Longtime Gallup District Attorney Karl Gillson laid to rest

In this May 2000 file photo, the late Karl Gillson, then-Democrat candidate for District Attorney, gives an interview at the Independent office in Gallup.

GALLUP – Karl Raymond Gillson, who served as the district attorney for the 11th Judicial District in Gallup for nearly two decades, was laid to rest Friday.

Gillson died at the age of 58 on Jan. 24 from a health-related condition he had been battling prior to retirement in 2017, according to his family.

“The biggest thing that I remember about him is his love and care and compassion for his family, which then really spilled out into the community,” his niece Elicia Goodsoldier said during a phone interview Monday. “I think that love for his people, the Navajo people, really showed up in so many places – in our community of Lupton, the city of Gallup and McKinley County, and throughout the Navajo reservation. I think that’s why he chose the profession he did, because he knew he could help many people that way, ensuring that justice was being served.”

Born in Gallup Jan. 19, 1963, Gillson grew up between Gallup and Lupton, Arizona. He graduated from Rehoboth High School and attended Dordt University in Iowa, where he ran cross country, eventually transferring to New Mexico State University and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science, summa cum laude.

In 1988, Gillson attended the pre-law Summer Institute for American Indian and Alaskan Native Students at the University of New Mexico. He graduated from the UNM Law School in 1991 and became an assistant district attorney for McKinley County.

Building strategy

Albert Benally, who was a young detective working on vehicular accidents for the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office in 1991, recalled when Gillson started his career at the DA’s office.

“By clan, we were related, and we started calling each other brothers,” Benally said. “We worked on many cases together.”

One particular case Benally remembered from those early years involved a vehicle homicide on U.S. 491 – known then as Route 666 or “Triple 6.”

Benally recalled that a semi truck hit a passenger vehicle, sending it straight into a power pole that caused a major outage from the north side of Gallup all the way to Tohatchi. The person being tried was the driver of the passenger vehicle because he was intoxicated at the time and his passenger died during the accident.

“The crime scene was big and Karl put me on the stand for 3 hours,” Benally recalled. “That long in the stand is not typical, but it does happen. In my career, it’s probably the only time it has happened. We lost that case because the jury, they all came from the rez, and they wanted to know how fast was the semi going because they understood what it is like to have a semi truck tailgating on Triple 6. They were asking how come the semi truck didn’t get charged. That was the main thing. The jury turned around on us. Karl and I had an argument and we didn’t talk to each other for three weeks. But a couple of weeks later, we were sitting back at his desk working on another case.”

Benally said working those cases during the early years of their careers helped them build strategy.

“Karl was persistent. He didn’t like to lose at all and he made sure it was a closed case before we went to trial. He made sure we had a guilty verdict before we went to trial,” Benally said. “By the end, we were winning most of the cases, we were getting convictions right and left. He truly worked for the victims.”

Judgeship

With only two years in the DA’s office, Gillson caught the eye of then-New Mexico Gov. Bruce King, who appointed Gillson as McKinley County Magistrate Judge in 1993.

“At only 30 years old, Karl was the youngest and first Navajo (and third Native American ever) to serve as a magistrate judge in the state of New Mexico,” Gillson’s family reported in his obituary. “While serving as district judge, he ensured that there were Navajo, Zuni, and Spanish language translators available for those appearing in his court. He advocated for alternative dispute resolution methods, bringing Navajo peacemaking into the courts.”

Benally said that during Gillson’s time on the bench, he supported the DARE program with the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Court Program, cross commission between agencies, and helped raise funds to sponsor the Youth Drug Free Powwow during the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial.

“The Powwow was bigger than the ceremonial events,” he recalled.

Elected district attorney

In 2000, Gillson ran for McKinley County district attorney and won. He served in that position for 17 years, until retirement in 2017.

As district attorney, he obtained federal funding from the Office on Violence against Women at the Department of Justice and the DOJ Community Gun Violence Prosecution Program to hire two prosecutors to work on domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

“He knew that this was a great need, especially knowing that American Indian women are highly affected by domestic violence and sexual assault,” Goodsoldier said.

Benally recalled that during those years he and Gillson worked on the domestic violence case of a former Navajo police officer, Harrison Largo, who was accused of shooting his partner, Frieda Smith.

“We were working the case and the victim died on us. So from there, it became a homicide case.”

Largo was eventually convicted by a jury of tampering with evidence and first degree murder to 33 years in prison.

“We reviewed the case every week before we went to trial,” Benally said.

Fake Indian jewelry victory

As district attorney, Gillson also targeted and prosecuted non-Native American art dealers who sold counterfeit Indian jewelry in violation of the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

The Department of the Interior Indian Arts and Crafts Board commended Gillson in 2007 for his involvement prosecuting arts dealer Amro Al-Assi, then co-owner and manager of the Silver Bear Trading Company in downtown Gallup. Al-Assi was convicted of selling a counterfeit bracelet as the work of a well-known Navajo jeweler, Jesse Monongya, whose original works command high prices in the market.

“McKinley County District Attorney Karl Gillson and his staff are to be highly commended for their outstanding expertise, dedication, and hard work to obtain this important conviction,” the board wrote in a news release after the verdict.

At the time, Gillson was quoted: “Clearly, the jury sent the message that maintaining the integrity of communities and of the Native American arts and crafts industry is vital and important to the Indian peoples’ livelihood and the communities’ economic endurance.”

An inspiration

Gillson’s winning record put him on the map and his cases were studied by young law students.

Former Navajo Nation Chief Prosecutor Gertrude Lee remembered reading about Gillson’s work since she was in law school.

“There weren’t that many Navajo attorneys at the time. He was young and an inspiration,” Lee said during a phone interview Monday.

Lee met Gillson a year after graduating from law school, when she was working for Congressman Ben Ray Lujan in Gallup in 2010. Lee recalled that she initially thought it was a meet-and-greet lunch with various local liaisons at a restaurant called Salsa’s. Then, she realized it was a “recruitment” lunch; Gillson had arranged to persuade her to work for him.

“Recruiting attorneys was something that Karl was constantly doing – he didn’t shy away,” Lee said. “He would hire people who had not done criminal law and provide his own kind of support.”

He offered Lee a job and she accepted. Asked why, she said: “He challenged me. He told me I was an attorney and I needed to be in the courtroom. I never thought I would be a trial attorney. I always thought I would work on research and policy work. He planted that seed in my head and something about it made me want to do it.”

Lee’s first case working for Gillson involved prosecuting a 17-year-old man who was accused of stabbing a transvestite and killing him in the parking lot of a truck stop in Gallup. It was a challenging case because the suspect, Jonah Jeter, alleged self-defense, but he was eventually convicted of second-degree murder.

“Putting that kind of trust in a new attorney, it inspires the person to rise to the occasion,” Lee said. “I learned from him to have courage and believe in the work that I was doing.”


This article was written by Independent staff writer Vida Volkert. It was originally published Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021.