BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) — Former Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez tried to commit the perfect murder when he shot his wife in 2007 with his department-issued handgun and made it look like suicide, prosecutors said Monday.
“What is the perfect murder?” prosecutor Bryan McKay asked during opening statements in Chavez’s trial. “It’s one in which people are convinced it’s not a murder.”
Chavez is accused of killing his 26-year-old wife in the couple’s home in Los Lunas, about 25 miles south of Albuquerque. He is charged with first-degree murder and tampering with evidence.
Tera Chavez died from a single gunshot wound to the mouth. Jurors on Monday saw crime scene photos, including one that showed the woman slumped in bed, the handgun that was found next to her and one of her husband’s police uniforms in the bedroom armoire.
Defense attorney David Serna disputed the prosecution’s claims, challenging the credibility of their witnesses and the investigation done by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office. He also said the autopsy evidence was consistent with suicide.
“The truth is Levi Chavez is innocent,” Serna told jurors.
But prosecutors said Levi Chavez, 32, had the motive and opportunity to commit the crime.
Chavez and his estranged wife both were having extramarital affairs, prosecutors said. And they were arguing about divorce and Tera Chavez’s discovery that her husband had allegedly staged the theft of their truck for insurance money. Levi Chavez was never charged in the theft.
“It all comes together on that weekend when the defendant comes home and puts the gun he has with him in Tera’s mouth and pulls the trigger,” McKay said.
Serna argued Tera Chavez was having a difficult time with the troubled marriage and had left dozens of voice and text messages on her husband’s phone in the days leading up to her death.
Prosecutors questioned why Levi Chavez had deleted all the messages except for one in which his wife said she was sad and afraid that she might hurt herself. They also pointed to Tera Chavez’s journal, in which she said in the last entries that she had turned the corner and was ready to move on with her life.
Serna told jurors they would get to hear the 911 call Levi Chavez made after the October 2007 shooting.
“It is very difficult to listen to,” Serna said. “But it is the sound of a man who is in anguish.”
Chavez sat quietly in the courtroom and wiped his eyes as Serna recalled that night for jurors.
The trial is expected to last for several weeks and bring attention to alleged abuses in the Albuquerque Police Department, which is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for an increase in police shootings.
Chavez had been an Albuquerque police officer for nine months when the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office started investigating him a month after his wife’s death.
He remained with the department and collected around $155,000 in salary in 3 1/2 years while on administrative leave, desk duty and working for Albuquerque’s Animal Welfare Department. He also received two contract-required raises.
Chavez was fired after a Valencia County grand jury indicted him on a murder charge in April 2011.
Serna vowed again Monday to counter “point-by-point” what he says are false allegations and lies made about his client.