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Death Now Called Suspicious

By T.J. Wilham
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The shooting death of an Albuquerque police officer's wife in her Los Lunas home in October initially was listed as a suicide.
    Now, Valencia County authorities say they have ruled out suicide. They are calling the death of Tera Chavez suspicious and say her husband, APD officer Levi Chavez is a "person of interest" in their investigation.
    "This is being treated as a homicide right now," said Valencia County sheriff's Detective Aaron Jones. "We are not at the point of charging anybody but we are certainly investigating."
    Jones on Wednesday said Valencia County authorities are looking into "issues regarding insurance," but wouldn't elaborate. The New Mexico Fraud Insurance Board has been assisting in the investigation.
    Chavez's attorney, David Serna, said his client has assured him he had nothing to do with his wife's death, that he was very distraught when he discovered her body, and that he has cooperated with the investigation by giving three voluntary statements and a DNA sample.
    "On behalf of Levi, we are real disappointed that his good name has to be tarnished, even by the categorization as a person of interest," Serna said Wednesday.
    "He is a good man and a good law enforcement officer. It is a disappointment that he is still being dragged through this."
    In the early morning hours of Oct. 22, Levi Chavez called 911 from a separate location and reported "there was a problem" at his house in Los Lunas and that his wife had killed herself.
    Chavez met the arriving deputies, who found Tera Chavez, 26, dead from a gunshot wound.
    Investigators found a "minute" amount of marijuana on Tera Chavez and her husband's police-issued 9mm Glock handgun nearby.
    According to autopsy reports obtained by the Journal, the gun had been fired inside Tera Chavez's mouth. The state Office of the Medical Investigator ruled the manner of death a suicide.
    But at the Valencia County Sheriff's Department's request, OMI a few weeks later changed manner of death to "undetermined."
    "It is very rare that a woman will, one, shoot herself, but, two, it's even more rare they will shoot herself in the face," Jones said. "Once we looked harder at the scene, we realized that things are not what they initially appeared.
    "As we went on and looked to the background of someone's life and the complexity of it, it wasn't making sense," he said. "This has been labeled as a suicide from the word go by Levi Chavez."
    Autopsy reports indicated a suicide note was left, but Jones said it was very short and the handwriting is being analyzed.
    Jones said investigators are also looking into the possibility a truck stolen from the Chavezes a few weeks before Tera Chavez's death is in any way related to the incident.
    He wouldn't elaborate.
    Investigators said that at the time Tera Chavez was killed, both she and her husband were involved in extramarital affairs with other APD officers.
    Nearly a month after Tera's Chavez's death, in November, Police Chief Ray Schultz put Levi Chavez on paid leave once he realized the Valencia County investigation "was going in a different direction."
    Chavez, 26, remained on leave Wednesday, and Schultz said his Internal Affairs Division would begin an inquiry once Valencia County wraps up its criminal investigation.
    Levi Chavez transferred to the Albuquerque Police Department in January 2007 from the city's aviation police.
    "He wants to get back to work," Serna said. "He has been trying to get back to work, but that is at a standstill until he is cleared from a person of interest status.
    "We remain in full cooperation mode, hoping he will soon be cleared."
    Jones said he suspects there are people who know something about the case but have yet to come forward. He is urging anyone with information to call the Valencia County Sheriff's Department at 866-2400.