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The Levi Chavez Case: From the Beginning

 

Overview

Nearly six years have passed since Valencia County Sheriff’s deputies entered the home at 11 Ash Place in Los Lunas and found Tera Chavez in bed, dead from a single gunshot through the mouth, her Albuquerque police officer husband’s service gun resting against her body.

Levi Chavez, Tera’s husband, is currently on trial for murder and evidence tampering. He was fired from APD on April 18, 2011.

The trial, given the circumstances and the players involved, is one of the highest-profile trials in recent New Mexico memory.

The defense, headed by David Serna, has said from the beginning that Tera Chavez committed suicide on Oct. 21, 2007, after months of depression and stress about the couple’s marriage.

Bryan McKay, the lead prosecutor from the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, is trying to convince jurors that Chavez killed his wife in part to prevent her from testifying against him in an insurance fraud case related to the alleged staged theft of his truck.

Judge George P. Eichwald granted a defense request in December to move the case from Valencia County to Sandoval County due to intense pretrial publicity.

On July 16, 2013, a Sandoval County jury found Levi Chavez not guilty.

The Albuquerque Journal coverage below contains comprehensive reporting on each step of the story, from the initial investigation into Tera Chavez’s death, through the wrongful-death civil litigation filed by Tera’s family, to the verdict in the murder trial of Levi Chavez.

– Jeff Proctor

Who’s who

  • On October 21, 2007, Valencia County Sheriff's deputies responded to a 911 call made by then Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez and found Tera Chavez in bed, dead from a single gunshot to the mouth. Levi Chavez's service weapon was found resting against her body. In the weeks before her death, Tera had allegedly told friends and family that her husband had staged the theft of his truck to collect the insurance money. The Chavezes' marriage was strained at the time, in large part due to Levi's numerous infidelities. (Courtesy Cordova family)

  • On October 21, 2007, then Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez called 911 to report finding his wife Tera Chavez dead in their home near Los Lunas from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. An investigation into her death led to his indictment and eventual trial for murder, which began on June 10, 2013. Chavez claims that at the time Tera Chavez died, he was at the home of Deborah Romero, one his numerous paramours. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

  • District Court Judge George P. Eichwald is presiding over the murder trial of ex-Albuqueruqe police officer Levi Chavez. On Dec. 5, 2012, Eichwald granted a defense motion to move the trial from Valencia County to Sandoval County, citing intense media coverage. Eichwald also ruled on June 5, 2013, that prosecutors would not be allowed to present evidence or testimony related to statements Tera Chavez made to friends and family members before her death that if anything happened to her that Levi did it. (Marla Brose/Journal)

  • Bryan McKay, the lead prosecutor from the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, is trying to convince jurors that Levi Chavez killed his wife, Tera Chavez, in part to prevent her from testifying against him in an insurance fraud case related to the alleged staged theft of his truck. State officials had scheduled a grand jury to hear the insurance fraud case but ultimately abandoned it. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Levi Chavez's attorney, David Serna, contends that Tera Chavez did, indeed, commit suicide on Oct. 21, 2007, after months of depression and stress about the couple’s marriage, which included multiple infidelities. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

  • Joseph and Theresa Cordova, parents of Tera Chavez, said they were aware of the Chavezes' marital difficulties, but that Tera was not suicidal. Joseph Cordova testified on June 19, 2013, that when he arrived at the Chavez home two days after Tera's death to pick out a dress for her funeral, all of her belongings were already in boxes. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Retired APD Lt. Shawn O'Connell testified on June 12, 2013, that he never would have gone into Levi Chavez's home on the night Tera Chavez was found dead had Valencia County Sheriff’s investigators indicated that anything “suspicious” had taken place inside. While in the Chavezes' home that night. O'Connell, a former homicide detective, said that he cut a piece of bloody bedding from beneath where Tera Chavez's body had been laying so that Tera's family would not have to see it. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

  • Valencia County Sheriff's Office Lt. John Gordon testified on June 11, 2013, that on the night Tera Chavez died, Levi Chavez was hesitant about investigators contacting his superiors at the Albuquerque Police Department, and he didn't want them to contact his wife's family. Gordon testified that Levi's behavior, along with the fact that the bullet that killed Tera Chavez came from his APD-issued Glock 9 mm handgun, led Gordon and other detectives to expand their investigation beyond suicide. (Marla Brose/Journal)

