simply wants the law to be upheld. Attorneys for Grayeyes questioned the timing of Laws lawsuit, suggesting that it was filed at the last possible moment and was driven by an election loss.
Laws and Grayeyes were the two names on the November 2018 general election ballot in a race for San Juan County Commissioner that was won by Grayeyes.
Alex Bitsinnie, a previous president of the Navajo Mountain Chapter, testified on behalf of Laws. Bitsinnie stated that many residents of the Navajo Mountain area have Arizona drivers licenses in part because of the distances involved in securing a Utah license. In addition, all Navajo Mountain residents have Arizona mailing addresses because there is not a post office on the Utah side of the border.
Surveyor Brad Bunker discussed the GPS coordinates of the home on Piute Mesa.
Testimony on behalf of Willie Grayeyes
Seven witnesses for Grayeyes focused on several key points, including the cultural importance of the umbilical cord. Umbilical cord information was included in the testimony given by Lena Fowler, the county supervisor in the Arizona Fifth District, which is adjacent to the Utah border near Navajo Mountain.
It was also mentioned by Johnson Dennison, Navajo Council delegate Herman Daniels, and former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah.
Grayeyes has suggested that his umbilical cord, which was buried soon after his birth on Piute Mesa, is a cultural tradition that establishes residency.
These witnesses discussed their interactions over the years with Grayeyes, including visits to Piute Mesa.
A district grazing official testified about the cattle owned by Grayeyes on Piute Mesa.
Two of Grayeyes’ grown daughters testified about their early years. They said that they lived in Page, AZ to attend school, but stated that Grayeyes lived at Navajo Mountain at the time.
After the hearing, Steven Boos, the attorney for Grayeyes, said that the hearing was “great. It went very well.”
Boos discussed the high burden of proof that is required for Laws to gain a favorable ruling and suggested that the judge would rule in favor of Grayeyes.
“Litigation is an incredibly stupid way of resolving disputes,” said Boos.
Peter Stirba, the attorney for Laws, declined to comment after the hearing.
(Easton Bowring and Bill Boyle contributed to this article.)