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Longtime friend says Tera Chavez didn’t like guns

Samantha Wheeler, a long-time friend of Tera Chavez, testifies during the Levi Chavez murder trial. Wheeler, whose husband Nick Wheeler was having an affair with Tera Chavez in the months before Tera's death, testified that Tera didn't like guns. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
Samantha Wheeler, a long-time friend of Tera Chavez, testifies during the Levi Chavez murder trial. Wheeler, whose husband Nick Wheeler was having an affair with Tera Chavez in the months before Tera's death, testified that Tera didn't like guns. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
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12:48 p.m.

Tera Chavez “didn’t like guns,” according to testimony this morning from a longtime friend with whom she had a complicated relationship.

Samantha Wheeler testified today — as the third week of the murder trial against Chavez’s husband, Levi Chavez, began — that she had been the maid of honor at the couple’s wedding.

Later on, in August 2007, Tera Chavez told Wheeler that she had been having an affair with Wheeler’s husband, Nick Wheeler.

Three days after Levi Chavez allegedly killed Tera in the couples home in Los Lunas, Nick Wheeler confessed the affair to his wife. That was October 24, 2007, a date Samantha Wheeler remembered well because it was her birthday, she testified this morning.

Samantha Wheeler testified that her friendship with Tera Chavez began in high school and carried on into adulthood. She said knew Tera to have emotional ups and downs because of Levi’s infidelities, but never knew her to broadly depressed.

In the last months of Tera’s life, according to Wheeler’s testimony, “she was ready to move on.”

In an interview with detectives after Tera’s death, Samantha Wheeler said she believed the 26-year-old might be capable of suicide by drug overdose or by cutting her wrists. But Tera never would have shot herself, Samantha, told detectives.

Earlier this morning, during a hearing to decide whether an alibi witness for Levi Chavez had a Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying, his attorney asked for immunity from prosecution. Bryan McKay, the lead prosecutor on the Chavez case, said he would not be able to grant immunity to Russell Perea, the former APD officer who was sharing a police vehicle on the weekend Tera died. “If there was any kind of perjury, it would have been in Bernalillo County,” McKay said.

The question now is whether State District Judge George P. Eichwald, who is presiding over the Chavez murder, could grant Perea immunity. After conducting a brief interview with Perea and his attorney in chambers, Eichwald said in open court that he would research that question. The judge expects to announce his findings some time in the next week.

Prosecutors expect to rest their case on either Friday or next Monday.


10:03 a.m.

Russell Perea appears in court during the Levi Chavez murder trial on Monday, June 24, 2013. Perea is seeking to get out of testifying by asserting his Fifth Amendment rights. (KOAT-TV)

Russell Perea appears in court during the Levi Chavez murder trial on Monday, June 24, 2013. Perea is seeking to get out of testifying by asserting his Fifth Amendment rights. (KOAT-TV)

BERNALILLO–Levi Chavez’s APD partner on the weekend in 2007 when Chavez allegedly killed his wife may yet testify in the ongoing murder trial in state District Court. But if Russell Perea does testify, he’ll do so with a promise of immunity.

State District Judge George P. Eichwald said during a hearing on Perea’s testimony this morning that he will look into whether he himself can grant the former APD officer his immunity.

Eichwald said he had a week or so to figure it out.

That’s because Perea wouldn’t take the stand until next week at the earliest, when Chavez’s attorney, David Serna, begins the presentation of his case in chief.

Serna had sought to compel Perea’s testimony as an alibi witness for Chavez.

But Perea, through his attorney, Sam Bregman, made it clear that he intended to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and that he would not testify.

“Every citizen in this country has the right to the Fifth Amendment,” Bregman said in court this morning. “Where are the immunity orders, judge? If they want my client’s testimony so bad, they need to grant him some kind of immunity.”

Bryan McKay, the chief prosecutor in Chavez’s murder case, said that if Perea takes the witness stand — regardless of any immunity order — any and all potential questions of Perea are fair game.

“If he gets called, we will assert our right to fully and effectively cross-examine him,” McKay said.

Also this morning, Eichwald ruled that prosecutors can play a recorded deposition Chavez gave in a civil wrongful death lawsuit against him.

The prosecutors, however, will only be allowed to play the audio of that recording.

Eichwald, picking up on a concern raised by Serna, said he didn’t want the jury to see the video, in part, because Chavez was dressed casually during the deposition and he didn’t appear pleased to be speaking with civil attorneys hired by the family of his dead wife, Tera Chavez.


— The following story appeared on page A1 of the Monday, June 24, 2013, edition of the Albuquerque Journal

Alibi witness tries to get out of Levi Chavez trial

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

One of Levi Chavez’s potential alibi witnesses is trying to get out of testifying in Chavez’s murder trial by asserting his Fifth Amendment rights, according to court filings, because he doesn’t want to “make waves” in a pending legal case of his own.

So Chavez’s attorney, David Serna, is seeking to compel the testimony of Russell Perea, who was sharing an Albuquerque Police Department vehicle with Chavez the weekend prosecutors allege that Chavez killed his wife.

State District Judge George P. Eichwald will decide at a hearing this morning, outside the presence of the jury, whether Perea must testify, the Journal has learned.

Prosecutors allege that Chavez, a former Albuquerque police officer, killed his wife in the couple’s home near Los Lunas last year on either Oct. 19, 20 or 21 with his APD-issued pistol and tried to make it look like a suicide.

Chavez contends that he discovered his wife’s body around 9 p.m. on Oct. 21, a Sunday. He claims he hadn’t been home since the previous Friday morning and that he had spent the weekend working two 2 p.m. to midnight shifts for APD and staying at the Albuquerque home of another officer with whom he was having an affair.

On Oct. 19 and 20, Perea and Chavez worked the West Side together.

In a motion to compel Perea’s testimony filed Thursday, Serna contends that Perea testified under oath in a deposition for a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Chavez that “he was in the physical presence of Levi Chavez for virtually the entire shift” on those two days and that “Levi Chavez never left the Westside Area Command during his shift.”

APD officials fired Perea in August 2011, four months after Chavez was indicted, for inconsistencies between statements he made about the Levi Chavez matter during the deposition, in an interview with Valencia County Sheriff’s deputies who were investigating Tera Chavez’s death and in an APD Internal Affairs investigation.

Serna pointed out two of those inconsistencies in his motion to compel Perea’s testimony: Perea said in one instance that he didn’t know Chavez prior to their employment at APD but later said the two had gone to high school together, and he at first said the two never shared a police vehicle after Tera’s death but later said they had.

APD records show that the last call Perea and Chavez took on Saturday, Oct. 20, was a domestic violence incident at 7:45 p.m.

Perea has maintained that the two were together virtually the entire shift. However, discrepancies in APD records raised questions for department officials about where he and Chavez had been that night and whether they had been together the whole shift, according to a city hearing officer’s summary of why Perea was fired.

Perea successfully sought through the city personnel board to get his job back.

According to the city hearing officer, APD officials never told Perea how he violated policies before they fired him. And APD Deputy Chiefs Allen Banks and Paul Feist, who is now retired, were unable to prove during personnel hearings earlier this year that Perea had been untruthful.

In a 19-page opinion dated in February, the hearing officer blasted APD and the city, saying the city failed “to demonstrate employee wrongdoing, much less that he deserved to be discharged.”

The city appealed the personnel board’s ruling, and a hearing is scheduled this week in state District Court.

In his motion to compel Perea’s testimony, Serna accused then-VCSO Detective Aaron Jones, the lead investigator in Tera Chavez’s death, of using “coercive, threatening interrogation techniques during (a) nearly three hour interview” with Perea.

“None of the statements Mr. Perea made during his deposition, which Aaron Jones claims are untruthful, are material misstatements of fact,” Serna wrote. “Therefore, Russell Perea is not in jeopardy for perjury or any other sort of criminal violation.”

On April 17, Serna served a subpoena on Perea through his attorney, Sam Bregman, for a pretrial interview in the murder case. Bregman told Serna, according to the motion, that he intended to seek a protective order to keep Perea off the stand.

In a follow-up letter on June 12 that was attached to Serna’s motion, Bregman wrote: “I have conferred with my client and it is still our position that Mr. Perea will be exercising his Fifth Amendment right not to testify at trial … .”

Reached by telephone Friday, Bregman confirmed that he plans to accompany Perea to this morning’s hearing. He declined to comment further.

Serna, in his motion, wrote that Bregman is “simply wanting to protect his client, and avoid ‘making waves’ ” in the upcoming appeal hearing.

“Although Mr. Bregman is justifiably concerned that thrusting Mr. Perea into a high profile murder case as an alibi witness for (Levi Chavez) might have a negative impact on Mr. Perea’s pending litigation, such concern does not amount to a Fifth Amendment privilege … ,” his motion states.

It is unclear whether prosecutors had planned to call Perea as a witness for the state, although his name was on a prosecution witness list from March 2012.

Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez did not return a telephone message Friday.

Also on that witness list is Rita Brito, Levi Chavez’s mother. Chavez maintains that he went to his mother’s home in Los Lunas on Sunday evening Oct. 21, 2007, and that he left from there to go home and check on Tera. That’s when he said he found her dead.

The third of Chavez’s alibi witnesses is former APD officer Deborah Romero, with whom Levi Chavez was having an affair at the time of his wife’s death. Chavez maintains that he went to Romero’s Northeast Albuquerque home after finishing his shift at 12 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2007, and stayed the night.

Romero testified last week that Chavez did spend the night, but she doesn’t know what time he arrived, because she was asleep.

After this morning’s hearing, the trial is scheduled to move into its third week with testimony from more prosecution witnesses.

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