Officer recounts scene after Tera Chavez's death
Several "flags" led Valencia County law enforcement to expand its investigation of Tera Chavez's death beyond her husband's story of a suicide, VCSO Lt. John Gordon testified during the second day of testimony in Levi Chavez's murder trial.
For example, Levi Chavez, then an Albuquerque police officer, questioned why Valencia County Sheriff's investigators would contact his APD superiors after Chavez reported her death the night of Oct. 21, 2007, Gordon said Tuesday.
Chavez also told investigators he didn't want them to call his wife's family to the couple's home near Los Lunas that night, saying he knew they would blame him.
Gordon said that at first those two details didn't ring any bells of concern. But when Tera's family was later notified of her purported suicide, they raised questions about the circumstances surrounding her death.
Gordon said at that point, it seemed odd that Chavez did not want anyone, including APD, at the scene, especially considering that the bullet that killed Tera hadn't come from just any gun. It had been fired from her husband's APD-issued Glock 9 mm handgun.
Levi Chavez is on trial for first-degree murder and evidence tampering. He was indicted on those charges in April 2011 after a three-and-a-half-year investigation by law enforcement officers who initially believed his story about his wife killing herself.
Two sharply different views of Levi and Tera Chavez emerged Monday during opening statements.
Prosecutor Bryan McKay painted a picture of a marriage that was failing because of infidelity and distrust that reached an apex in the weeks before Tera's death when she let slip to one of her husband's paramours that she believed he and his fellow police officers had pulled an insurance scam with Levi's truck.
McKay said Chavez nearly pulled off the "perfect murder — one in which people are convinced it's not a murder" — when he killed his wife in 2007 and tried to make it look like a suicide.
Defense attorney David Serna offered a sharply different version of the events and life circumstances that led up to Valencia County Sheriff's investigators arriving at the couple's home in the Las Maravillas subdivision near Los Lunas to find Levi Chavez weeping beside a bed that held his wife's dead body.
Serna described Tera Chavez as a "needy person" who was "very sad and depressed over the state of the marriage and Levi's multiple affairs."
Serna mentioned four women, three of them fellow police officers, with whom Levi Chavez was cheating on Tera around the time of her death.
The defense attorney launched into several lengthy attacks against the credibility of then-Valencia County Sheriff's Detective Aaron Jones, who was among the first deputies to arrive at the Chavezes' home on Oct. 21, 2007, after Levi called 911 to say his wife had killed herself.
After initially supporting Levi Chavez's story about a suicide, Jones, began to have doubts and eventually labeled Levi as a suspect. Jones became the lead detective in the homicide investigation.
Serna told the jury that Jones tried to bias potential witnesses against Levi Chavez – and that Jones broke with common police practices in doing so.
"Aaron Jones is a dirty, dishonest police officer," Serna said.
Earlier in his opening statement, Serna had described Jones and other VCSO personnel who went to the Chavez home as "very experienced officers."
After opening statements, McKay played a recording of Levi Chavez's call to Valencia County 911 dispatchers in which Chavez reported that his wife had shot herself "in the head."
For the nine minutes of the call, he could be heard sobbing, moaning and saying multiple times: "How could she do this to us?"
The couple had two children.
The dispatcher asked Chavez if he was willing to attempt CPR on his wife. He said he couldn't and added that it appeared she had been dead at least a day.
Also on Monday, McKay admitted into evidence more than 100 photographs taken at the Chavez home after detectives arrived. The photographer, Dee Hall, was working her first-ever crime scene as an evidence technician for the Sheriff's Office.
Also admitted into evidence was a laptop computer taken from the Chavezes' home.
On it, according to a computer expert McKay said he plans to put on the witness stand, were searches in late 2006 for "how to kill someone." The searches, McKay said, coincided with an incident in which Tera Chavez had confronted one of Levi's girlfriends.
According to the prosecutor's theory, which has been the subject of scores of news accounts, the Chavezes' marriage was crumbling due to infidelity and financial woes, and their problems were exacerbated when it appeared Tera Chavez was having second thoughts about an alleged insurance scam she had participated in with her husband.
"It all comes together on that weekend," McKay said of the October 2007 weekend when Tera died. "Levi comes home, puts (his APD-issued) gun – that he had with him – into Tera's mouth and pulls the trigger. … This was not a suicide, because the defendant killed his wife."
Serna's portrait of a distraught Levi Chavez and a "pestering" Tera Chavez whom he said called and texted her husband 315 times during the weekend of her death has been relatively unknown until Monday.
State District Judge George P. Eichwald is presiding over one of the most anticipated criminal trials in recent New Mexico history. It is expected to last four to six weeks.
Chavez, who was fired from APD after his indictment, maintains his innocence, saying his wife committed suicide.
On Tuesday, prosecutors admitted into evidence what Chavez's attorney, David Serna, has called two suicide notes.
"I'm sorry, Levi," reads one of the notes, which was written on a page in a notebook investigators found on a table next to the bed where Tera Chavez's body was lying.
The other note, which investigators from VCSO taped back together after finding it ripped up in a bathroom trash can, reads: "I'm so sorry. All I wanted was your love. I'm sorry I wasn't good enough for you. I hope you'll be happy now. I always loved you all of you so much!"
Serna said during his opening statement Monday that handwriting experts will testify that Tera Chavez wrote the notes. He has cited them as evidence of suicide.
Prosecutors have raised doubt about the notes, arguing that they don't point to suicide when considered in the larger context of their eroding marriage and, by the time Tera Chavez died, the two were estranged.
After testifying about his role in collecting evidence at the home, VCSO Lt. Gordon described one of the more controversial events of the case — the removal of bloody items from the scene.
Lt. Shawn O'Connell and officer Rick Ingram of APD responded to the call.
Gordon testified that as he and others from VCSO were "clearing the scene," O'Connell asked "what I thought of the idea of them removing some of the bloody things" from the home.
"I asked why, and they said so the family wouldn't have to see it," he said. "It was done out of compassion."
With Gordon's permission and under his supervision, O'Connell borrowed a knife from Ingram and cut a piece of bedding from where Tera Chavez's body had been lying shortly before. The cut-out piece contained a two- or three-inch swipe of blood that was on the opposite side of the bed from where her body had been removed and more than a foot away from where the blood from the gunshot wound to her head had pooled.
Gordon said the staff from an area funeral home later took the bloody bedding from the scene and that O'Connell's actions weren't meant to "taint anything."
Levi Chavez articulated his aversion to others coming to the home during an interview with Gordon and Detective Jones. He told investigators that had he worked at Walmart, his supervisors wouldn't have been called to the scene, Gordon testified.
Jurors heard a recording of that interview, which lasted more than 30 minutes, in court on Tuesday.
"Everyone's going to know it's my fault," Chavez told Gordon and Jones. "Her family's going to be so pissed."
Chavez was at times hysterical during the interview, moaning and crying as he told the investigators his wife had threatened suicide many times before, but at other times sounds calm.
The former APD officer was emotional in court Tuesday as the recording was played, as he had been on Monday when photographs of his wife's body were shown. His tears have marked a departure from his demeanor during court proceedings during the past two-plus years, which has typically been calm and confident.