  • Aaron Jones, the lead investigator handling the death of Tera Chavez for the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, testified on June 11 and 12, 2013, that when he removed the magazine from the gun found at the scene of Tera's death, he did so without having to use the button that makes removing the magazine possible. Jones testified that the magazine was already disengaged and that a bullet was in the gun's chamber. Jones also testified that he believed the case was taken away from him because his supervisor had ties to Levi Chavez. Defense attorney David Serna has attempted to discredit Jones. During his opening statement, Serna told the jury that, “Aaron Jones is a dirty, dishonest police officer.” (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

  • Rose Slama, one of Levi Chavez’s numerous paramours, testified on June 13, 2013, that Levi had told her on more than one occasion that “while he was in the shower, he heard the bang. And when he came out, he found Tera deceased.” The testimony directly contradicts Chavez's version of events. He has said he discovered his wife’s body immediately after arriving at the couple's home on the night of Oct. 21, 2007. Slama also testified that Tera Chavez told her that Levi's truck wasn't really stolen. Slama, who was having a two-year affair with Levi, subsequently told him what Tera had said. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Former Albuquerque police officer Debra Romero, one of Levi Chavez's numerous paramours, testified on June 19, 2013, that she couldn't say with certainty what time Levi Chavez arrived at her home the night before he called 911 on Oct. 21, 2007, to report finding his wife dead. Chavez’s version of events is that he spent the weekend with Romero and that he hadn't been home since Oct. 19, 2007. Romero also testified that Levi Chavez told her he was “going through a divorce” when she began dating him and that “he was not a married man.” (KOAT-TV)

  • APD officer Nicholas Wheeler testified he was having an affair with Tera Chavez at the time of her death. During cross-examination, defense attorney David Serna insinuated that Valencia County Sheriff’s detectives may have failed to look at Wheeler as a suspect because he was close friends with some of those detectives. Levi Chavez did not know about the affair until after Tera's death, according to other testimony. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

  • Samantha Wheeler, a lifelong friend of Tera Chavez, testified on June 24, 2013, that she believed Tera wouldn't have shot herself because Tera didn't like guns. Wheeler also testified that while Tera had emotional ups and downs because of Levi’s infidelities, she never knew Tera to be broadly depressed and that in the last months of Tera’s life, “she was ready to move on.” (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

  • Jody Citizen, a senior analyst for the Verizon Wireless company’s legal department, testified that Levi Chavez’s cellphone was likely turned off between 12:27 a.m. and 3:32 p.m. on Oct. 21, 2007, a 15-hour period on the day Levi Chavez said he found Tera dead in their home. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Alan Berman, a clinical psychologist, testified out of order as a defense witness on June 26, 2013, that he believed Tera Chavez was suicidal before her death. Berman said he read from Tera Chavez’s diary and from text messages she sent a year before she died to make his determination, but didn't interview anyone who knew her. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Katrina Garley, the fourth of Levi Chavez's paramours to testify in his murder trial, said in court on June 28, 2013, that she had sex with Levi Chavez in the home the former cop shared with Tera three weeks after Tera died. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • APD Detective Heather Chavez, Levi Chavez's current wife, testified on June 28, 2013, that she and Chavez didn't start having sex until after Tera Chavez's death. Twenty-four days after Tera was found dead, Heather Chavez said she sent a text message to Levi Chavez suggesting a marriage may not be far off. “Mmmm detective Chavez with homicide,” the text read. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Las Cruces police officer and a digital forensic investigator Michael Brookreson testified on June 28, 2013, that a search of Levi Chavez’s personal laptop computer turned up an Internet search from November 2006 for “how to kill someone.” And six days before Tera Chavez was found dead, “all of a sudden, there was a deletion of files,” Brookreson said. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

  • Firearms expert Mark A. Radosevich testified that evidence at the scene of Tera's death was inconsistent with suicide. Radosevich said detectives reported that a bullet was in the chamber of the gun when it was found and the magazine was disengaged from the weapon. A new round can be chambered only if the magazine is place, he testified, so someone besides Tera Chavez must have handled the gun after it was fired. “Someone had to press that magazine release after (the Glock) was fired,” he said. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

