No one can tell me that someone that’s going to commit suicide would turn a gun upside down, in a difficult position, shove it all the way to the back of their throat and then pull that trigger. This was not a suicide. This is a person that was able to commit murder and get away with it. -Joseph Cordova, father of Tera Chavez
Last night I randomly came across a Dateline story about Tera Chavez, whose police officer husband Levi was found not guilty of her murder. You can watch this episode here.
A summary is at Levi Chavez, Ex-Police Officer, Not Guilty Of Murdering Wife.
In October of 2007, Tera, a mother of two, allegedly shot and killed herself at the couple’s home while their children were at a family member’s house. Her Albuquerque police officer husband found her and called 911. Responding officers were rumored to have tampered with evidence and Tera’s belongings were quickly moved out of the home.
While Tera had an affair herself, this trial revealed Levi’s parade of mistresses and what I’ve long referred to as the inbred culture of many police departments– married law enforcement employees turning to each other for sex. It’s very common; too many cops get puffed up on their job titles and think they’re sexually superior or that they deserve to have their fun. Some feel or claim that no one outside of law enforcement can understand them.
This behavior leaves a lot of victims in its wake as well-meaning people get used, abused, and/or dumped. Until law enforcement agencies address issues like cheating, heavy drinking, swingers’ clubs, sleeping up the chain of command, sex with underage children, trading sex for favors, and like issues, domestic violence will continue to thrive in the law enforcement community. These behaviors help provide the damp and cold environment that the black mold of domestic violence needs to spread.
Immediately the Tera Chavez story struck me as eerily similar to the Ronda Reynolds case, in which a former Washington state trooper supposedly killed herself with a gun too. See also Justice for Ronda.
In both the Chavez case and the Reynolds case, there were questions about the firearm used. Note that women generally don’t kill themselves with guns. In both cases, there were other women. The victims’ belongings were moved out of their houses in short order. And there were pets in one case and children in the other that these women were highly unlikely to have left behind. Chavez’s children now live with him and his new wife.
For Dateline to feature a case like this might lead people to believe that the deaths of police spouses is uncommon. Early in the show that was alluded to by an investigator. But it’s not. Domestic violence occurs in an estimated 20 to 50 percent of law enforcement families, a higher rate than the normal population.
After living officer-involved domestic violence and making it the focus of my M.A., I’ve concluded that it is also more difficult to escape and more deadly for those who stand up to it. Victims of abusive cops are up against offenders who might hide behind their “good guy” badges and unions and know how to conceal evidence as well as work the system. Victims are not only standing up to that individual, but often standing up to an entire agency or culture.
Behind the Blue Wall is one site that features news on officer-involved domestic violence. See also Lane Judson’s site and Policedomesticviolence.com. You will find many stories of police spouses being murdered by their spouses or partners. Many are law enforcement employees themselves. Sometimes their deaths are ruled suicides like in the Chavez case and sometimes there’s not enough proof to convict their killers.
If you are a man or woman who is experiencing domestic violence or know of someone who is, please stop here and visit Document the Abuse to learn more about creating an Evidentiary Abuse Affifdavit (EAA) so that the abuser will never get away with their crimes.
Here are some examples of phrases and behaviors that stood out during the Dateline show and the little I’ve read about the trial. Of course the first reason I’m going to ask whether foul play was involved in Tera Chavez’s death is precisely because she’s a police officer’s wife. Besides that:
-Levi Chavez said his wife’s life was full of “drama and depression.” Red flag alert. While that could have been true, does that automatically mean that the drama and depression was her fault? Could his self-righteous philandering have contributed to that at all?
When we hear words like “drama” and “depression,” we can be quick to assume that someone has psychological issues, and those issues are somehow their fault. An objective observer would ask if she were truly depressed and if so, why? They would examine her life to determine what was contributing to that– like psychological abuse or worse– and whether she was having to hide others’ treatment of her. She could have also been having medical issues or having a literal hell of a time protecting her children.
“Drama”– like depression, this is a favorite go-to word for abusers. Abusers want to portray their victims as unstable, unfaithful, psychotic, vindictive, crazy, needy, desperate– any derogatory word that will somehow paint themselves as the “real” victim. While our culture definitely encourages drama in relationships, people who don’t want to face reality and be accountable for their actions can accuse undeserving others of “drama.” The logic is that if your wife has too much “drama,” it somehow gives you license to go play in other women’s beds and compartmentalize your life.
The bottom line is that someone’s excuse or perception might be “drama” and “depression,” but as soon as you hear those words, you need to ask what’s really going on. Someone might need help. Someone’s life might depend on you taking their “issues” seriously. Don’t make stupid assumptions. Find out what’s happening.
-“I gave her a gun for her protection.” This is what Levi Chavez claims. His duty weapon was supposedly what Tera used to kill herself. First, what cop surrenders his duty weapon like that, especially in a home with children? Second, if he was concerned about her mental state, what sense does that make? Third, his statement makes no sense, especially because of the timeline. Some said Tera was going to turn Levi in for committing insurance fraud.
