LOS ANGELES – A grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday charges a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend with capital murder and torture in the June death of her 10-year-old son.
Heather Maxine Barron, 29, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, pleaded not guilty to charges that they killed Anthony Avalos and tortured him in the days leading up to his June 21 death.
The murder charge includes a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty against the two, who are due back in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom on Dec. 3 for a pretrial hearing.
Barron and Leiva are additionally charged with two counts of child abuse involving two other children in the home, and Leiva is also facing an allegation that he personally inflicted great bodily injury on one of the youngsters in circumstances involving domestic violence.
The two were initially charged July 2 with the boy’s death, and had been awaiting a hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to require them to stand trial. The indictment, handed up on Tuesday, allows the case to move more quickly to trial.
In court papers filed in July, prosecutors alleged that Anthony was severely tortured during the last five or six days of his life by Barron and Leiva, who “abused, beat, assaulted and tortured” him.
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,” 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 had 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.
Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, said then that 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.”
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