"Be a Cop or a Crook, but Don't Be Both."
The detective who investigated Tera Chavez’ death speaks out
Tera Chavez died from a gunshot wound either late on Oct. 20 or early Oct. 21 in 2007. She was 26 years old.
The bullet was fired by a gun issued to her husband by the Albuquerque Police Department. Levi Chavez was an officer.
At the four-year anniversary of her death, questions remain.
Aaron Jones remembers that night. The detective left the Los Lunas crime scene, drove a quick five miles, and at 3 a.m. knocked on the door of Joseph and Theresa Cordova. Jones was looking for information. "Generally, the family knows more about the individual than anyone," he says. "I've just learned that you better listen to them." Taking heed of family members' advice has helped him solve several cases, he adds.
When Jones informed Joseph Cordova of his daughter's possible suicide—a suicide note had been found at the scene—Cordova objected fiercely. He told the Alibi in an April interview that he knew his daughter had been killed: "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.’ ”
"It had been labeled by my department as a suicide from the word go. So I was somewhat ridiculed for spending time on it initially."
It's a common reaction for people in that situation, according to Jones. But because of his experience as a detective—he worked at the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office for eight years and in law enforcement for 17—he paid close attention. "I took mental notes, and of course I was recording it as well. I've gone back and listened to the recording several times."
That night, he embarked on what would become a years-long investigation.
He began by trying to retrace Tera Chavez' life.
Jones says he conducted scores of interviews—maybe more than a hundred—asked questions till he was blue in the face, and then asked more.
The job wasn’t easy. "It had been labeled by my department as a suicide from the word go. So I was somewhat ridiculed for spending time on it initially."
It was a first for Jones. He had never investigated the death of another officer's spouse. Co-workers called him a conspiracy theorist, he says. But some of the other deputies began pointing out inconsistencies. "Red flags started coming up," he says. "It wasn't everyone, but there were certainly a few people who were able to bring bits of information, which started jogging avenues of investigation."
"Someone's death is the most important thing you'll ever investigate."
Tera Chavez' death was considered a suicide for a couple weeks, until Jones presented new evidence to the Office of the Medical Investigator, he says. Then, it was listed as "undetermined." The change was a big one and motivated him to keep working. "Someone's death is the most important thing you'll ever investigate."
It was an uphill battle, he says. Police officers are more savvy about the system. Everyone showed up to interviews with union reps and attorneys in tow, Jones says. "It just made it real difficult to have 'sit down, come to Jesus' meeting. You start getting real generic answers instead of the kind of answers you'd like to get."
At the same time, he had an inside perspective on police officers. In addition to being a cop himself, he'd spent some time working in Internal Affairs. "You know what cops go through, the things that they see, the things that they experience, the things they bring home. It's always something in the back of your mind. You know the depression and the domestic issues."
"There's guys out there doing the Lord's work, and then there's guys out there that have ulterior motives.”
He'd actually intended to retire about the time he started looking into Tera Chavez' death, "but I promised the Cordovas I would try to hang on as long as I could to try to bring resolve to this case."
In May 2010, Jones got a call from a news reporter who asked why the Tera Chavez case had been closed. It was the first Jones had heard of it. He soon learned the reporter was right. The case was closed because there was no new evidence. "I hadn't even been told," Jones says.
But he kept working on it anyway, he says, because he felt the order for him to stop was an unlawful one. He went full speed ahead on his own time. It didn't go unnoticed. "They started stacking me with cases and just basically made it impossible for me to work the case."
He's seen "blue code" behavior over the years—a brotherhood that silences officers when they have info about a fellow cop who may have committed a crime. But most police are not a part of that, he says, and a few bad apples ruin it for everyone else. "There's guys out there doing the Lord's work, and then there's guys out there that have ulterior motives. They're using their badge and their power of office for their own gain."
He doesn't revel in stories that bring discredit and disrepute to his profession, he says. "Every time law enforcement gets a black eye, I just cringe." Early in his career, he recalls, a couple of salty detectives told Jones that it's always OK to do the right thing, no matter what it costs. "Be a cop or a crook, but don't be both."
He promised himself that when he didn't feel like he was effective anymore, he'd step down, get out of the way of other detectives "that had the same enthusiasm and devotion to try to make the world a better place." That sounds cliché, he says, but if you're going to do the job, "you better believe that rosy picture, because if not, you'll go nuts."
He finally did retire on Oct. 15, 2010. He turned the case over to the District Attorney's Office. "They were able to connect the dots," he says. Levi Chavez was indicted in April and was fired by APD at the same time. His criminal trial is pending.
Jones is thankful the legal process has started. "I never thought this day would even get here."
You learn a lot about life by investigating deaths, Jones says—your own life, too. Your priorities shift. Family and friends matter, and "not leaving things unsaid, not leaving on bad circumstances with people,” he says. “You just never know what day's going to be your last one."