LANCASTER (CNS) - A Lancaster woman and her boyfriend charged with her 10-year-old son's torture and murder made their initial court appearances today, but did not enter pleas.
Arraignments for Heather Maxine Barron, 28, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, were rescheduled to Aug. 3 at the Lancaster courthouse.
Both defendants are facing one count each of murder and torture in connection with Anthony Avalos' death, while Barron is additionally charged with one count of child abuse and Leiva with one count of assault on a child causing death.
If convicted as charged, Barron could face up to 22 years to life in state prison and Leiva could face a maximum of 32 years to life in prison, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
Leiva -- who was interviewed last Wednesday at the Los Angeles County sheriff's station in Lancaster -- “made statements that led detectives to arrest him for the murder of Anthony Avalos,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell told reporters.
Leiva was booked Thursday by sheriff's deputies after being treated for an apparently self-inflicted laceration to his chest, and Barron was arrested the following day by sheriff's deputies.
The two, who are accused of torturing the boy in the days leading up to his June 21 death, are each being held in lieu of $2 million bail.
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 the child had suffered injuries from a fall, but investigators quickly classified the death as “suspicious.”
McDonnell told reporters that the boy “survived through the night,” but “tragically succumbed to his injuries at 6:30 the following morning.”
At a news conference outside the Department of Children and Family Services office in Lancaster hours before the criminal charges were announced, the boy's father and an aunt and uncle joined an attorney in demanding answers about how social workers handled Anthony's case.
“We've been told there were 16 reports of suspected child abuse,” attorney Brian Claypool said. “One of the reasons we're here today is we want to find out: Did L.A. County DCFS go to the home on all those 16 occasions? Did they visit the home, or simply make a phone call? Then, what kind of follow-up happened?”
Last Tuesday, the 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 a dozen reports to the DCFS between 2013-16, including a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse by a grandparent when the boy was 4 years old.
“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.”
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle, in a statement released last week, said: “As all agencies work tirelessly to get to the bottom of what happened, each day brings to light new updates and information about Anthony's senseless death. While we cannot comment on an ongoing criminal investigation, we are committed to cooperating with our law enforcement partners. I reiterate my deep commitment to seeing justice done on behalf of this innocent child. Our hearts go out to those that have been so deeply affected by this tragedy.”
Barger and other county officials repeatedly said that they would wait for all the facts to come in before drawing conclusions about exactly what happened to the boy. However, Barger called it a “senseless murder,” explaining that “we don't have a conclusion, but there's no other explanation.”
Barger noted that 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale was beaten to death in 2013 by his mother's live-in boyfriend, despite multiple calls to DCFS over a period of years. The boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, who was reported to hate the child because he thought he was gay, was sentenced June 7 to death for the crime and the victim's mother, Pearl Fernandez, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Four DCFS officials are awaiting trial on charges of child abuse and falsifying records involving the boy.
The Office of Child Protection was established to transform the child welfare system in response to that 2013 murder.
Another potential parallel was a concern that homophobia may have contributed to both boys' abuse.
Although a possible motive in Anthony's case remains under investigation, Cagle told City News Service that he was told Anthony said “he liked boys and girls” and that the context of the boy's comment was not entirely clear.
At the news conference last Wednesday, sheriff's Capt. Christopher Bergner said homophobia “has not come up in our investigation as a motivation at this time.”