BERNALILLO, N.M. — Wiping sweat from his forehead and tears from his eyes, a former Albuquerque police officer accused of killing his wife took the witness stand in his own defense, offering emotional testimony in trial marked by tales of steamy affairs.
Levi Chavez, 32, admitted to having a string of mistresses, searching a website on how to kill someone with martial arts moves and ignoring his wife's calls for help. But the disgraced former officer strongly denied that he killed 26-year-old Tera Chavez, his long-suffering wife.
"Absolutely not," Levi Chavez said, when asked by his defense attorney, David Serna, if he killed in wife.
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.
During his testimony, Chavez frequently broke down and had to take breaks when he recounted his ill treatment of his late wife throughout their marriage. That treatment included sexual relationships with four different women and constant breakups that began with way back when the couple were high school students. "`I'm very embarrassed about it," Chavez said, then later added. "I took her for granted."
Chavez told jurors that he found his wife dead from a gunshot wound and thought it was God's way of punishing him. "To say I blamed myself is an understatement," he said. "Guilt doesn't even begin to describe it."
However, Chavez said his wife's death later helped him reform his philandering ways and he later married another police officer – two months after his wife's death.
Serna's move to call Chavez in his own defense drew grasps Wednesday from a packed courtroom. Throughout the trial – which has seen four former mistresses of Chavez and his current wife testify – Serna has maintained that his client was a victim of an overly aggressive detective and a botched investigation. By calling Chavez to the stand, Serna opened him up to questioning from prosecutors, who say Chavez committed the "perfect crime" to cover up an insurance scheme involving the staged theft of a truck.
Under a testy cross-examination, prosecutor Bryan McKay pressed Chavez to point to the "deciding moment" he sought to stop having affairs with other women, especially since he had sex with a woman in the home he shared with his wife just a few weeks after her death.
"I was lonely," he said.
McKay also asked Chavez why he left a loaded gun at home with depressed wife and two children. Chavez told jurors he had no choice since their home was almost burglarized and his truck had been stolen.
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.
His testimony was interrupted at one point when state district Judge George P. Eichwald excused the jury when Chavez complained that prosecutors were laughing at his testimony. Eichwald gave prosecutors a stern warning and said he had noticed their snickering throughout the trial.
Much of the trial has focused on the couple's extra-marital 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.
The case 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.
Closing arguments in the monthlong trial are expected to begin Thursday or Friday.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras
Also on HuffPost:
The Will County, Ill. Sheriff's Department said Crosby killed his wife and himself hours after auditioning for the show 'Family Feud'
Na Cola Franklin
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Whitehall Township Bureau of Police, Whitehall, Pa. shows Na Cola Franklin. Jurors found Na Cola Franklin, 32, guilty after deliberating about three hours in Lehigh County Court. She could get life in prison when she is sentenced July 16. Her attorney said an appeal is likely. (AP Photo/Whitehall Township Bureau of Police, File)
Pvt. Isaac Aguigui
In this Aug. 30, 2012 file photo, Pvt. Isaac Aguigui walks into the courtroom during a preliminary hearing at Long County Superior Court in Ludowici, Ga. Army prosecutors plan to reveal why a Georgia-based soldier accused of leading an anti-government militia group has also been charged with killing his pregnant wife two years ago. A legal hearing at Fort Stewart for 21-year-old Pvt. Isaac Aguigui is scheduled to begin Monday, July 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton, File)
Gravedigger buries wife
Police in Virginia allege that Ashley Rodriguez, the wife of Adan Quiroz Rodriguez and mother of four children with him, was shot fatally by her husband. Her body was found in the cemetery her husband worked as a gravedigger in Virginia. He was arrested near Charlotte, N.C.
Maqueira was arrested in February, 2012 for allegedly murdering his wife. Cops said he <a href="http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/02/12/16936647-florida-man-confesses-to-killing-wife-wont-reveal-where-body-is-police-say?lite" target="_hplink">admitted to killing Raquel Maria Calderin,</a> but wouldn't tell them where her body was, according to NBC Miami.
Kelly and Kristi Suckla
Police in Grapevine, Texas say that Kelly Suckla, 43, killed his estranged wife and then himself during an argument at their daughter's 16th birthday party on Jan. 19, 2013.
