New Mexico Officer under investigation cost capital $900,000

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- The city of Albuquerque has spent nearly $900,000 on a former police officer since an investigation began into whether he killed his wife.

Levi Chavez, who is charged with murder, had been an Albuquerque officer for nine months when the Valencia County Sheriff's Office started investigating him a month after Tera Chavez's death on Oct. 21, 2007. Levi Chavez called the sheriff's office that day to say his wife had killed herself. Investigators found her dead of a gunshot wound in the couple's Los Lunas home. Lying nearby was her husband's Albuquerque Police Department-issued 9mm Glock handgun.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that more than $500,000 was spent on attorney fees and experts in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from her death that named the police department, several officers and Levi Chavez as defendants. And nearly $400,000 was spent on Levi Chavez's salary and a legal settlement in the civil case.

The city council approved $30,000 in legal fees earlier this month, marking the final payout in the case.

"It's been extremely frustrating," Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy told the Journal on Monday. "But by law, we are required to provide him a defense."

Levi Chavez was left as the only defendant in the civil case in February, after the city settled its portion of the lawsuit with a $230,000 payment that went to the couple's two children.

The council-approved money from October was for work done on the case before February, Levy said.

Levi Chavez was also paid $155,000 in salary and received two raises, even though he did not take a call for service, make an arrest or write a police report for more than three years on administrative leave, desk duty or assignment at the city's Animal Welfare Department.

Levi Chavez was fired in April after a Valencia County grand jury indicted him on a murder charge. He has pleaded not guilty, and no trial date has been set.

His criminal defense attorney, David Serna, did not immediately returning a phone message from The Associated Press.

The civil case against Levi Chavez -- brought in August 2008 by Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall on behalf of Tera Chavez's estate -- has been put on hold until the criminal proceedings have wrapped up. The suit alleges wrongful death.

Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz has criticized the "sluggish pace" with which Valencia County conducted its investigation into Tera Chavez's death. He has maintained that he could not begin his Internal Affairs investigation into the matter until the criminal inquiry was completed.

But 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez told the Journal in May 2009 that Schultz could conduct his own internal investigation and discipline Levi Chavez without tainting any criminal case, because anything Schultz finds out could not be used in criminal proceedings.

Levy reiterated on Monday the city's position and said firing Levi Chavez sooner would have been impossible because of due process considerations.

"It has been frustrating for everyone because the investigation was going so slowly," she said. "We simply didn't have the information to terminate him."

Published: Wed, Oct 19, 2011

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