The Death of Tera Chavez: Was it Murder or Suicide?

This was a case that I stumbled upon to look into when I was researching the last case I did on the shooting death of Mary Hawkes.  Unlike most of the ones I look into I really knew nothing about this case other than the wife of a police officer had died.  In the end I think I spent more hours reading about this case than any other. It seems that the more I read, the more questions I had and the more confused I became.  Maybe the reason for that is that one of the first things I learned in my search was the outcome of the trial.  So, to be fair and so that readers can either help or understand my confusion I will attempt to give the reader the story in much the same way that I obtained it.

On October 21, 2007 around 9pm Albuquerque Police Officer Levi Chavez called 911 (to be clear the call went to the Valencia County Sheriff's office and not to APD) to report that his wife had shot herself and committed suicide.  The investigators arrived to the scene and took pictures but soon decided that it was indeed a suicide. Soon after they released the body to a funeral home and gave Levi's friends (fellow co-workers) permission to clean the room. It was not until the following month when there seemed to be questions as to if Tera had committed suicide or murder and by May Levi was officially named a "person of interest."  However, it was not until April of 2011 that he was officially indicted on charges of murder and tampering with evidence.  His trial began in June of 2013.  On July 16, 2013 Levi Chavez was found not guilty on all charges.

Now to fill in the middle pieces.  I suppose I should start at the beginning, Julie Andrews has always told us that is a very good place to start!  Levi Chavez and Tera Cordova were high school sweethearts who grew up in the Albuquerque area.  Just before she was sixteen Tera found out she was pregnant.  To be honest in all of my reading I never really saw a marriage date but presumably that took place just after high school as Levi joined the Coast Guard and they moved around a bit and then they moved back to the Albuquerque area where he first worked as an Aviation Officer which was a subsidiary of the APD, however was not an official member of that department until January of 2007.  At the time of Tera's death he was still considered a rookie as he had not finished his probationary period of one year with the department. At some point Levi and Tera had another child.  I probably read more than fifty articles and websites on this case and I have honestly seen very little pertaining to their children.  In fact, I had probably been working this for two to three hours before I even discovered that they had any children. In the end all that I can tell you is that they had two children.  I cannot tell you their ages (except the oldest was probably close to ten in 2007) or where they were during anything that went on. I have no idea where they were when their mother died in their home or if they were ever interviewed for anything.  

One thing that was very prevalent in his trial and was discussed often was the fact that Levi was far from faithful to Tera. Over the years he had cheated on her several times and at the time of her death, while divorce had been discussed, though not filed, and they officially lived together Levi was having affairs with at least three other women.  Thy separated several times over their ten years together, apparently many times due to his infidelity.  Tera had confronted at least a few of the women.  However, let there be no secret that Tera was also having her own affair with another man at the time of her death.  Apparently at the APD fraternizing with each other and co-worker's spouses was a regular game that was played.  At least two of the three women Levi was involved with were also with the department and the man Tera was with was also a fellow officer of the APD.  Levi claims that he did not know of Tera's affair until after her death but that does not seem very likely.  The man Tera was with was named Nick Wheeler.  Nick was married to a woman named Samantha, who had gone to school with both Tera and Levi and in fact had been in their wedding.  Before her death Tera had told Samantha about the affair but he testified in court that Samantha had not told him that she knew.  I am unsure if either of these men (Nick and Levi) are telling the truth.  As a woman I cannot see Samantha not confronting her husband about having an affair with one of her friends, nor do I see Tera keeping it a secret from Levi since she knew he had been unfaithful many times over the years and many times with who.  But that is neither here nor there.... or is it? Levi's defense attorney's argued that Nick Wheeler was not looked at close enough as a suspect; and after her death Tera's estate filed a civil suit against the city of Albuquerque claiming that their lack of policy about fraternizing or what they called "unchecked fraternization"  led to Tera's death.  The city eventually settled with Tera's estate in February of 2011 for just over $200,000 but claimed they had no control over what their officers did in private.

Levi's defense claimed at trial that Tera was "needy" and that she was devastated and depressed due to the stress and issues in her marriage, hence she committed suicide. They also provided two things written by Tera, one was next to her body and the other had been torn up and thrown away (but found and put together for evidence) that they stated constituted suicide notes.

