LANCASTER – A woman and her boyfriend pleaded not guilty Wednesday to torturing and murdering her 10-year-old son in Lancaster in a case in which the two could now face the death penalty if they are convicted.
The boy’s mother, Heather Maxine Barron, 29, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, are charged with killing Anthony Avalos and torturing him in the days leading up to his June 21 death.
The murder charge includes a newly added special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, opening them to a possible death sentence. Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty against the two, who have remained jailed without bail since they were arrested about a week after the boy’s death.
Along with the murder count, Barron and Leiva are charged with one count each of torture and child abuse — the latter involving Anthony’s younger half-brother.
Barron is also charged with a second child abuse count involving Anthony, while Leiva is charged with a count of assault on a child causing death.
The pair are due back in court in Lancaster Nov. 27, when a date will be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require the two to stand trial.
In court papers filed in July, prosecutors contended that Anthony was severely tortured during the last five or six days of his life and alleged that Barron and Leiva “abused, beat, assaulted and tortured Anthony Avalos,”
The alleged abuse included whipping the boy with a belt and a looped cord, pouring hot sauce on his face and mouth, holding him by his feet and dropping him on his head repeatedly, according to the court papers.
Deputies and paramedics responded to a 911 call from Barron about 12:15 p.m. June 20 and found her son unresponsive inside his family’s apartment.
Authorities said they were told that the child had suffered injuries from a fall, but investigators quickly classified the death as “suspicious.”
The boy “survived through the night,” but “tragically succumbed to his injuries at 6:30 the following morning,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell told reporters in July.
At a July 17 news conference, an attorney representing the boy’s family called for a criminal investigation into social workers who investigated allegations of abuse in the household.
“This is a case of flat-out, deliberate indifference toward the life of Anthony Avalos,” the family’s attorney, Brian Claypool, said at a news conference outside the Los Angeles headquarters of the county Department of Children and Family Services. “These records that we have today clearly demonstrate and social workers within L.A. County DCFS had massive red flags of a household replete with horror, a household where many of the kids were allegedly abused, not just Anthony Avalos. Because of this, we are calling for a criminal investigation. We would like social workers investigated for child abuse and criminal negligence.”
Claypool — who was joined by the boy’s father, Victor Avalos, and the boy’s aunt and uncle, Maria and David Barron — said he has obtained documents that are a “recipe for a criminal investigation,” noting that the records show 18 separate investigations into the household by DCFS over a four- year period beginning in 2013 and 88 alleged instances of child abuse, sexual abuse and child neglect.
Speaking at the news conference in July, Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, said her nephew “did not deserve all the pain he endured.”
“Why? Why did DCFS fail him?” she asked. “Why did they not take action? He had so many people that loved him, so many people willing to take him in.”
In a statement released shortly after the family’s news conference, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said, “As our department grieves the senseless death of Anthony Avalos, my primary focus must be on the in-depth, top-to-bottom review now underway to determine exactly what happened and what needs to happen to safeguard innocent lives going forward.”
“We also are committed to doing all we can to cooperate with the Sheriff’s Department as their criminal investigation proceeds,” he said. “Thank you for understanding that these are my most urgent priorities. We will be happy to share additional information and insights with you when appropriate.”
In June, the county Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Kathryn Barger calling for a thorough review of why Anthony wasn’t removed from his family home, despite multiple reports to the DCFS.
“You had teachers, you had family members, you had law enforcement come in contact. And yet, Anthony’s at the morgue; we’re awaiting autopsy results,” Barger said. “One has to wonder what it’s going to take to get the attention of not only the social workers, but the public in general, because I’m told that neighbors also were aware of what was taking place.”
Barger and other county officials repeatedly said they would wait for all the facts to come in before drawing conclusions about exactly what happened to the boy. But Barger called it a “senseless murder,” explaining that “we don’t have a conclusion, but there’s no other explanation.”
Previous related stories: