By Marisa Demarco
— Joseph Cordova likes to imagine his daughter Tera stepping on the gas pedal of her Nissan Xterra, empty highway opening in front of her, ready to see what her car could do with total disregard for the speed limit, for any kind of limit. The scene is from an entry she penned in her diary. “It makes me smile just to think about it,” he says. “I can just see it.”
Joseph and his wife Theresa are experiencing a kind of tragic celebrity as Tera’s parents. “It’s hard to go someplace where someone doesn’t recognize us,” Theresa says. The heavily publicized criminal trial of former Albuquerque Police Department officer Levi Chavez, the man who was accused of killing their daughter, put the Cordovas in the national spotlight. And the outcome—Chavez was acquitted—left a bad taste in the mouths of many New Mexicans.
People approach them all the time. “They offer their condolences first,” Theresa says. Then they tell the Cordovas that they think the verdict was incorrect and unjust. “But even if Levi said right now, today, ‘I did it,’ nothing can happen to him. It’s over,” Joseph says. Chavez can’t be given another criminal trial. That’s part of the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution.
From early June through mid-July—about six weeks—the Cordovas sat front and center in the most infamous case in the state’s collective recent memory. They watched their daughter’s life cracked wide open for public display. They watched the man who they believe killed her cry on the witness stand. Chavez testified that though he didn’t pull the trigger, he’d felt his then-wife’s death was his fault because of their rocky marriage and his many affairs. “To say I blame myself is an understatement,” he told the jury, Judge George Eichwald and a room full of rapt listeners that July day in Sandoval County.
But before there was a criminal trial, there was a civil lawsuit. Though Tera’s death on Oct. 22, 2007, was initially considered a suicide, investigators pursued the case anyway. A year later, the Cordovas filed a wrongful death lawsuit citing unchecked, rampant fraternization among Albuquerque police officers. The city settled part of the suit, paying out $230,000 to the Tera Chavez estate. The money was set aside for her two children. It wasn’t until April 2011, three-and-a-half years after Tera died, that Chavez was indicted on criminal charges.
A pending civil wrongful death allegation against Chavez was put on hold while the criminal trial unfolded. It was resolved today when Judge Ted Baca signed a stipulated judgment. Chavez will not have to pay any money to his former wife’s estate because it was determined that he has “no collectible assets.” If it turns out that he has some unreported assets, the estate can collect $200,000 over the next 14 years. The remaining wrongful death count was dismissed with prejudice, which means the issue can’t be brought up again in another lawsuit in the future.
The Cordovas say they didn’t want to demand money from Chavez because their grandchildren, Andrea and Levi, are in his care and custody. “Through the whole case and through the whole criminal trial, we kept the kids out of this,” Theresa says. Demanding money from Chavez would take resources out of the childrens’ household.
But the Cordovas wanted to ensure there was no way Chavez could make money from the public narrative: no book deals, no movie deals, nothing. “We just don’t want him profiting off of Tera,” Joseph says. The judgment specifies that none of the parties in the case—neither the estate of Tera Chavez nor Levi Chavez—will cooperate with media outlets, publishers, producers, “or anyone who capitalizes on the story of the life and death of Tera Chavez in any way.” If money is made off the commercialization of Tera’s death, 50 percent of the profits would go into the trusts of her children.
Joseph and Theresa say they hope someday their grandchildren will contact them. Theresa’s message to them remains the same: Your mother didn’t commit suicide; she would never have left you. Joseph has something to add: “Don’t listen to anyone, not even us, about this. Look for yourself.” The evidence, he says, is right in front of everyone. And if the kids ever want to see it, the Cordovas have a box of documentation waiting for them.
Today, the Cordovas are focused on what comes next. They’re physically fit, Joseph says. The last six years fighting for their daughter have been, at turns, grueling. And they miss Tera. “You think it will get easier with time,” Theresa says, “but it doesn’t.” Their next step is about redefining themselves as individuals, people who are more than just Tera’s parents.
It’s hard. Moving on has meant storing some of Tera’s possessions, though plenty of photos and other reminders remain throughout their Los Lunas home—the home she grew up in. Sometimes their marriage felt the strain, Joseph says, but they’re happy to be together today. Theresa’s going back to college to finish up her associate’s degree, and sometimes she fantasizes about living somewhere else. Joseph smiles at the idea but adds that he’s pretty determined to stay in New Mexico. “Los Lunas and Albuquerque, these are our towns.”
Ultimately, they say without hesitation, neither Cordova regrets the decision to pursue justice for Tera. Among the scores of well-wishers are women who have made changes in their own lives after watching the trial. “Tera’s death—it wasn’t for nothing,” Theresa says.
Joseph’s one regret is that the family still doesn’t have her remains, which are in Santa Rosa, N.M., per Chavez’ wishes. “I wish we could have brought her home.”
The Santa Rosa City Council approved in July a liquor license for a bar the Chavez family named The Angry Wife. The issue came up while the trial was coming to a close this summer, and the bar’s first day of operation was Aug. 30.
As for Chavez himself, Joseph says, “He’ll never be a free man.”