BERNALILLO, N.M. — A former Albuquerque police officer accused of killing his wife and making her death look like a suicide testified Wednesday about the couple's rocky history and steamy affairs, breaking down as he described ignoring nearly 200 calls from her the day before he says he found her body.
Levi Chavez, 32, took the stand as the defense began wrapping up a monthlong trial that has included testimony from four of Chavez's former mistresses, including a woman who Chavez says he spent the night with the night his wife died, and a fellow officer who became engaged to Chavez two months after his wife's death.
Chavez is accused of shooting his wife with his department-issued gun in October 2007 at their Los Lunas home and then trying to make her death look like a suicide.
Asked directly if he killed his wife, Chavez said "absolutely not."
But he did acknowledge cheating on 26-year-old Tera Chavez throughout their marriage. Among the tales: a tryst with a woman he met while dropping his daughter off at school in his uniform.
"It was purely sex," Chavez said.
The affairs and the troubled marriage left his wife volatile, Chavez said, with her often demanding that he leave, and then begging him to come home.
He also testified that Tera Chavez threatened suicide "countless times," saying things like she couldn't live without him.
Chavez testified that his wife called him 176 times on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007, but he ignored the calls and turned off his cellphone before going to spend the night with fellow officer Deborah Romero. The next day, he said he became worried when the calls stopped and his mother told him his wife had called in sick.
Although Chavez testified that his wife had never attempted suicide and he never believed she would hurt herself, he broke down in tears during later testimony, saying he knew something was wrong the following evening when he discovered the calls had stopped and she failed to respond to his calls and texts. He described rushing to the couple's home to find her dead in the dark bedroom.
"I turned on the light and it was just like terror," he said. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
He said he blamed himself for his wife's death and felt it was "God saying, `this is all your fault.'"
Prosecutors have depicted Chavez as a philanderer whose marriage was crumbling. They said he killed his wife after she found out that he had staged the theft of his pickup valued at more than $20,000 to collect the insurance proceeds.
The defense said the death was a suicide by a woman unraveling over her failed marriage and relationships.
Much of the trial has focused on those relationships, including a love triangle at the hair salon where Tera Chavez worked. One mistress testified she continued to get her hair cut by Tera Chavez while she was sleeping with Levi Chavez. Other witnesses said Tera Chavez was having an affair with an Albuquerque police officer who was married to the maid of honor in their wedding. They had sex in the back of a hair salon where she worked, according to testimony.
"This trial is like a mosquito in a nudist colony," said Tom Garrity, owner of the Albuquerque-based public relations firm The Garrity Group. "Where do you begin?"
The case also has threatened to further tarnish the reputation of the beleaguered Albuquerque Police Department, which already is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department over a series of police shootings. The trial included allegations that officers at the scene removed and even flushed key evidence down the toilet.
Defense attorney David Serna, who has long represented clients in high-profile New Mexico homicide cases, was able to persuade the judge to bar statements Tera Chavez made about her husband and his "cop buddies" staging the theft of Levi Chavez's 2004 Ford F-250 truck as part of an insurance scam.
But Chavez and his lawyer suffered an apparent setback last week when a crime scene expert testifying in his defense failed to pull off a demonstration of how the officer's wife might have been able to kill herself with his gun.
There was a bullet in the gun's chamber when it was found next to Tera Chavez's body, leading prosecutors to argue that she could not have shot herself and then released the magazine.
Larry McCann, the expert, suggested that Tera Chavez held the gun upside down and used her thumb to pull the trigger. McCann tried a few times to show jurors that he could pull the trigger and press the gun's magazine release in one continuous motion, but it didn't work.
"I can't get it to work today," he said.
The failed demonstration drew gasps, smiles and whispers from members of Tera Chavez's family.
In other testimony, a digital forensic investigator with the Los Lunas Police Department told the jury that an Internet search from November 2006 on "how to kill someone" was found on Levi Chavez's computer.
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