ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On July 16, a reporter asked Levi Chavez about the pending wrongful death civil lawsuit against him.
“Bring it on,” replied the former Albuquerque police officer, who at the time was walking through the parking lot of the Sandoval County District courthouse minutes after a jury had acquitted him of charges that he killed his wife in 2007.
By Thursday morning, when he appeared before 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Ted Baca in Albuquerque for a hearing in the civil case, Chavez’s tone was decidedly different.
Now, he says, he can’t find a lawyer who is willing to represent him. And even if he could, he wouldn’t be able to afford one.
“I think I’ll be in debt the rest of my life to be honest,” he said in court Thursday. “I’m probably going to have to (represent myself and) go pro se, (but) I don’t know how to try a civil case. I have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s probably going to be very embarrassing for me.”
The family of Chavez’s wife, Tera Chavez, filed the civil lawsuit in 2008 against Levi Chavez, APD, some of its officers and Police Chief Ray Schultz.
In 2010, the city of Albuquerque settled the claims against Schultz, the officers and APD for $230,000, which went into an account for the Chavezes’ two children.
Among those claims were that APD brass allowed a culture of widespread extramarital affairs to flourish unchecked within the department – including affairs that Levi Chavez had with other officers and an affair one officer had with Tera Chavez – and that APD officers who went to the Chavezes’ home near Los Lunas the night of Tera Chavez’s death destroyed key evidence.
That left Levi Chavez as the sole remaining defendant to face claims he unlawfully caused the death of Tera Chavez, 26. The family’s theory, like the one prosecutors weren’t able to convince jurors of in the criminal case, is that Levi Chavez shot Tera once in the mouth with his APD-issued Glock 9 mm pistol in October 2007 and tried to make it look like a suicide.
Levi Chavez has maintained since he made the 911 call that night that his wife killed herself.
Baca reluctantly granted a stay in the civil case after Levi Chavez was indicted on the criminal charges in 2011.
On Thursday, he set the civil case for trial on Jan. 13.
Attorney Brad Hall, who is representing Tera Chavez’s family, had sought a trial date of Oct. 21. But Levi Chavez asked for more time, saying he is a full-time student at the University of New Mexico who, along with his wife, APD Detective Heather Chavez, is raising four children.
“I can’t do it by October,” he said.
The judge said Chavez’s request was reasonable but added that he is “not going to be inclined” to grant any continuances for beginning the civil trial. Baca encouraged Chavez to continue his search for a lawyer, telling Chavez that he will be “at a disadvantage” if he represents himself.
Chavez didn’t have that problem in the criminal trial that concluded July 16.
Attorney David Serna put on a spirited, comprehensive defense for Chavez. It ended with an acquittal by a Sandoval County jury of first-degree murder and evidence tampering charges.
The criminal trial played out on the front page of the Journal , at the top of local television broadcasts and under the watchful eye of NBC Dateline’s video camera for six weeks this summer and captivated the state.
Serna was present in court on Thursday, in part to discuss a motion he filed to withdraw as Levi Chavez’s civil attorney. Baca granted that motion.
Serna said in a text message to the Journal that he won’t represent Chavez because: “I have never tried a civil case in my life.”
No phantom attorney
At one point during the hearing, Baca saw Serna, who did not sit at the defense table, stand up and whisper something to Levi Chavez while Hall was arguing one of his motions.
Later, Baca addressed Serna and Levi Chavez, saying: “There won’t be this phantom attorney whispering things to you during trial. That won’t be allowed.”
Chavez said Thursday he had spoken with as many as eight local attorneys about representing him in the civil case. Citing the high-profile nature of the case, their affiliations with the city of Albuquerque and other reasons, each of those attorneys turned him down.
Returning to his contention that he is broke, Levi Chavez asked Baca for a bench trial.
“I can’t afford a jury,” he said.
In civil cases, the party that requests a jury is required to pay a jury fee. Chavez’s attorneys had previously requested a jury trial.
Baca agreed to take that matter up at an as yet unscheduled hearing.
Ruling on another motion, Baca also agreed to gather and preserve all the evidence that was admitted in the criminal trial, as well as some that wasn’t, from the prosecutors who tried Chavez for murder and from the judge who presided over that case.
Levi Chavez had asked to be able to keep two notes found at Tera’s death scene, one of which read simply: “I’m so sorry Levi.” A handwriting expert testified at the criminal trial that Tera had written them, but Serna and prosecutors argued about whether they were suicide notes.
He also wanted Tera Chavez’s cellphone, which contained several sexual videos she had made of herself to send to him, and the couple’s laptop computer.
He said he wanted the items for sentimental value, but Baca denied those requests. Instead, all the evidence will be turned over to Baca and stored in the Second Judicial District Court for safekeeping.
After Thursday’s hearing, Hall sounded confident about taking the case to trial.
“We don’t care if he gets an attorney or” represents himself, Hall said on the courthouse steps. “We’ve got a fast break coming down the court – a showtime-era-Lakers fast break with (James) Worthy on the wing and Magic (Johnson) coming down the middle – and that’s what will happen in January, regardless of whether Levi gets a lawyer.”