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 murdered 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 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 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 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 gasps Wednesday from a packed courtroom. Throughout the trial, 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 a 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 month-long trial are expected to begin Thursday or Friday.