By Zak Podmore
Just weeks after Willie Grayeyes was seated to his new post as San Juan County commissioner, a challenge to his candidacy was heard in Seventh District Court in Monticello.
The challenge was brought by Blanding resident Kelly Laws, Grayeyes’ Republican opponent in District 2 who lost the November commission election by a nine-point margin. On December 28, Laws filed a petition before the court that asserted Grayeyes is not a resident of Utah, citing property Grayeyes owns in Page, Ariz., his Arizona driver’s license, and other evidence.
An estimated 80 people gathered at the district courthouse on Tuesday to watch the trial proceedings, which stretched for over eight hours.
Grayeyes’ attorney, Steve Boos, admitted early in the trial that several of the claims made in Laws’ complaint are true. Boos said Grayeyes, like many residents of Navajo Mountain, Utah, maintains a post office box in Arizona and has an Arizona driver’s license. But, Boos said, neither is proof of Arizona residency. Since Utah state laws do not apply to residents of the Navajo Nation, he argued, it’s permissible for Utah residents to hold an out-of-state driver’s license.
Navajo Mountain straddles the Utah-Arizona line and has no gas stations, grocery stores, laundromats, or post offices. Many residents travel to Arizona to seek out these services and employment, Boos explained.
Boos also said that it’s possible to own property in one state and claim residency in another. He gave the example of Sen. Mitt Romney, who owns multiple homes outside of Utah.
Laws’ petition leans heavily on a police report from a 2018 San Juan County Sheriff’s Department investigation into Grayeyes’ residency conducted by Deputy Colby Turk. But early in the trial, Judge Don Torgerson indicated that Turk was acting outside his authority as a law officer when he initiated a civil investigation on Navajo Nation land without approval from Navajo Nation authorities. Torgerson subsequently determined that the report was inadmissible as evidence.
Turk’s investigation took place in March and April of last year, and included visits to Navajo Mountain where Grayeyes was registered to vote with San Juan County Clerk. It also included a transcript of an interview Turk conducted with Grayeyes that took place on April 4, 2018, in Bluff.
Turk later took the witness stand and some of the body camera footage from his investigation was accepted as evidence by the court to corroborate Turk’s observations. Footage included a visit to the home on Piute Mesa, Utah, where Grayeyes claimed residency, and the interview in Bluff, which included large portions of inaudible dialogue. Grayeyes can be heard saying he is on the road “almost all the time” in his capacity as treasurer with the Navajo Mountain Chapter.
After Turk, four more witnesses testified on behalf of Laws’ legal team. San Juan County social worker Delton Pugh drew a map of the Piute Mesa area and described his regular visits with many of the inhabitants on the mesa. He said he’s never known Grayeyes to reside there.
Laws described two visits he took to the home where Grayeyes claimed residency and said both times the door was answered by Grayeyes’ cousin, Harrison Ross.
Turk, Pugh, and former Navajo Mountain Chapter president Alex Bitsinnie joined Laws in stating that Grayeyes did not reside on the mesa.
Laws’ attorney, Peter Stirba, repeatedly made the case that Grayeyes was in fact a resident of Page, Ariz., where he has owned a home since 1981 and where his children attended public school in the 1980s.
Witnesses called by Grayeyes’ team testified that the home in question is indeed currently occupied by Ross, but that the status of the home’s ownership is disputed and is in probate.
Several elders from the Navajo Nation, including medicine man Johnson Dennison and former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, testified about definitions of home according to traditional Navajo culture. (Stirba argued that cultural beliefs are not relevant to the residency statute, but his objections to the testimony were overruled.)
Several witnesses agreed that, for traditional Navajo people, the burial of a newborn’s umbilical cord ties that person to a specific place for life. Grayeyes’ umbilical cord is buried on Piute Mesa, and he still holds a permit to graze livestock there, which Zah said is another important indicator of a person’s “home space.”
Two of Grayeyes’ daughters took the witness stand near the end of the hearing and testified that Grayeyes has not lived in the home in Page (which Boos called a “boarded-up doublewide”) full-time since 1988, and both said he frequently stays at homesites in Navajo Mountain. Many of the witnesses for Grayeyes agreed that he often travels out of Utah for work and has done so for many years.
Grayeyes’ name was briefly removed from the ballot in the summer of 2018 after a similar residency challenge was made by Blanding resident Wendy Black. In an August ruling, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer found that San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson and Black backdated a document in order to make the challenge to Grayeyes’ candidacy valid, and Grayeyes’ name was placed back on the ballot. Nuffer did not rule on whether Grayeyes was in fact a resident of Utah.
Grayeyes has been registered to vote in San Juan County, Utah, for decades and has represented the Navajo Mountain Chapter of the Navajo Nation government in various posts since the 1980s.
The court adjourned at 6:20 p.m. Tuesday with both attorneys agreeing to write briefs by Friday. Judge Torgerson is expected to rule on the case by Monday, Jan. 28.