While they had been married and had children at a young age, Levi’s actions certainly didn’t speak to his wife or marriage being a priority in his life. He was off making other women believe that he was a good guy who had something to offer them. To just suddenly come out and say, “honey, I’m worried about your well-being, please take my duty weapon” is not believable in this context. Also, if he was abusing Tera, no sane abuser is going to hand a firearm over to his victim because it could be used against him.
-“My jury.” Chavez repeatedly referred to the jury as “my jury” during the trial. At one point he asked impatiently, “can I speak to my jury?” I noticed that Chavez often directed his statements and emotions directly at the jury, turning in his seat to do so. As a cop, he was probably well-acquainted with courtroom procedures and so was fairly comfortable in that environment.
But the jury was not his. The jury was there to weigh the facts in the case and decide whether he’s guilty or not guilty. In this case he was acquitted. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. It could mean that there wasn’t enough evidence, or jurors weren’t quite sure what to think. Tera’s family certainly thought he did it.
-Levi’s sense of guilt. When asked how he felt upon finding his wife dead, he claimed to have felt very guilty, as if his actions had led to her suicide. He said that the experience has led him to become a changed man.
There is no one emotion that you’re supposed to feel when someone dies. We might all react differently. Sometimes what we feel as we process a death can even seem inappropriate or out of place. Guilt might well be what you feel when you’ve been cheating on your wife since she was 15 and pregnant with your child. It still didn’t sit quite right with me even if it was logical.
You could hear the frantic emotion in his voice during the 911 call and he displayed similar emotions while describing his discovery of her death during the trial. His emotions seemed quite convincing. They were inconsistent, though, with his demeanor when he discussed Tera at other times. Those emotions seemed self-centered– they appeared to represent what he felt, not really a nod to what she must have been dealing with or how it would affect their children.
I gave a nod to author Martha Stout as I noted when his emotions peaked and when they simmered– what is the most universal behavior of sociopaths? They appeal to our sympathy. That does not mean Chavez is a sociopath, but emphasizing the effect of a trauma upon themselves rather than the victims is a textbook move by manipulators. It is also a classic behavior when they get the microphone in murder trials.
-The new wife. Levi Chavez already had multiple pots bubbling on multiple burners at the time of Tera’s death. This was a guy who liked to keep his options open and always have an adoring woman to run to when he wasn’t treating the others respectfully.
Within weeks of Tera’s death, there was talk of marriage with a female detective who had attended Tera’s funeral and was helping move her belongings out of the house (why wasn’t Tera’s family doing this?). It didn’t take Levi long to propose. Just nine months after losing his wife Tera, days after the detective’s divorce from a police officer at the same department, and in spite of his other girlfriends within the department, Levi and Heather married. They now have a son and are raising Tera’s two children as well.
-The defense made a point of saying, “look how much time and effort it took for Levi Chavez to be indicted.” The defense attorney actually intrigued me. He wasn’t a standard stuffed shirt and was somewhat of a colorful character. But this is a worn-out phrase in the realm of domestic violence that can be all too transparent. All the time and effort doesn’t necessarily mean that the prosecution gradually patched together a spotty case in desperation (at great expense to the taxpayers). It can take time to build a case against someone who knows exactly how to pull off a murder.
Tera Chavez’s family is not giving up. There are efforts to raise funds for a civil suit against Levi Chavez. This is what happened in Nicole Brown Simpson’s death too– O.J. was acquitted, but was then found liable for her death and penalized financially. What a nightmare for them to have Tera’s children being raised by the man they think murdered their daughter (an unnerving parallel to the Drew Peterson case among others).
Fellow believers, please pardon the language here as I describe how a uniformed abuser thinks of their victim. People need to know the reality of this culture. “That f-ing crazy bitch. She wants to make my life hell and take everything I have. She could ruin my career. I would lose my promotion. She would get part of my pension. I could make her disappear forever.” They might also be afraid that the victim seeking help from the police and/or leaving will reveal other truths about them as well, like their sexuality or criminal activity. Also, abusive cops’ identities are so blurred with their job titles that losing their job is like losing their life.
So how does an abuse victim become known as the “crazy bitch”? They don’t want to go along with the abuser’s deviant acts. They might have no interest in having an open marriage. They might have legitimate medical issues that the abuser doesn’t want to deal with. They might want to leave the marriage with enough property or money– that they are legally entitled to– to survive. They might want custody of their children.
The victim also could have committed the “unspeakable horror” of standing up for themselves and trying to take back some of the power that their abuser has slowly and deceptively drained from them. Victims are in acute danger when they decide to speak up in an effort to stay alive. Abuse is about power and control and some abusers will do anything to keep that including killing the victim.
