Following Tribal Council decision, former vice chief’s widow will lose her home

The widow of former Vice Chief Bill Ledford is refusing to move after Tribal Council’s January vote to strike the portion of his will that left her the house, and now a May 1 date in the Cherokee Tribal Court will determine the final outcome.

“Contrary to one Council member’s statement that I have ‘No reason to come back here,’ I have every reason to be here,” April Ledford wrote in a Feb. 23 email to all 12 Tribal Council representatives. “Simply put, it’s what I have known since 1997. Besides a bond with Bill, I have many strong ties to this area.”

Bill Ledford, who served as Vice Chief 1987-1991 and 1995-1999, died October 2013 in Chapel Hill, but his will came before Tribal Council for approval much more recently, in May 2016. On the Qualla Boundary, the wills of tribal members are first reviewed by the court system to ensure that they’re valid as the wish of the deceased person, and then they are approved by Tribal Council to ensure that the dissemination of property and possessions is in keeping with tribal law. 

Over the course of multiple Tribal Council sessions last summer, members of the Ledford family spoke against April Ledford, attacking her character and the legitimacy of her relationship with Bill Ledford, who was 37 years her senior. 

April Ledford, meanwhile, contended that she and Bill had been very much in love despite the difficulties posed by his family and that they’d taken every precaution when writing the will to prevent exactly what was unfolding in Council chambers. 

April Ledford is not a tribal member and therefore not legally allowed to own property on the Qualla Boundary. However, Cherokee law allows enrolled members to grant non-enrolled survivors what’s called a life estate — a life estate would have allowed April to reside on Bill’s property for the rest of her life, though it would have reverted back to the tribe upon her death. According to tribal code, Tribal Council has the option — but not the obligation — to grant life estates. 

The Bill Ledford matter left off in July 2016, when Council opted to table the will. However, it made a reappearance during the Jan. 12 Tribal Council meeting, when Jennifer Bainbridge, a tribal attorney, presented Council with a version of the will approval resolution that would revoke the portions of it granting April a life estate. 


Reversed positions

When efforts to write April out of the will began last year, three councilmembers opposed the measure: Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, of Snowbird; Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown; and Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird. They felt that it was not council’s place to guess at what a deceased person might have wanted when a verified will was already in front of them. 

However, this time around Jones was the only councilmember to vote against the amendment. 

A letter written by Bill Ledford’s son William John Ledford likely had something to do with it. William John, a previous director of transportation for the tribe who now works as a civil engineering inspector in Albuquerque, stood against his siblings during last year’s discussions, supporting April’s right to inherit the house. April was his father’s wife, he said at the time, and she made him happy. If his father had wanted April to have the house, he said, she should have the house. 

“I will uphold my father’s wishes,” he told The Smoky Mountain News last summer, adding that even if Council revoked the life estate, the house would then revert to him, since he is the oldest sibling. And he pledged that in that situation, he would let April continue to live there. 

By January, however, William John’s position had changed dramatically. 

“Due to actions against two of my sons by April Zodican (Ledford), I now see her in a different light,” he wrote in a letter his son Jason Ledford read to Council during the January session. “I now believed that she schemed to separate my father from his children and family in order to compel him to use his resources … to help her obtain a dream house that she still has ownership of in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.”

William John’s letter went on to say that April should be stripped of her life estate and be banished from the Qualla Boundary. 

He wrote that, according to reports from his adult sons Jarin and Damin Ledford, who he had sent to live with April for a while and help with the house, April had allowed the house to “deteriorate to deplorable conditions,” with a thriving flea population and cat feces on the floor. 

A phone call to William John confirmed that the letter was his. 

“These are my father’s words,” Jason Ledford told Council. “I think I speak on behalf of the Ledford family — we are coming together as a family and we’re hoping to heal, and this will help us heal as we close the page on this chapter that has caused this once tight-knit family to grow apart.”

William John’s letter found ample support from Tribal Council, though Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, said that banishment was unlikely, as it typically requires “charges and convictions and jail and all that good stuff.” However, McCoy said, “I don’t see her (April) coming back here if she has nothing to come back to.”

“I believe that if your grandfather were here right now, he would beg us to do just exactly what happened,” McCoy said, moving to pass the resolution. Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, seconded the motion and it passed 11-1, with only Jones opposing. 


Contested claims

April, however, was not present at the meeting, and she says that’s because she didn’t know it was happening. The letter she received notifying her of the Jan. 12 meeting was postmarked Jan. 5, she said, and delivered a few days later. However, April’s mother passed away Dec. 29 with a funeral scheduled for Jan. 7, according to an obituary notice, and April didn’t return to Cherokee until after the Jan. 12 meeting was over. 

“Call me paranoid, but I think somebody knew I was out of town,” she said. 

She also contests many of the claims made by the Ledford family. First off, she said, she does not have a home in Chapel Hill — it’s been foreclosed on. Records from the Orange County Tax Office confirm this. The property was foreclosed on, auctioned off and transferred to the State Employees Credit Union, according to a November 2016 deed. In an interview, William John said that the property was still in her name when he last checked but conceded the status could have changed in the meantime. 

April went on to say that cat feces on the living room floor occurred because Jarin and Damin Ledford, who were staying with her, wouldn’t keep the door open to the room containing the litter box, as she’d requested. Similarly, she said, the fleas were a result of their bringing the dog inside when she’d asked that it be left out. 

In regards to what William John described as her “actions against two of my sons,” April said, she asked only one of them to leave and had multiple, solid reasons for doing so, including “total lack of respect for some basic rules” and did so knowing he had plenty of places to stay. 

However, William John said, “she basically alienated them, made them feel like they weren’t welcome and ran them out.” His sons — ages 24 and 38 — stayed at a motel so they’d be close to work and wouldn’t impose on family members, William John said. 

April attributes William John’s about-face to greed. “In my opinion it’s like his eyeballs turned into dollar signs,” she said. 

William John, however said it was the result of careful thought and the realization that when it came to April, “what I was being fed was stuff you find in a cow pasture.”

“I’m trying to heal my family now,” he said. “Everything is twisted. I don’t want to see my family fractured anymore. Everybody is finally starting to talk. We spent so many years not talking. That bothered me a lot.”

Following Council’s decision, April hasn’t exactly started pricing moving trucks. Cherokee is her home, she says, and she’s not moving. She said that Jason Ledford delivered what she describes as a “bogus” notice of eviction on March 7, ordering her to get out by March 15. She said she’s in shock over the turn of events, and over the implication of McCoy’s words back in January. 

“Bill would want me homeless?” she asked in her February letter to the councilmembers. “Is that what you are saying?”

She is still in the house, but the Ledford family has filed in Cherokee’s small claims court to have her evicted. A hearing is set for May 1.

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