Sunday, May 15, 2011
Deputy Found Himself in Chavez Family Web
By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Everything changed for Shane Harger on Oct. 20, 2007.
He was in his first year as a Valencia County sheriff's deputy when he responded to a 911 call from then-Albuquerque police Officer Levi Chavez II, who told dispatchers his wife, Tera Chavez, had fatally shot herself with his duty weapon.
Harger saw a number of things at the Chavez home in Los Lunas that were inconsistent with suicide, he told attorneys 15 months later.
According to a copy of a deposition Harger provided to the Journal, Levi Chavez had wet hands, and blood was in the guest bathroom toilet. Unsolicited, Chavez offered Harger an alibi and showed him a text message on his cellphone, which Chavez said had come from his wife. It read: "I'm afraid I'm going to hurt myself."
"Based on information and belief, also based on my training and experience, I'm of the opinion that Tera Chavez was shot and killed at someone else's hand," Harger said in the deposition, which was taken in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the woman's family against Chavez and the APD.
Harger was in an undisclosed location outside Albuquerque when his deposition was taken by telephone. He was questioned by attorneys for her family, and cross-examined by attorneys for Levi Chavez Jr. and the city of Albuquerque.
Within a few months of being called to the death scene in 2007, things got even stranger for Harger, as recounted in the deposition he provided to the newspaper.
Here is a summary of his account:
While at a DWI instructors class in Albuquerque, Harger was approached by a man he didn't know who introduced himself as the Guadalupe County sheriff.
The man turned out to be Robert Chavez, Levi's uncle. Robert Chavez offered Harger a job as a sheriff's deputy in Guadalupe County, and Harger accepted.
Harger wouldn't learn of the family connection until later.
Shortly after arriving in Guadalupe County in early 2008, Harger was invited to a "drinking party" at Robert Chavez's home. The sheriff was "obviously inebriated" and told Harger that part of his job with the department would be to look for Mexican nationals driving along a highway that leads to Mexico and seize "certain types of vehicles that can be used for the sheriff's department."
Robert Chavez, who resigned as sheriff after he was arrested on suspicion of DWI in 2009, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Harger testified in his deposition that he stopped several vehicles on the highway Robert Chavez had specified.
"We were given specific instructions to use one particular towing service in Santa Rosa, no others, regardless of standard procedures through dispatch that wreckers are to be called via rotation," he said.
"Once the vehicles were removed from the roadway, that wrecker service would take them to their impound yard, and I have no knowledge as to what took place with those vehicles after that point."
And then another twist, according to his testimony.
Harger said he was approached by the Guadalupe County Emergency Management coordinator, at some point after receiving his instructions from the sheriff.
The coordinator — who turned out to be Levi Chavez Sr. — asked Harger about his career and whether he liked living in Guadalupe County.
"Then, out of nowhere, he brought up the fact that I was the initial officer on the Tera Chavez case," he said. "He just came out and said that, you know, 'Aren't you the one that's investigating my son's case?'
"I said, 'Well, who's your son?' And he told me that his son was Levi Chavez Jr., at which point the hair stood up on the back of my neck, because he then disclosed that Robert Chavez was Levi Chavez Jr.'s uncle. ... And I just found myself right smack-dab in the middle of all of them."
Levi Chavez Sr. then told Harger that if he testified favorably for Levi Jr., the case would go away, and Harger would have continued employment with Guadalupe County.
Levi Sr. said: "You know, we know you're going to make the right choice in this matter. ...You're going to work here for a long time. You're going to have a good career here."
Levi Chavez Sr. could not be reached for comment.
Harger began to keep a file on what he believed was happening in Guadalupe County and shared his concerns with an Albuquerque-based FBI agent and several other colleagues in law enforcement.
Soon afterward, Harger learned that two people — one of them an undercover narcotics officer — had died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds from Robert Chavez's duty weapon during the 1990s.
Both deaths were ruled suicides, but a family member of the narcotics detective told Harger that he didn't believe that.
By the summer 2008, Harger had gotten "very uneasy" with his employment situation due to his "lack of cooperation with the illegal or unethical dealings within the department."
The sheriff had begun demanding that he submit his fuel records, "which was something he had never done before," according to the deposition. Robert Chavez had also told him he had to start parking his patrol unit at the sheriff's office after shifts. Harger noticed a deputy in an unmarked vehicle sitting in his driveway.
One night, he arrived home to the ranch house he was renting to find it had been burglarized. The only thing missing was a manila folder that contained written documentation about the vehicle towing operation, the Tera Chavez case and notes about Harger's interactions with Robert Chavez and Levi Chavez Sr.
"I had information and belief that there was, in fact, an automobile-theft ring which was organized, facilitated, coordinated and/or propagated through and for the Chavez family," Harger said in his deposition.
After he discovered the burglary, Harger called a friend in law enforcement to say he was leaving the ranch.
"I called him while leaving my property in fear for my life and told him that if he didn't hear from me within eight hours, that he needed to contact the Attorney General's Office and start looking for my body."
Within a few weeks, Harger had been fired. He said he was followed once by a truck owned by the Guadalupe County Sheriff's Office and again after he moved back to Valencia County.
Harger also said he received several "death threats from anonymous sources which, based on reasonable inferences, I believe to be the Chavez family," according to the deposition.
Eventually, Harger left New Mexico, he said in an interview with the Journal this week.
"I left because of this case," he said.
Civil case on hold
The wrongful death lawsuit has been put on hold pending resolution of the murder charges filed against Levi Chavez II. The city of Albuquerque paid $230,000 and was dropped as a defendant.