The prosecution however, had a mountain of evidence it seemed against Levi.  First let's start with one of the things they believe gave him a motive and while it was mentioned in trial they were forbidden by the judge to go into greater detail.  In September of 2007 Levi's truck was reported stolen.  The official report was made by Tera.  However, shortly before her death she had told at least one person, proclaimed to be more, that Levi and as she called them, his "cop buddies" had set up the theft of the truck in order to collect the insurance and reportedly she was going to report it. The only real area that this was able to come into trial was when one of the women Levi was involved with stated that Tera had told her this information and that she had relayed that to Levi.  Not much beyond that was stated about the truck.  But the truck is interesting for a few reasons.  First, it was eventually found in Mexico in March 2011, just before Levi was officially indicted.  Secondly, when it had been stolen, Levi claimed that all of the keys to the truck were still in his possession yet it was found with the original, factory key and the ignition had not been tampered with.  And lastly one of the strangest things is that when it was found it had two VIN numbers attached to it. The thing that made that even stranger was that the second VIN number belonged to a vehicle that a fellow APD officer had totaled in 2008.  In the end it appears that the insurance company never pursued charges and the statute of limitations eventually ran out on them being able to. The second thing that the prosecution believed was behind Levi's motive was a $100,000 life insurance policy that had only been in effect for seventeen days and also paid out for suicide.  In all my research however, I was unable to tell if this was widely mentioned at his trial, or if he applied for the benefits after her death. 

There was one witness at trial that could have shed a little light on the possibility of insurance fraud, although not directly.  To be honest though after reading the article about his testimony I was not left feeling very confident about his truthfulness, so I am unsure how he came off in person and the jury felt about him.  His name was Shane Harger and he had been with the Sheriff's department for less than a year at the time of Tera's death.  I was unable to determine if this was is first stint as an officer at any time.  First he testified about things that he found odd about the house when he arrived.  He stated that Levi's hand were wet and that he observed there to be blood in the guest bathroom toilet.  He also claimed that Levi had showed him a text message from Tera without him asking and felt like Levi was trying to show proof that Tera had killed herself.  He said he believed it to be a homicide from the beginning, but he never claimed to have told his superiors his feelings or even anything he observed. That is not the strange part of his testimony however. He claimed that shortly after her death he was approached by someone from the Guadalupe County Sheriff's department about a job. He testified that he learned later that the person that approached him happened to be Levi Chavez's uncle.  He then claimed that within the Guadalupe County Sheriff's department employees there was an auto theft ring and that Levi Chavez's father, Levi Sr., was also involved in this.  In his testimony he claimed that officers were told what cars to look for and that they were to call a particular wrecker company, not the one the Sheriff's required them to call, for the pick up.  He claims that once he met Levi Chavez Sr. that he was threatened and began receiving death threats about his involvement in Tera's investigation and was advised as to what he should report. One could argue if they believe Harger's story that it was not a huge leap to believe Levi Jr. was behind an insurance scam if his father and uncle apparently did it. However, committing insurance fraud does not make you a murderer.

Some of the other evidence they had against Levi surrounded their home computer.  A forensic team found that near the end of 2006, around the time that apparently Tera confronted one of the women Levi was seeing at that time, someone did a search for "How to kill someone."  While testifying in his own defense Levi admitted to conducting this search as well as another on "how to rip out a throat" but claimed that they were supposedly referring to martial arts moves. Cell phone records had also indicated that his phone had been turned off sometime after midnight on October 21st (the morning before he supposedly discovered the body at 9pm) until about three in the afternoon.  Levi claims he purposely shut his phone off because Tera had been repeatedly texting and calling his phone.  

Of course, just as in most cases there was a lot of circumstantial evidence. For those who do not know the difference, circumstantial evidence is evidence in which when deductive reasoning is involved you can come to a conclusion,while with direct evidence one does not have to decide.  I saw a good example given involving the issue of rain.  If you see it raining that is direct evidence of rain. If you hear it and then later you go outside and the ground is wet and you can "smell" it like we often do you can conclude that it had in fact rained, that is circumstantial evidence. In trials, prosecutors often use many instances of circumstantial evidence to show that when you put it all together, at least in their minds as they are presenting it, a jury must conclude that in essence there are too many coincidences for the defendant to be innocent. Another thing that prosecutors like to have is motive, and as much of it as they can find, although it is not required.  They want this however because people want to know why.  We want a reason that someone did something.  In this case prosecutors argued that the motives were money (life insurance) and in essence freedom.  If Tera were to have reported to authorities that Levi's truck was not actually stolen but was part of a scam he would have been looking at not just financial issues but possibly also jail time. Often people will argue that when someone is unfaithful to their spouse, that in and of itself is a motive.  However, I am of the belief that it is unfair to simply make the jump that a bad spouse is a murdering spouse.  This is why so often you see where there is insurance involved as well as other issues, as well as their behavior.  In this case, while it was painfully clear that Levi had several relationships out side his marriage, it was also known that Tera had at least one.  But, Levi's behavior after Tera's death played a large role also.  Despite the fact that he had claimed to spend the weekend of Tera's death with fellow APD Officer Deborah Romero, and supposedly still had relations with a girl name Rose Slama who claimed he had told her things about Tera's death, he had recently, within the previous few weeks, met Heather Hindi.  Heather was a fellow APD officer married to another officer.  Heather claims she and Levi met face to face in the first part of October and Heather's then husband, Steve, claims that by the end of November he had walked into his home and found Heather and Levi in bed.  Heather soon filed for divorce and by the following summer she and Levi were married.

