Oct 20 - 26, 2011 
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News Bite

Paying for It

By Marisa Demarco
Tera Cordova Chavez
Courtesy of the Cordova family
Tera Cordova Chavez

Former APD officer Levi Chavez was indicted in April on charges of first-degree murder and tampering with evidence. The charges came more than three years after his wife, Tera Chavez, died from a gunshot wound inflicted by his department-issued weapon.

But in 2008, a civil lawsuit was filed proposing Tera Chavez’ death may not have been suicide. That suit also alleged rampant fraternization, including affairs between officers in the Albuquerque Police Department—several of them involving Levi Chavez. The lawsuit suggested four officers went to the scene of Tera Chavez’ death and tampered with evidence.

After an Internal Affairs investigation into all allegations associated with the wrongful death lawsuit, two officers were punished in August. Russell Perea was terminated, though he's fighting it legally. Perea was working alongside Levi Chavez the night Tera died. Nick Wheeler was suspended and, according to the civil lawsuit, was having an affair with Tera Chavez. The female police officers who admitted in court documents to affairs with Levi Chavez were not punished.

Court documents indicate that there is no written policy or standard operating procedure that addresses fraternization.

Deputy Chief Paul Feist tells the Alibi that the Internal Affairs investigations are limited to standard operating procedures. He can't talk about anyone named in the civil suit specifically because those are personnel matters. But he says all potential procedural breaches were investigated. "If there was no discipline for somebody, that obviously means there was no SOP violation."

Officer Shawn O'Connell admitted to using a knife to cut away part of the bedding Tera Chavez was found on at the crime scene. He faced no discipline from APD. O'Connell said in a deposition that he was trying to clean up before children and family members returned home.

Feist says when the four officers arrived at the Chavez household, it was no longer considered a crime scene. "At no time did any Albuquerque police personnel do an investigation, nor were they involved in any of the crime scene aspect of it." Plus, Feist points out, when APD personnel were at the residence, there were also investigators and deputies from Valencia County overseeing the area. At that point, the death was considered a suicide.

Aside from those who were disciplined, all of the officers investigated in connection to the Tera Chavez case have been returned to work, Feist says.

Part of the civil lawsuit was settled in February, and the city paid the Tera Chavez estate $230,000. The money was set aside for their two children.

Over the course of the investigation, Levi Chavez remained a city employee. He was reassigned to the Animal Welfare Department and took in about $155,000 in salary. He also cost the city more than $500,000 in legal fees as it defended him in the civil case. He was terminated in April after he was indicted on criminal charges. A trial date has not yet been set.

 
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