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Defense tries to shift suspicion from Chavez

Attorney David Serna, left, and his client Levi Chavez, right, confer in the courtroom after the court recessed for the day in the murder trial against Chavez. Chavez is accused of killing his wife in October 2007 and making it look like a suicide. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Attorney David Serna, left, and his client Levi Chavez, right, confer in the courtroom after the court recessed for the day in the murder trial against Chavez. Chavez is accused of killing his wife in October 2007 and making it look like a suicide. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
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5:32 p.m.

BERNALILLO—The second week of testimony in the Levi Chavez murder trial featured contentious legal wrangling and a request for a mistrial.

It came to a close Friday afternoon with Chavez’s attorney trying to shift suspicion away from the former APD officer by suggesting detectives didn’t pursue other leads in the death of Chavez’s wife.

APD officer Nicholas Wheeler took the witness stand Friday and testified that he had a short affair with Tera Chavez in the months before her death.

As he cross-examined Wheeler, defense attorney David Serna insinuated that Valencia County Sheriff’s detectives should’ve but didn’t take a close look at Wheeler as a suspect — possibly because of the officer’s close friendships with those detectives.

Former APD officer Nicholas Wheeler points to the defendant Levi Chavez during cross examination by the prosecution Friday, June 21, 2013, during the Levi Chavez murder trial. Wheeler and Tera Chavez were having an affair at the time of her death. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Former APD officer Nicholas Wheeler points to the defendant Levi Chavez during cross examination by the prosecution Friday, June 21, 2013, during the Levi Chavez murder trial. Wheeler and Tera Chavez were having an affair at the time of her death. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Levi Chavez is accused of shooting Tera once in the mouth with his APD-issued Glock 9mm pistol in the couple’s home near Los Lunas on either October 19, 20 or 21, 2007, and trying to make her death look like a suicide.

Levi Chavez called 911 around 9 p.m. on Oct. 21 and said she had shot herself in the head.

Then-VCSO Detective Aaron Jones was among the deputies who went to the Chavezes’ home that night. He later became the lead detective.

Wheeler testified that he spoke by telephone with Jones while Jones was at the home, and that he spoke with the detective several times in the days after. The two had worked together when Wheeler was at VCSO, and they had become personal friends.

“I spoke with Aaron because I wanted to confirm that (Tera) was dead … I didn’t know if (the information Wheeler was receiving) from APD was correct,” he said from the witness stand. “I wanted to see if he would bring up that I was involved with (Tera) … That’s the only thing I was concerned about: I was concerned about who was going to tell Samantha (Wheeler’s wife) before I did.”

Samantha Wheeler had known Tera and Levi Chavez since high school, according to Nicholas Wheeler’s testimony. And although he didn’t know it at the time of her death, Tera already had told his wife about the affair.

So far as Nicholas Wheeler knew, according to his testimony, Levi Chavez did not know about the affair.

Serna pressed Wheeler for graphic details of his sexual relationship with Tera Chavez, despite a pretrial ruling from state District Judge George P. Eichwald that the intricacies of neither Tera’s affair nor numerous affairs her husband was having would be allowed at trial.

The judge let Serna continue the questioning over objections from prosecutors. Members of Tera Chavez’s family were visibly disgusted.

Wheeler also testified Friday that he didn’t love Tera Chavez, although he told her he did.

During another point in his cross-examination of Wheeler, Serna asked the officer whether Jones took a series of steps in pursuing Wheeler as a suspect that he took in pursuing Levi Chavez.
They included: contacting his parents, looking through credit card receipts from the days before and after Tera’s death, scouring cellphone records and digging through psychological examination records from APD.

“No,” Nicholas Wheeler answered each time.

He also confirmed that he declined to provide DNA and fingerprint samples to Jones. Levi Chavez gave Jones both.

Samantha Wheeler is scheduled to testify on Monday as the trial stretches into its third week of testimony.

Week two was marked by several dramatic moments that included nearly a full day of legal battles, outside the presence of the jury, over whether prosecutors had withheld key evidence from Serna.

The defense lawyer eventually asked for either an outright dismissal of the charges against Chavez, a mistrial or a significant narrowing of the state’s case.

Eichwald denied the first two requests, but barred a state insurance fraud investigator from testifying as a witness for the prosecution.


Levi Chavez appears in court during his murder trial on Friday, June 21, 2013. Chavez is accused of killing his wife in October 2007 and making it look like a suicide. (KOAT-TV)

Levi Chavez appears in court during his murder trial on Friday, June 21, 2013. Chavez is accused of killing his wife in October 2007 and making it look like a suicide. (KOAT-TV)

10:55 a.m.

The murder trial for former APD officer Levi Chavez resumed this morning with testimony from Chavez’s former brother-in-law and from the state crime lab firearms expert who examined the gun Chavez allegedly used to kill his wife in 2007.

Chavez is accused of shooting 26-year-old Tera Chavez once in the mouth with his APD-issued Glock 9 mm pistol, then staging the scene in the couple’s home near Los Lunas to make it appear as if she had killed herself.

Tera Chavez’s younger brother, Aaron Cordova, testified in Sandoval County District Court today as other members of his family and Tera’s friends had on days past — saying Tera hadn’t been depressed in the months before her death and that he had never known her to be suicidal.

Cordova was about to describe a conversation he had with his sister not long before her death in October 2007 during which she was “angry.” But an objection by Levi Chavez’s attorney, David Serna, on hearsay grounds was sustained by state District Judge George P. Eichwald.

Cordova testified that he had known Levi Chavez since high school, when his sister began dating the future lawman.

Levi got Tera pregnant not long before her 16th birthday and, according to Cordova’s testimony, Levi Chavez would walk around the high school the three of them attended “with his arm around another girl while my sister was pregnant.”

Tera Chavez's younger brother, Aaron Cordova, testifies during  the murder trial of former APD officer Levi Chavez. Levi is accused of killing his wife Tera Chavez in October 2007 and making it look like a suicide. Cordova testified that he had never known his sister to be suicidal. (KOAT-TV)

Tera Chavez’s younger brother, Aaron Cordova, testifies during the murder trial of his brother-in-law, former APD officer Levi Chavez. Levi Chavez is accused of killing his wife in October 2007 and making it look like a suicide. Cordova testified that he had never known his sister to be suicidal. (KOAT-TV)

“That led to a fight,” Cordova said from the witness stand, but he later gained a modicum of respect for Levi Chavez because “he stepped up to the plate and married my sister.”

The two even became friends, Cordova said, often trading good-natured barbs and banter as the years went by.

However, he testified, the last time he saw Levi Chavez — a month or so before Tera’s death — Chavez “was extremely short with me.”

“He barely even shook my hand,” Cordova said. “It was weird; he was super-distant. He had done a complete about face.”

Alina Sanchez of the New Mexico crime lab testified that Levi Chavez’s APD-issued Glock was in good working order when she tested it months after Tera’s death.

A shell casing found at the death scene had come from the Glock, she testified, but she was unable to determine whether a “deformed” bullet and several bullet fragments had come from the pistol.

Also expected on the witness stand today are Nick Wheeler, an APD officer with whom Tera was having an affair at the time of her death. Wheeler’s wife, Samantha Wheeler, who had gone to high school with the Chavezes, is expected to testify Monday.

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