There are myriad possibilities. It’s not easy to leave an abusive cop. It usually means cutting yourself off from an entire community and getting branded as a pariah for “betraying” one of their own. Like Fight Club, the first rule of OIDV is that you don’t talk about OIDV. But unless we talk about it, and cases like this are highlighted, this camouflaged monster will continue to stalk its victims freely.
Police administrators, there are three glaring reasons that you should care about officer-involved domestic violence and the sordid behaviors that surround it. First, you took an oath to serve and protect not some crime victims, but all crime victims. While there might be an unwritten rule in police culture that OIDV victims be minimized and dismissed, you are most loyal to your oath when you are objective about it.
Second, allowing or accommodating blatant affairs, alcoholism, partying, swinging, abuse, and other behaviors is an officer safety issue. The police have to constantly fight for respect in the public’s eye and defend themselves against people who hate them. They are often considered hypocrites. Hypocrisy breeds condemnation and contempt.
How can you expect the public– the people who pay your salaries– to respect you if you allow these things to go on? How can you expect crime and domestic violence victims to want to open up to you when they might be talking to an abuser or child molester? Victims are supposed to share the most intimate and sensitive details of their abuse or sexual assaults with someone who’s just like their violator? Don’t use the excuse that you can’t pry into your employees’ personal lives. At some point it will affect the workplace and you will be justified in addressing it at that level.
Third, there are many men and women in law enforcement who don’t do these things but get lumped in with the egotistical officers who do. Every day they have to deal with the verbal abuse and sometimes threats to their lives that come from people who don’t trust the police. Allowing problem officers to operate freely and not holding them accountable for crimes like domestic violence just makes life more stressful and dangerous for your good cops, who include my longtime friends and family members.
We need to get to a point where a victim seeking help with abuse by cop is not seen as a betrayal of the law enforcement profession, but as a betrayal by that cop of the principles and laws they swore to uphold when they first started. They are also betraying and endangering their fellow officers who bust their butts day in and day out to bring true, objective peace and safety to everyone without discrimination.
I don’t know what Tera Chavez was dealing with, but there are so many aspects of this case that fit the standard profile of police officer-involved domestic violence. It’s like the same demon is at work in all of these cases. Maybe he didn’t hit her. Maybe he didn’t kill her (obviously, I’m skeptical). But there are so many other ways that he could have torn down the woman that was Tera Chavez without leaving marks and made her feel desperate and alone.
I hope that Levi Chavez really is a changed man and that his new wife hasn’t been suffering the same indignities. I hope that rosary he prominently held in his hand at the end of his trial wasn’t just an empty gesture (like Paris Hilton clutching a Bible when released from jail). It’s terrible that his family members have had to go through this too.
But I also believe that given the almost cookie cutter-like aspects of this case, Tera’s family is perfectly justified in continuing to ask questions and seek answers. The more I read about the inconsistencies and players in this case, if I were them, I would too– especially because Tera had told them that if anything ever happened to her, Levi did it.
Update 9/23/13: After reading the information at Behind the Blue Wall, there is no doubt in my mind that Tera Chavez was murdered. She was set up.
-Levi Chavez tried repeatedly to make others think she was depressed and she was onto his game, telling others what he was up to.
-It sounds like her phone had been cloned, which could explain the ridiculous text that she supposedly sent before she died. Abusers do this to keep tabs on their victims.
-Tera had no interest in guns but he decided to teach her to shoot just a couple of weeks before she died– with the same gun she supposedly killed herself with. Conveniently, there was evidence from both her and Levi on the gun.
-Tera had decided that she was done with the marriage and wanted to be financially independent. Never is dealing with an abuser more dangerous than when you want to leave them.
-Levi bought Tera uncharacteristic expensive gifts not long before she died, something abusers do to maintain control (a la Ike Turner). He also conned her into thinking they were going to have a weekend together the weekend she died. He was in bed with one of his coworkers that Sunday and didn’t return home until later that night. The kids were not home that weekend. It is very clear that he was playing mind games and set this up so he could attack her while she was surely home and alone.
-Levi took out a life insurance policy for her before Tera died and inquired about it shortly afterwards.
-Tera was afraid he was going to kill her over the insurance fraud he was pulling with his “stolen truck.”
-Her body’s position at the crime scene is incongruous with suicide.
-This is just appalling– they lived in the county, but the crime scene was swarmed by city police from his department for hours. It sounds like they removed, destroyed, and moved evidence around in very blatant ways. That should have been the sheriff’s scene, not theirs. They should not have been allowed into the house. Tera’s father realized this right away and asked for the scene to be locked down, but it wasn’t.
This was a carefully planned murder staged to look like a suicide. Evidence that could have proved it was a homicide was trashed by fellow officers who had no business being at the scene. Levi Chavez wanted to profit from Tera’s death financially and be rid of his wife and the mother of his children. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that the facts don’t fit together any other way.
Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself. -Harvey Fierstein
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