Shrien and Anni Dewani
FILE - Undated file handout photo issued by the Bristol Evening Post of Shrien Dewani and Anni Dewani. The British man is accused of hiring a hit man to kill his wife during the couple's honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. His wife's body was found with gunshot wounds in a taxi.
Thomas Mortimer IV
Mortimer was sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife Laura Stone Mortime, their two children Charlotte and Thomas V, and his mother-in-law Ellen Stone. Police contended that marital discord preceded the grisly killings. HIs sister-in-law discovered the bodies in the family's home north of Boston in 2010.
Ice Cream Parlor Murderess
Goidsargi Estibaliz Carranza Zabala pleaded guilty to killing her ex-husband, then chopping up his body with a chainsaw and hiding the parts inside cement blocks in the cellar of her ice cream parlor. Two years later, she did the same thing to her new boyfriend. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/20/estibaliz-carranza-murder-husband-ice-cream-parlor_n_2165849.html" target="_hplink">Read the whole story here. </a>
Calvin L. Harris
FILE - In this July 15, 2009 file photo, Calvin Harris walks to Tioga County Court in Owego, N.Y. Harris, a prominent auto dealer imprisoned for the murder of his estranged wife, will have his case heard by New York. Michele Harris' body was never found and she has not been seen since Sept. 11 or 12, 2001. Blood was found in the Harrises kitchen, but investigators never located a murder weapon.
FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2010 file photo, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/03/christopher-smeltzer-sentence_n_1126844.html" target="_hplink">Christopher Smeltzer</a> arrives for arraignment in District Court in Candia, N.H. on a charge he beat his wife to death. In October 2011, Smeltzer pleaded guilty to killing her. He faces 15 to 30 years in prison when sentenced Friday, Dec. 2, 2011 in Rockingham Superior Court in Brentwood, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)
Fredericka Rosa, who suffers from dementia, allegedly murdered her husband and then continued to prepare him meals for 2 days. Her children claim that her husband "drove her insane" and that she had snapped after years of abuse.
FILE - This undated photo provided by the Burbank, Ill., Police Department shows<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/16/estrella-carrera-death-arnoldo-jimenez_n_1520615.html" target="_hplink"> Arnoldo Jimenez</a>. The FBI announced Thursday, May 24, 2012, a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest Jiminez, who is accused of killing his new bride shortly after their May 11 wedding in Chicago. Authorities say they are concentrating their search for Jimenez in Mexico in the state of Durango. (AP Photo/Burbank Police Department, File)
This photo provided by Smith County Jail shows <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120706/us-slain-wife-texas/" target="_hplink">Bobby Nichols</a>. Nichols spoke with The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Tyler three days after he posted a $750,000 bond and was released from jail. He is charged with murder in the June 29 death of 71-year-old Rosiland Nichols, to whom he had been married for 26 years. Tyler police arrested Nichols after receiving a 911 call from a man who identified himself as Dr. Bobby Nichols and requested an ambulance and the sheriff, saying he had just shot his wife.(AP Photo/The Tyler Morning Telegraph, Herb Nygren Jr)
Bruce Beresford Redman
FILE - In this May 26, 2010 file photo, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/09/bruce-beresford-redman-murder_n_1264609.html" target="_hplink">Bruce Beresford-Redman, the former "Survivor" producer</a>, pauses for a photo at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. A spokesman for the ex-"Survivor" producer said Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, that Beresford-Redman is being returned to Cancun, where he is charged with aggravated homicide for his wife Monica's April 2010 death. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
This undated photo provided by the Fort Smith, Ark., Police Department shows <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/16/celestia-duffin-pregnant-james-herring-stabbed-murder-arkansas_n_1521620.html" target="_hplink">James Herring</a>, who was arrested on a murder charge Tuesday, May 15, 2012 after his pregnant wife, who had been stabbed in the chest, staggered into the Fort Smith police station and collapsed. Police say officers rushed 32-year-old Celestia Duffin to Fort Smith hospital, where doctors delivered her baby prematurely, but both mother and infant died. (AP Photo/Fort Smith Police Department)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/05/eric-gilford-sentenced-to_n_996303.html" target="_hplink">Eric Gilford</a>, 32, who pleaded guilty to the murders in June 2011, was sentenced to 50 years for the first-degree murder of his wife Kristine Gilford, and another 50 years for intentional homicide of their unborn son, to be served consecutively, the <em>Chicago Sun-Times</em> reports. Kristine was 20 weeks pregnant at the time of her death