“She Loved Strong”
The life of Tera Cordova Chavez
"She was artistic," says Tera's mother, Theresa. "She liked to draw, and she liked to write poetry. She was quiet. She was an indoor girl, kind of girly. Her room was the best room in the house to walk into because it smelled so good."
"She was my lifeline," says twin brother Josh. "She was my secret-bank. She knew every single secret about me no matter what."
Her younger brother, Aaron, doesn’t say much.
The Cordovas speak plainly and, at first, guardedly as they remember their daughter and sister—her mannerisms and interests, her values.
She was 26 when she died. Her husband, police officer Levi Chavez, reported that he found her body on Oct. 21, 2007, after she'd shot herself with his department-issued weapon. But questions arose. He was put on paid leave for more than a year, then transferred from the Albuquerque Police Department to Animal Welfare. Earlier this month, he was indicted in Tera's death. He drew a city paycheck until Monday, April 18, when Police Chief Ray Schultz announced Levi’s termination.
Joseph remembers the knock on his door in the middle of the night. It was Det. Aaron Jones. "He started telling us about Tera ... apparently it's suicide. I said, ‘No way. You have to stop what you're doing right now and lock down the house.’ ” He knew his daughter had been killed, he says, and he's never wavered in that belief. In the weeks before she died, things had been going well for her. She was getting her life on track. "I think she was entering a new phase in her life," Joseph says. "The independent Tera."
News reports haven’t focused much on Tera as a person. This is her story.
In Los Lunas, the friends you make in elementary school are your friends for life, Joseph explains. When Tera was young, there was but a single high school.
"The foundation has to be strong. If it isn't strong, the rest of the house is going to crumble."
Joseph Cordova, Tera’s father
Theirs is a family of builders. They’ve built the three homes on their long Los Lunas property, all of them comfortable and lovely. Back in the day when there was only one, it was the hangout house, Joseph says proudly. His kids brought their friends over through the years. He watched the bikes in the yard become cars, the kiddie toys become a pool and a trampoline. It was good to know where everyone was after school.
At age 15, Tera met Levi and became pregnant with their first child, Andrea. "For a daughter to come over and say, 'Dad, I'm pregnant'—it's just a shock," says Joseph. "Of course I blamed my son Josh. 'Why weren't you looking over this?' But we quickly accepted it. We quickly turned it around to a positive."
Joseph says he and his wife didn’t worry about her at that time. "The culture which we grew up in, his family was from law enforcement. We always thought, He'll take care of her."
They returned home after a few years to live in a house built for Tera and the kids next door to her parents. "Everything was still in the same place," says Theresa. "The swing set was still rooted in the same spot. The trampoline was still here. Because we knew they'd come home."
Tera loved her kids fiercely, her family says. "Strict," interjects twin brother Josh, "but in a good way." He took cues from her with his own kids.
Levi became an APD officer, and Tera began attending barber college. She wanted a job with flexible hours so she could make time for her children. They moved off her parents' property into a house several blocks away. But grandma and grandpa watched the kids every weekday and some Saturdays as Tera finished school.
Though the children spent hours playing in the dirt at grandpa’s house, Tera always kept them looking cared-for and clean.
Still, her family knew there was trouble. "The whole time, even in high school, we wouldn't hear it directly from Tera, but through the boys we would hear that Levi was cheating on her." A civil complaint alleges their on-again, off-again relationship was stressed by Levi’s infidelity.
Her father and mother would ask Tera if she was OK. But she never talked about leaving her husband. She believed in family and marriage. After all, her parents have been together since high school, about 35 years. Tera wanted that kind of long-term relationship, too, Joseph says. She wanted stability. "The foundation has to be strong. If it isn't strong, the rest of the house is going to crumble."
“Hating someone is like drinking poison and wishing they'd die.”
Joseph Cordova, Tera’s father
She had a strength about her, Josh adds. "You could pretty much put her through the wringer, and she'd still love you like it never happened. She loved hard. She loved strong."
She took a job at Style America and developed ambitions to start her own salon. It became apparent that her marriage wasn't going to work out, Joseph says, and she started talking about moving on. "She started realizing, 'I can make money. I really don't need this.’ ”
Tera started a relationship with another APD officer, though she was not yet divorced, according to the civil complaint.
She began designing the salon of her dreams, one with an area for patrons’ kids. Her own children would have a place to relax and do homework. Joseph would help her build it, and they started looking at places.
One of her clients managed a strip mall. She had an appointment to meet him on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007, so he could show her the space, Joseph says. But she never made it; she died that weekend.
Josh was getting ready for deployment with the Navy about a week before Tera's death. He visited his sister. She was different, he says. "She had more energy to her." The twins had grown apart over the years. "When she met Levi, that's when I lost her." Unlike his parents, he says he worried about his sister. "I never liked him clear across the board, because I always saw the writing between the lines." Since she was making moves to leave her husband, the siblings were able to reconcile. "That's where we became friends again." She told her brother she was proud of him, he remembers.
The morning after their daughter’s death, Joseph and Theresa asked Levi if they could pick up the kids, who’d spent the night with their other grandparents. When Levi returned for them later that evening, he told the Cordovas he'd need their help learning how to care for the children, Joseph says. "It was very hard for us to keep our composure at that point," he continues. "Immediately, we had to suppress the emotions, and we really started working with the detectives. They wanted us to be aware of everything—
The Cordovas maintained a relationship with Levi for the children's sake initially, but when they filed the civil complaint alleging Tera’s wrongful death, that ended. They haven't seen their grandkids much in the last couple of years.
And it's the grandchildren, they say, that prevented Tera’s family from talking to the media until now. Though television stations sent news vans to post up at the end of the driveway, Tera’s family members haven’t given interviews. They don't want Andrea, now 13, and Levi III, now 9, to see their father being bad-mouthed.
And as a potential trial approaches, Joseph and Theresa are still thinking of their grandkids. It's been a tough 42 months seeking their day in court. Justice, the family agrees, is simply a trial in front of jurors. Joseph says he learned things about his daughter’s marriage he never wanted to know. Even now that the case will likely go before a jury, they're not elated. "One day, [the kids] are going to be of age, and they're going to want to know," Joseph says.
He adds that one of the questions people ask is: Does the Cordova family hate Levi? "No. We don't hate him. Hating someone is like drinking poison and wishing they'd die. No, he's not going to control these emotions."
In the end, there's one thing Theresa wants her grandkids to know about their mom: "She'd never leave them. She'd never leave them of her own will. She didn't leave them."