By Jeff Proctor
ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez has collected more than $155,000 in city paychecks and two raises in the 3½ years since he allegedly killed his wife and made it look like a suicide - even though he had been on leave and then was reassigned to animal welfare.
During most of that time, Chavez was under investigation for the death of his wife, Tera Chavez, who was found dead of a gunshot wound to the mouth in the couple's Los Lunas home on Oct. 22, 2007.
The city has also paid more than $100,000 to defend Chavez in a civil lawsuit filed by Tera Chavez's family, according to Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy.
The money train finally came to an end on Monday when Chavez didn't show up for an employment hearing, prompting Police Chief Ray Schultz to fire him.
Chavez spent 19 months on administrative leave after his wife's death. During that time, he was paid his APD salary of $19 an hour.
On Aug. 1, 2009, he was transferred to an "administrative assignment" at the city's Animal Welfare Department and given a raise to $23.15 an hour, the same as other police officers under their contract with the city. Another raise - to $25.80 an hour - followed on Jan. 1, 2010.
All officers' pay was cut last July, and Chavez's hourly rate went down to $25.18.
"Unfortunately, this has been a long time coming," Schultz said at a news conference Monday. "This case has been unique in that it was outside the jurisdiction of the Albuquerque Police Department. Early in the investigation, there were allegations of interference by members of the department (at the scene of Tera Chavez's death), and, for that reason, we had to step away and let the Valencia County Sheriff's Department do its investigation. Unfortunately, it took them more than three years to complete it."
On April 7, 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez announced an indictment against Levi Chavez, charging him with one count each of murder and evidence tampering.
Police Chief Ray Schultz placed Chavez back on paid leave immediately following the indictment.
Chavez had 10 days to respond to a notice of contemplated action. On Monday, he did not show up for an employment hearing.
Chavez has maintained his innocence. He was not arrested, because he is not considered a flight risk.
Tera Chavez, 26, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the mouth from her husband's service revolver. Her husband called 911 to report that his wife had killed herself.
Albuquerque police officers who responded to the Chavez house that night to "assist with grief counseling" were later accused in a civil lawsuit of trampling the crime scene, possibly destroying evidence. Valencia County authorities have said they do not plan to charge any of the officers involved.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall on behalf of Tera Chavez's family. The homicide investigation, conducted by two detectives from the Valencia County Sheriff's Office, had stalled last spring. But within the past few months, new information came to light, according to Lt. Jeff Noah, who oversaw the investigation. Noah said detectives have more evidence implicating Chavez.
Noah has not discussed details of the new evidence but said after the indictment that he was confident Chavez would be convicted, adding that there shouldn't be any issues when the case goes to trial.
Chavez will be arraigned in the next week. His attorney, David Serna, said he will plead not guilty.
Serna said Monday that he had not spoken with Levi Chavez about his termination from APD.
"But the chief of police made it very clear that (Monday's hearing) was a mere formality," Serna said. "There was nothing that could change (the city's) mind about terminating him, and unfortunately that's just something Levi will have to deal with until he is exonerated. If I were to advise him, I'd tell him that, once he's exonerated, his employment is something he needs to revisit."
The city of Albuquerque paid Tera Chavez's estate $230,000 in February to settle its part of the wrongful death lawsuit filed on her behalf. The partial settlement of the suit leaves only Levi Chavez as a defendant, but it has been put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Prior to the settlement, an APD Internal Affairs investigation had been on hold.
It didn't begin until late February, Schultz said, because APD didn't want to taint the ongoing criminal investigations or prejudice the civil proceedings.
The chief said the IA probe is focusing on Levi Chavez and about a half-dozen other current and former APD officers - some of them supervisors - who were at the Chavezes' Los Lunas home when Tera Chavez was found dead.
He said IA investigations must be finished within 90 days, although investigators can ask for a 30-day extension.
"We want to be able to clear up some of the allegations that have been thrown out there, to be able to explain why certain things happened," Schultz said. "And if things were done improperly, we will have no problem taking action."
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