  • Former APD officer Russell Perea testified on July 2, 2013 -- with a promise of immunity granted by Judge Eichwald -- that he couldn't be sure where Levi Chavez was for the entirety of the two swing shifts they worked together on Oct. 19 and 20, 2007. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

  • Rita Romero, Levi Chavez's mother, testified through tears on July 2, 2013, that she loved her daughter-in-law, Tera Chavez, and that Tera was essentially lost during her numerous separations from Levi. Romero used words such as “lonely,” “scared” and “isolated,” to describe Tera Chavez's emotional state. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

  • Defense witness Larry McCann, a crime scene expert, attempted to show the jury on June 3, 2013, how Tera Chavez may have been able to unseat the magazine of her husband's Glock 9 mm pistol after shooting herself in the mouth. McCann attempted the maneuver four times, each time unsuccessfully. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

  • Attorney David Serna stunned a packed courtroom with the following words: “The defense calls Levi Chavez.” Asked by Serna to detail his relationship with his wife Tera, Chavez described the couple’s marital difficulties and became emotional as he described finding Tera dead in home near Los Lunas. Under cross-examination by lead prosecutor Bryan McKay, Chavez admitted dating another woman while his wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Chavez said his relationships with other women strained the couple’s marriage.(Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Story timeline

The sideshow

Attorney David Serna addressed the court in the Levi Chavez murder trial last week and opined that jurors had heard enough of certain themes in the prosecution’s case, including testimony that the victim wasn’t suicidal before she was found dead with a gunshot wound through her mouth.

“Ditto for the paramours or mistresses,” he added. “The jury already gets the point that Levi (was) sleeping around to a large degree.”

The judge, striking a blow for prurient gossipers, sided with the DA and said he would let two more of the defendant’s mistresses take the witness stand.

Two more mistresses! Thank goodness I wasn’t in the courtroom that day. I probably would have stood up and tried to get a wave going.

If anything has rescued this hot, dry, fiery summer from total dreadfulness, it has been the soap opera airing in Judge George Eichwald’s courtroom in the Sandoval County courthouse.

The case itself is deadly serious: Chavez, a former Albuquerque Police Department officer, is accused of murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Tera Chavez.

The defense argues she was despondent over his many affairs and the end of her marriage, and took her husband’s APD-issued pistol and killed herself. The prosecution alleges he killed her to stop her from talking about an insurance fraud scheme he was involved in and tried to make it look like a suicide.

But it’s the sideshow that’s spellbinding. At least for those of us interested in other people’s sex lives.

Read more: Levi’s lovers steam up summer

levilover

 

Coverage archive

Video: Chavez enters not guilty plea

Video: Complete opening arguments

Video: Levi takes the stand

Prosecution closing arguments

Defense closing arguments

Prosecution rebuttal

 

The Investigation

11/21/2007: Death of APD Officer’s Wife Investigated
05/01/2008: ABQjournal Metro: Death Now Called Suspicious
01/30/2010: Suit: APD Affairs Figured in Death
05/11/2010: Probe Into Officer’s Wife’s Death Halted
10/16/2010: Prosecutors Review Officer’s Wife’s Death
10/29/2010: APD Cop May Face Charges in Death
04/08/2011: APD officer indicted in wife’s ’07 homicide
04/14/2011: APD Officer’s Missing Truck Found in Mexico
04/19/2011: Accused Cop Kept Receiving Pay, Raises
04/21/2011: APD Probing Cops at Chavez Home
05/10/2011: Valencia Co. Sheriff Won’t Charge APD Officers in Levi Chavez Case
05/15/2011:  Deputy Found Himself in Chavez Family Web
06/04/2011: APD Launches New Levi Chavez Probe
06/10/2011: Detective’s MySpace Comments ‘Inappropriate’
06/10/2011: Chief: Wrong VIN May Be ‘Coincidence’
06/16/2011: Cop Tweeted About Pistol-Whipping, Muslims
07/19/2011: Doubt Cast on Levi Chavez Truck Theft
07/28/2011: APD To Fire One Officer, Discipline Another
08/17/2011: 2 Officers Punished For Policy Violations
08/11/2011: IA Probe Suggests Firing Cop
08/16/2011: APD: One Cop Fired, Another Suspended After Levi Chavez investigation
10/17/2011: Tera’s family: ‘We want answers’
10/18/2011: Rogue Cop Cost City Nearly $900,000
02/07/2012: Cop Fired in Chavez Case Wins Round
03/15/2012: Fired APD Officer’s Appeal Is Delayed

