BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) — A former Albuquerque police officer was acquitted of murder on Tuesday in the death of his wife after a trial that contained salacious revelations about his extramarital affairs with co-workers and further tarnished the reputation of the troubled police department.
Levi Chavez, 32, was accused of killing his hairdresser wife with his police-issued handgun and making it look like a suicide amid a crumbling marriage that included a love triangle at her hair salon and the husband carrying on affairs with numerous women.
Chavez clutched rosary beads in court on Tuesday and made the sign of a cross after the verdict was read.
"I told y'all from the very beginning I was innocent," he said.
Chavez also embraced his attorney, David Serna, who said, "What did I tell you?"
Chavez's family surrounded him and they prayed.
Prosecutor Bryan McKay declined comment after the verdict. He had sought life in prison.
Before the verdict was read, state District Judge George Eichwald ordered the families to exit the courtroom separately after the proceedings ended, noting the tension that has persisted on opposite sides of the courtroom throughout the trial.
The family of Tera Chavez, the wife of the defendant, left in tears.
"Justice was not served," said her father, Joseph Cordova.
The jury of nine women and three men began deliberations on Monday and took about 10 hours to reach the verdict.
In the final days of the monthlong trial, Chavez took the stand and acknowledged having a string of mistresses, searching a website on how to kill someone with martial arts moves, and ignoring his wife's calls for help.
However, the disgraced former officer strongly denied that he killed his wife in October 2007.
"Absolutely not," he said when asked by his defense attorney if he killed Tera Chavez.
The case became big news in New Mexico with its many tawdry elements and the questions it raised about the practices of the Albuquerque Police Department, which is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department over a series of police shootings.
The trial included allegations that Albuquerque police officers who responded to the Chavez home in nearby Los Lunas removed and even flushed key evidence down a toilet. Witnesses also described a workplace where interoffice romance was quite common, including both Levi and Tera Chavez having affairs with members of the police force.
During his testimony, Chavez frequently broke down when he recounted a string of affairs and breakups that began when he was 16 and Tera was just 15 and pregnant with their first child.
"I'm very embarrassed about it," Chavez said, then later added. "I took her for granted."
After the couple had their first child, Chavez testified that he got his GED and joined the U.S. Coast Guard. The pair moved to Virginia and later Michigan, but they faced a rocky marriage throughout.
The couple later had a second child.
He also testified that Tera Chavez threatened suicide "countless times," saying she couldn't live without him. But he said he never believed her and ignored nearly 200 phone calls from her the day before he found her dead.
Prosecutors questioned whether Tera Chavez would have been able to fire the fatal shot.
There was a bullet in the gun's chamber when it was found next to her body, and the magazine was no longer attached to the weapon. Prosecutors contended it would have been impossible for the woman to press the button to release the magazine after shooting herself in the mouth.
Much of the trial focused on the couple's extra-marital relationships, including a love triangle at the hair salon where Tera Chavez worked. One mistress of the defendant testified she continued to get her hair cut by Tera Chavez while she was sleeping with Levi Chavez.
Another mistress, a woman who sold Chavez a cellphone, testified that she had sex with him at his home just days after his wife was found dead.
Other witnesses said Tera Chavez was having an affair with an Albuquerque police officer who was married to her maid of honor. They had sex in the back of a hair salon where she worked, according to testimony.
In closing arguments, prosecutor told jurors Chavez went to his wife's house, found her asleep in front of the television, shoved his department-issued gun in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Then he showered and went to spend the night with a girlfriend, prosecutor McKay said.
He faulted Chavez for giving conflicting stories to investigators and his mistresses. "He's got an explanation for everything," McKay said. "But it doesn't make sense."
McKay also contested Chavez's assertion that his wife's death changed him and he stopped having affairs. "He changed for his jury," McKay said.
Chavez's attorney, David Serna, however, said a despondent Tera Chavez took her own life because of her troubled marriage and her own connection to a crumbling affair.
Before her death, Serna said Tera Chavez called his client nearly 200 times and sent a string of text messages where she threatened to hurt herself because he was away again with another woman.
Serna also attacked the credibility of former Valencia County Sheriff's Detective Aaron Jones who he said unfairly harassed Chavez and convinced his mistresses that he was involved in a murder when it was really a suicide.
"Jones tried to instill fear, tried to instill hatred of Levi Chavez," Serna told jurors. "He tried to convince everyone that Levi was an Academy Award-winning actor" by suggesting that Levi Chavez was faking tears over his wife's death.