In my opinion the two strongest pieces of evidence against Levi was the murder weapon and the photographs taken at the scene.  There was never a question as to what the murder weapon was.  It belong to Levi. Not only did it belong to Levi but it was his department issued 9mm Glock handgun. In trial the two biggest issues were who actually shot the gun and the fact that the investigating officer claimed that when he found the gun the magazine had been released or "unseated" as they called it.  I believe there was another issue that in all my research  I could never find that it was addressed, but it is an issue that I believe may have changed the results.  It does not appear that anyone asked why, if Levi had been gone from the home for the two previous days that he claimed, as well as while he was gone he had worked his shifts at the APD, that he supposedly did not have his gun. Levi's story eventually ended up being that he had left the home either on the 18th or the 19th (stories differ a bit at times it seems) and that when not working he spent most of that time with Deborah Romero, who testified to this.  He also stated, as I said above, that from just after midnight on the 20th until about 3:30 pm on the 21st he had turned his phone off.  He then claimed (and his mother testified to this) that around 8pm on the 21st he went to his mothers house.  She supposedly informed him that while she had found that Tera had not gone to work on the 20th that she had called in sick but that she also had not gone on the 21st but had not called her work and that was unusual.  According to his mother's testimony he then left her house and went to his home to which he claims to have found Tera and stated he believed she had been dead "for at least a day." He also apparently called 911 from a location other than his house simply saying there was "a problem" at his home and met officers there on their arrival.  If we are to believe his story that he left the home on the 18th or 19th, only to return on the 21st and immediately find his wife dead, with his service gun, then that means he did not have that gun with him while on duty... correct? Yet, strangely I saw nothing that addressed this at all.  There was testimony of course that indicated that his story was not true, at least in the fact of how and when he found her and whether or not he was present or not, but nothing directly addressed the issue of why his gun would have been there when he claimed he was not.  Did he have more than one service gun?  If so where did he normally keep his other?  Noone knows, or at least I do not and with the extensive reading I have done I would imagine that would have been found.

The second issue with the weapon as I said involved the condition in which it was found.  While the defense attempted to argue that one could not tell for sure that the magazine was unseated.  The initial officer claimed that when he found it laying next to Tera that he moved it only to photograph it but that it was unseated and he apparently wrote this in his report.  The defense spent a lot of time at trial attacking this witness, calling him a "dirty cop" and trying to indicate that he had manipulated the scene but another witness testified as to the chain of custody of the weapon stating it was unseated when it arrived to him. So the jury was left to decide if the weapon had been manipulated.  If they did not believe that it had been, they had to decide how the magazine became unseated.  There was a lot of dramatic testimony surrounding this.  A forensic investigator testified that Tera's DNA was on the muzzle and on the grip of the gun and Levi's was also on the grip... I heard no evidence of any DNA on the trigger itself. The forensic investigator also stated that the muzzle had to have been at least one inch inside Tera's mouth and that once she was shot she would have died immediately.  This was important because if you believe that the magazine was unseated then according to this investigator as well as a later expert, Tera could not have shot herself and then unseated the magazine as would have been required. An expert for the defense claimed that Tera could have shot herself and simultaneously unseated the magazine, however after several attempts to recreate what he claimed to have done on video he was unsuccessful in doing so in court.  

