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 stayed 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.
Under cross-examination, Chavez also admitted seeing someone else when he was just 16 and Tera was 15 and pregnant with their first child.
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.
But prosecutor Bryan McKay questioned why Chavez would leave his loaded, department-issued gun "with a woman who was depressed and had talked for years about possibly hurting herself, and you had small children in the house."
"But I also knew we had an attempted break-in. A truck was stolen right out of our driveway when she was there," Chavez replied. " ... And yes, I had small children in the home, but this is exactly why" he said he left the gun at the house.
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.
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 and the magazine was no longer attached to the weapon. Prosecutors contend it would have been impossible for the woman to press the button to release the magazine after shooting herself in the mouth.
Levi Chavez said he only knew of one time that his wife shot his handgun.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras