Cherokee council considers revoking part of former vice chief’s will
The widow of a former Vice Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians may be out of a home if Tribal Council decides to slash the portion of a will that left her the house.
“I was raised on that home place, no one else was,” Katina Price, whose father Bill Ledford wrote the will in question, told Tribal Council last month. “That was supposed to be mine. It was originally in the paperwork that I have.”
The house had gone “downhill” in the years since Ledford passed, Price said, with the grass growing up high and renters living there more often than not. That’s enough to show that April Ledford, Bill’s widow, shouldn’t hold the land.
April, who is not a tribal member, had been married to Bill since 1998 until he passed away in 2013, at the age of 82. According to her, they’d been very happy and very much in love during their years together. He’d wanted her to have the house.
“He was my life and my family. I’m still grieving,” she told council. “We loved each other.”
April, 48, grew up in southern Indiana as the daughter of a Catawba woman from South Carolina. After high school she joined the Army, studied Arabic at Santa Monica College in California, went to the Gulf War and then came south to reconnect with her Carolina roots.
“I came back here, I met Bill Ledford, I fell for him that very day I met him in 1997,” she said.
From there, the story differs depending on who’s telling it.
According to Price, she was a daddy’s girl through-and-through, always at Bill’s side. Until April came into the picture, she said, “nothing was wrong.”
Price, who at 43 is just a few years younger than April, says April used her father to get law school paid for, kept the family from visiting him, was frequently intoxicated and didn’t care for Bill during his illness as she should have, ferrying him away to Chapel Hill and keeping the family out of the loop.
“I’ll never ever forgive her for that, ever, because my daddy was the most awesome person in the whole world,” Price said. “He was a very good man, and he didn’t deserve that.”
April, however, paints a very different picture — one of a loving couple finding happiness in each other despite the family’s best efforts to destroy it and twist lies around it.
“He was married twice before me,” April said. “Twice in hell, once in heaven. That’s what we always said.”
April says that Price, in particular, did her best to cause problems for the couple, stealing Bill’s Social Security number and credit cards, failing to come visit or call her father while he was alive and threatening April repeatedly, even up to the present. “I am afraid for my life,” April wrote in a text to a Smoky Mountain News reporter last week. Price, for the record, says none of that is true.
After finishing law school and taking the bar exam, April said, she found herself without a license due to letters that Price and some of her brothers wrote to the North Carolina Bar.
“Did I write a letter to the N.C. Bar, and my brothers?” Price said. “Absolutely. Because she’s ridiculous.”
For her part, April said, “I never thought in my life just to fall in love with a man and get married you’d have to go through this crap.”
Discussion in council
The conflicts between April and Price are knotty and deep-seated, and April said she fully expected that Price would “pull something” when it came to the will.
“I wasn’t really expecting it, but I was not shocked that it happened,” April said of the discussion in council.
Last month, council voted to amend the will to strike the portion that would grant April a life estate at the house — meaning, that she could hold it as long as she was alive but it would revert back to the tribe after her death — but wound up tabling the resolution rather than voting to pass or kill. After more discussion, council tabled it again last week.
Some councilmembers spoke strongly in favor of booting April off the land. Those holding that opinion focused on the fact that she had rented the house out and that upkeep had lagged during part of the time since Bill’s death.
Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, said he was out that way last year mowing grass at the nearby graveyard, in view of the house.
“It made me sick to my stomach to see the grass high above the deck,” Crowe said.
Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, took issue with April sometimes renting the house on Airbnb.com.
“She took his house and she turned it into a business,” McCoy said. “I’m not for that. I am absolutely opposed to that.”
April defended against those accusations. She had rented the house out after Bill’s death, she said, because she was living in Chapel Hill at the time. They’d moved there for his medical treatment, and she had a teaching job.
“The last thing you want to do is think about mowing a lawn when you’ve lost a loved one,” she said.
The house was unkempt during that time, she said, but the following year she hired neighbors to keep the grass mowed and now she’s back to live there permanently. April said she does sometimes host Airbnb guests but doesn’t see how that’s wrong — often, she’s in the house at the same time as her guests.
“I’ve always considered this my home,” April said. “I’ve never abandoned this place.”
In fact, Bill’s oldest son William Ledford has pledged that April will reside there regardless of the outcome — if her life estate is revoked, the property will go to him.
Cleaning up the code
During last week’s council session, most of the discussion regarding Bill’s will took placed in closed session. But before the decision to table it again, councilmembers talked about the need for an outright overhaul of tribal code dealing with how wills are recognized in council. It’s an issue that goes beyond what happens to Bill’s house.
“I think we need to come up with some kind of process on the contesting of wills. Once it’s presented to us, all we’re doing is just recognizing the will,” said Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird. Wills that make their way to council have already been OK’d by the court system.
“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves when we’re taking each one of these wills individually and adjusting them on a case-by-case basis,” agreed Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, of Snowbird. “The bottom line in my opinion, there needs to be some work in the code to clarify a lot of this stuff.”
Jones was the only councilmember who voted against the amendment to remove April’s right to live on the property. In his view, it was Bill’s wish that April have the house, and council would be wrong to disregard that wish. Jones said he was “sick to his stomach” as the amendment passed.
“It’s not for council to say, ‘Well, I knew him better, so I’m going to overturn the will,’” Jones said.
McCoy takes a different view.
“As a council representative, if I have a feeling something is wrong, it is my responsibility to protect the interests of the tribal member and not the non-enrolled member,” she said.
Though they might disagree about how to do it, said Cherokee Attorney General Danny Davis, council agrees that something needs to be done about how Cherokee’s code of ordinances handles wills and council’s involvement with them.
“It just needs to be clarified a little more,” Davis said. “Tribal Council is at some point in time going to have to make a decision about this code and how they want to spell things out, and it’s going to be a pretty complicated piece of legislation.”
In North Carolina, if a person writes a will that’s been done in the proper, legal way, that person can leave whatever part of their property to whomever they desire. On the Qualla Boundary, it’s not quite that simple. There are rules about whether and how non-enrolled members may hold various types of property. Some parts of those rules conflict with other parts, Davis said, and the whole thing needs work.
The first stop for a will is Cherokee Tribal Court, where a judge will determine if the will is valid. But to become final, it has to go through Tribal Council.
“If a will provision might violate the charter or how land is distributed over here, the tribe would still retain the right to approve that or not,” Davis explained.
In reference to Bill Ledford’s will in particular, he told council there are “legal issues” with it but is unable to comment further due to attorney/client privilege.
For her part, Price maintains her assessment of April as an insincere, conniving person who should not be permitted to hold tribal property.
“There’s a lot of people that have watched and seen the shenanigans of April,” she said.
And April, meanwhile, maintains her story — that she and Bill were in love, Price was the antagonist and all she wants is to be allowed to stay in her home.
“What gets me is we were together 16 years. It’s not like I snared him, an Anna Nicole Smith kind of thing,” she said. “If I wanted to be a gold digger, I would have stayed in California.”