There was one other issue that I found very telling and unlike their failure to explain why the gun was in the residence the prosecution apparently attempted to address this issue, but I feel could have done more.  One of the photos from the scene showed a police uniform hanging up.  Several witnesses identified this as being an APD uniform and that field officers (a position Levi held) were only issued one uniform.  I find it odd that they would only have one uniform and there was nothing ever said that there was an obtain another one in any other way (hence maybe paying out of pocket...for example) so we pretty much have to believe that the uniform hanging up was Levi's and it was the only one that he owned.  This takes us back to his alibi. I never really saw any information that indicated that he should have been wearing it at the time since it did not appear that he had just come from being on duty, but I was also left with the impression from is explanation there was not an intention on staying at the home but that he had only gone there to check on Tera.  So did he carry it in? And if so, Why? Did he then take the time to hang it up?  Again, why if for one he was as upset about his discovery as he claimed to be and for two with all the chaos going on.  He would have either had to have taken it in with him when he first got to the home, or had left it in the car and amid everything going on had thought he should have brought that in.  There was a possible third explanation for the uniform.  The lead detective on the case claimed that he was puzzled by a damp towel that was in the bedroom.  I do not recall if he had approached Levi about it and if a reason was given but, a former girlfriend named Rose Slama testified that Levi had told her more than once that he was in the shower when he heard a "bang" and came out to find Tera dead on the bed.  For her part the defense did a good job of putting doubt about her testimony in the heads of the jury.  Slama had several felony charges pending.  They included, forgery, ID theft, welfare fraud, larceny and tampering with evidence.  Slama claimed, as most do, that she was not offered a deal to testify but there were questions left behind. Slama claims that she and Levi had an affair for two years but she, just as the others claimed they believed they were the only one, aside from his wife, that is.  The defense often attacked the tactics of the investigating officer with these women, claiming that by telling them about the other women involved he was trying to incite them so they would be so angry with Levi that they would say anything to get even with him. To his defense the investigator claimed that this was not true and that he only told the women about the other women so that they knew the truth in the sense that they would realize they had been lied to and could make judgement and assessments based on having knowledge, and not based on false facts.  If there was a picture of the said damp towel in the bedroom it apparently was not shown in court.  In my opinion, if there was one, it should have been shown.  If there was not a picture taken at the scene of a towel that would indicate either there was not one which discredits the investigator as well as gives little to Slama's testimony or it proves that the scene was not processed as properly as it should have been.

At this point, before moving on to what my opinion of this case is I want to add a few things about some other things that were done that, while does not settle the issue of murder or suicide, but were results o this case  First is how the APD handled the case. If you read my previous blog on Mary Hawkes you know that amid all of this going on the APD was already having issues or at least they were starting to show.  Between 2010 and 2014 they had several police action shootings, many were fatalities and the DOJ started an investigation in 2012. Yes this as five years after the death of Tera, but still within the frame of a light being on the department.  As pointed out above there was obviously a lot of fraternizing going on between officers and the families.  We have to also keep in mind that the prosecutors believed the theory that Levi's truck being stolen was a set up and how Tera had allegedly said Levi's "cop buddies" were involved.  The DOJ does not just walk in and start investigating things and we all know the Blue Badge of Honor where many times cops are allowed to get away with things. Not to mention the numerous cases of not just a "bad cop" here and there but departments that are corrupt.  It appears things began to unravel for the APD, likely starting with the death of Tera.  This may have first came about simply because they were not the investigating office.  Initially, because it was ruled a suicide the department did nothing concerning Levi. The following month (Nov. 2007) when the case was given another look Levi was put on paid leave.  The department stated that once the investigation was over they would conduct their own internal investigation, basically to determine their next step in dealing with Levi, if they felt there was one. It was not until May of 2010 that it was announced that the investigation was "closed, pending new evidence" it seems that they simply put Levi back to work, but not in an officer position. It was here that he was basically in charge of animal control and according to them had no police authority, but continued to receive pay (including raises), while the department covered his defense.  When he was finally indicted in April 2011 he was again put on paid leave. However, later that month he was fired based on the supposed fact that he missed a mandatory employment meeting.  

Apparently APD got tired of waiting on charges and they started their investigation. Despite their claims that they had no control over fraternization, the paid Tera's estate over $200,000.  They then suspended Officer Nick Wheeler for a period of time for his affair with Tera.  I found this ironic since it was a department wide issue and yet he was made an example of.  Their next step was to look into any other officers that could have been involved and could have tampered with evidence at the scene.  The state did not press charges against any of them however and eventually they appeared to be all cleared as evidence indicated that anything that was touched by APD officers were apparently done so after permission of an officer from the Valencia County Sheriff's department.  The only other officer that was disciplined was Levi's partner, Russell Perea, who was fired but later won his appeals. They fired him based on their claim of lying in the deposition for Tera's estate saying that he and Levi spent the last four hours of their shift logging in evidence and doing paperwork.  That did not match up with the evidence.  Aside from that it seems that they then simply tried to distance themselves from the situation as much as possible but we have to remember this all happened just prior to the DOJ coming in and doing an investigation.  It all seemed to me to be a matter of trying to cover their butts and do small things to make it attempt to look as if they were making an effort to clean up the department. 