Editorials

08/20/2008: City Cops Should Stay Clear of Valencia Case – Albuquerque Journal
02/05/2010: Editorial: APD Shouldn’t Be ‘The Young and the Restless’
06/26/2011: Editorial: All of APD Needed To Scrub This ‘Stain’ Out
10/24/2011: Editorial: Cost of Rogue APD Cop? Close to Priceless
12/27/2012: Editorial: APD Must Fire Bad Cops

Civil Suit

08/19/2008: Suit Blames Cop, APD for Death
08/20/2008: Cop Suit ‘Sickens’ Lawyer
08/28/2008: APD: Sued Cops Were Off Duty
02/25/2011: City Agrees To Pay $230K in Settlement 
04/23/2011: City Taxpayers Stuck With Ex-Cop’s Big Tab
03/15/2012: Fired APD Officer’s Appeal Is Delayed | ABQ Journal

Pretrial

04/02/2011: DA Could Seek Death Penalty
04/26/2011: Former Officer Pleads Not Guilty
05/15/2011: Lawyers Battle Over ‘Chavez Crime Family’ Accusations
06/24/2011: DA: Death Penalty Off The Table
11/22/2011: Ex-Cop’s Trial Set For July 9
05/12/2012: Ex-APD Cop Won’t Go to Trial In July
07/11/2012: Ex-Cop’s Trial Moved To Sandoval County
12/05/2012: Judge Rules Levi Chavez Case to Be Held in Sandoval County
03/29/2013: Judge halts pretrial hearing in Levi Chavez case 
04/22/2013: Judge orders pretrial motions in Levi Chavez murder case sealed
05/15/2013: N.M. media seeks to unseal Chavez docs | ABQ Journal
05/22/2013: Judge to rule on unsealing Chavez docs
06/01/2013: Levi Chavez trial to get extra security
06/05/2013: Judge excludes statements made by Tera Chavez

The Trial

06/03/2013: Chavez murder trial gets under way
06/08/2013: Chavez jury of 14 women, 4 men selected
06/10/2013: Day 1 closes in former ABQ cop’s murder trial
06/11/2013: The ‘perfect murder’ or suicide by a ‘needy’ wife?
06/12/2013: Lt. recounts scene after Tera’s death
06/13/2013: Gun raised questions about Chavez suicide
06/14/2013: Ex-girlfriend contradicts Levi’s version
06/15/2013: Prosecution witness backtracks in Chavez trial
06/17/2013: Chavez trial on hold, defense says evidence withheld
06/18/2013: Judge rules Chavez case can continue
06/19/2013: Alibi witness takes the stand
06/20/2013: Levi Chavez’s alibi on trial
06/21/2013: Defense tries to shift suspicion from Chavez
06/24/2013: Alibi witness tries to get out of Levi Chavez trial
06/25/2013: Forensic investigator testifies in Chavez trial
06/26/2013: Suicide expert testifies in Chavez trial
06/27/2013: Another girlfriend testifies in Chavez trial
06/28/2013: Phone info can’t pinpoint Levi Chavez for 15 hours
06/29/2013: ‘How to kill someone’
07/01/2013: Chavez’s gun takes center stage in murder trial
07/02/2013: Levi Chavez’s mother testifies
07/03/2013: Levi’s mom: They should have split up long ago
07/09/2013: Forensic pathologist says Tera committed suicide
07/10/2013: Will Levi take the stand?
07/11/2013: Levi takes the stand
07/12/2013: Chavez trial goes to jury
07/15/2013: Jury deliberations begin in Chavez trial
07/16/2013: Jury finds Levi Chavez not guilty

The verdict

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