The one other thing I want to point out is the civil lawsuit that was brought from Tera's family on behalf of her estate.  Initially the defendants included all of those APD officer's at the scene, Levi, and combined with the APD and the city of Albuquerque.  It was clear that anything obtained would remain in the estate and pass on to Tera and Levi's children.  By the time of his trial the city and APD had settled and all the other officers had been dropped from the suit, leaving only Levi. The lawsuit was put on hold pending the outcome of his trial. Despite being found not guilty in his criminal trial the civil suit could have continued.  We have seen that often before, most notably in the high profile cases of O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake where they were both found not guilty of murder in the criminal courts but were found "responsible" for the deaths in the civil suits. This is often the case for two reasons. First many things are allowed in civil suits that are not in criminal trials as well  in a criminal case the evidence is weighed with "reasonable doubt" in mind while in civil cases one can be found liable by "a preponderance of evidence." This means you do not have to be 100% certain, just reasonably believe the person is responsible.  In this case however, Tera's family chose to drop the civil suit after Levi's trial.  It was not that they believed him to be innocent but in a statement through their lawyer they pointed out that any monies or property seized for a judgment would in essence be seized from the children and their care. Despite the fact that the monetary amount would have eventually gone to the children it seemed unreasonable for them to fight to essentially take away from them to give to them later.

Now, I apologize for the length of this but as I stated in the beginning there were dozens and dozens of articles and information sites to go through to piece this case together.  I also tried to give the reader as much information as I could for them to make an informed decision themselves.  Scarily though, I left out a ton. For a quick example, and I will not drag this out. Tera's father claimed Levi invited him to the home to pick out clothes for Tera's funeral and he says that when he arrived two days after her death that all of her things were in boxes and packed up or gone and he had to literally go out and buy and outfit.  On the flip side of that Levi claims that he did not return to the house for several days after she died.  So were her things packed up? And who did it if they were?  In the end, I realize that it was a lot to digest.  In fact, I have continued to attempt to digest it all myself, even as I put it together.  When I started putting it all down I was torn.  I was not sure how I felt about the guilt or innocence of Levi Chavez nor was I sure about how I felt about the jury decision.  I would have loved to have found some articles that talked to the jury members after the case to see their thoughts and how they were able to decide this case.  However, in the end I think I have resolved this with myself.  

I do believe that Levi Chavez likely killed his wife.  In the same respect, I think the jury got it right.  I believe there were too many important questions that did not get answered.  I believe there was an initial rush to judgment in assuming the suicide and while I do not believe that a suicide case should be re-opened based on the belief of family and friends who do not want to believe their loved one committed suicide as this one appears to have done, it did need another look.  The problem is that this makes the case harder.  The scene was not processed like a homicide crime scene should have been.  Things were missed and tainted.  That being said, I think if the prosecution would have addressed two simple issues, they may have gotten the conclusion they wanted.  Why was his gun there? Tell me why he was supposedly not there and on duty and yet his gun was at a home he admittedly had not been to in several days. The second issue is something I did not really address, TOD, or time of death. It seems as if they never really laid that out. The responses always seemed to be that she died sometime between the 19th and 21st.  An autopsy was done as they found traces of Benadryl and "higher than normal amounts" of Tylenol in her system. It was said to have likely made her drowsy but not unconscious.  So why could they not seem to narrow down the TOD? And what if that TOD was during the 15 hours Levi's phone was off?  Would that have been reasonable doubt enough? 

It is the job of the prosecutors to prove their case but they often seem to become over confident in their evidence and miss crucial things. Simply put I do not believe in this case they crossed their T's and dotted their I's and while Levi's defense attorney, was rather decent in his actions in court, the prosecution just simply failed and in my opinion let a man get away with murder.

Comments

  1. I agree. He's a pig and his "girlfriends" INCLUDING his new wife he married 2 months after Tera's death are disgusting. Prosecuter's fell down on the job. His baddies shouldn't have been allowed in the crime scene. DuH.

    ReplyDelete
  2. His lawyer was a piece of work too. Some of his comments about Tera were unconscionable.

    ReplyDelete

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