LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A woman whose 10-year-old son's lifeless body was found on the living room floor of their Lancaster home told responding sheriff's deputies that she didn't hit her children, and asked if she was going to be taken to jail and if her children were going to be removed from her custody, a former deputy testified Tuesday.
Ex-Deputy Adan Ordaz told Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta -- who is hearing the non-jury trial of Heather Maxine Barron and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva -- that Anthony Avalos appeared not to be conscious or breathing and that he immediately "realized something was wrong" because the boy had "multiple injuries" that "didn't seem right for a 10-year-old boy."
The boy's mother "didn't seem really distressed" and wasn't crying or hysterical, the former deputy said. Ordaz told the judge that Barron claimed the boy had thrown himself back and hit his head during a tantrum a day earlier, but the ex-deputy said it didn't seem to be a reasonable explanation for the boy's injuries.
"She was saying that she doesn't hit her kids. She was asking us if we were going to take her to jail ... if we were going to take her kids from her," Ordaz said.
Barron's daughter, Destiny, who was upstairs that day, told Ordaz that "my mom doesn't hit me, nobody hits us," the former deputy said, noting that another of the woman's sons, Rafael, gave "pretty much exactly the same" statement. He said it seemed suspicious.
"To me, it seems like maybe they were told to say those things," Ordaz said.
Barron and Leiva are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony's June 2018 death, along with two counts of child abuse involving two of the boy's half-siblings.
The murder count includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Over the objection of Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case."
Barron, 33, and Leiva, 37, now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
Sheriff's Deputy David Pine, who was the first to arrive at the family's Lancaster apartment following a 911 call on June 20, 2018, said the boy appeared to be dead. He said he began chest compressions in an effort to revive the boy, whose legs were covered with bruises and marks.
He said he noticed that Anthony's mother wasn't crying or hysterical and that he considered her demeanor to be abnormal.
"I heard her say ... Why are you questioning my kids? I didn't do anything," Pine testified. "She just kept saying that she didn't do this."
Another deputy, Brandon Vanarsdale, testified that emergency personnel who were treating the boy appeared to be more upset than his mother was.
The deputy said the boy's two half-siblings, questioned upstairs in the home, told him that Anthony behaves badly, with Vanarsdale saying that the use of the words temper tantrums by the boy's younger half-brother and discipline by the boy's younger half-sister raised his suspicions.
He said he subsequently arranged for intersections to be blocked off to allow an ambulance to whisk the boy to the hospital after being told it would take too long for a helicopter to arrive to airlift the boy.
Jon Ferguson, a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain, said the boy wasn't breathing, didn't have a pulse and was "very lifeless." He said the boy's sunken eyes and bruising were not consistent with a child his age, leading to the conclusion that "things weren't right."
He described the boy's mother as "almost emotionless" and said it struck him as "odd."
"None of it seemed to fit ... It didn't fit what she was telling us what happened."
Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Robert Wilkinson, then a detective in the Special Victims Bureau, said he responded to Antelope Valley Hospital that day and found the boy "lifeless" and bruised with many tubes and monitors attached to him. The boy's mother "didn't appear very concerned with what was happening to her son in the next room," he testified.
When asked by Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri about Barron appearing to be "hysterical" and "stuttering" at times during audiotaped interviews with detectives, Wilkinson said, "It appeared that she was trying, in my opinion, to fake an emotion. I never saw any tears."
Just before her first lengthy interview with sheriff's detectives, Barron was notified while at Antelope Valley Hospital that Anthony was being transferred to UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital and that he was not expected to recover.
"Oh my God, oh my God. Don't say that, don't say that, don't say that," she can be heard saying in the audio recording, which was played in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom. "Don't tell me that, don't tell me that. That's my baby, my first-born ... I promise I didn't do nothing."
She pleaded that she couldn't live without her son.
"Please, please, please, don't tell me he's going to die, please, please," the mother of seven implored.
She subsequently told detectives that she just wanted to hold her son, whom she said was just telling her that morning that he loved her.
"My baby is strong and he's my light of my life and no, no, no, no, no, no, no, that can't be right ... He's fine, he's fine," she said.
"I promise you I didn't do nothing," she subsequently told sheriff's detectives. "He has been throwing himself. He has. I promise you ... He has been throwing himself around."
She maintained that the boy had been "acting up and he threw himself (on the floor) because he didn't want to eat."
When asked about the "pretty significant scrapes" on Anthony's knees, the boy's mother said he got them while playing basketball and that he liked to "pick his scabs."
She said there was "no way" he had been burned with a cigarette, and said she believed the marks looked like spider bites.
"I know you guys are coming at me like, like I'm Gabriel's mom," she said, in an apparent reference to the case against Pearl Fernandez, who was convicted along with her boyfriend of murdering her 8-year-old son. "And it was nothing like that. I promise I did not hurt my son. I did not let nobody hurt my son. I promise you to God. You can give me a lie detector test. I did not do this."
In a subsequent interview with detectives later that day in a waiting room at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, Barron acknowledged that she hadn't initially told them that Leiva had been at the house because she was "scared" and didn't want to go to jail.
She maintained that Leiva "didn't touch Anthony" and said that "no one did anything to him," but said Leiva wasn't supposed to be at her apartment because it is a low-income facility and had been threatened by the managers that she would be kicked out if anybody kept coming over.
In his opening statement last week, Teymouri told the judge that Barron and Leiva tortured and abused Anthony for two weeks before his death, while an attorney for Leiva countered that his client should be acquitted of murder.
"Anthony Avalos graduated the fourth grade on June 7th, 2018, and for two consecutive weeks he was abused and tortured every single day culminating to when the first responders found his lifeless body on June 20th," Teymouri said.
The boy died early the next morning.
Teymouri told the judge that there had been multiple contacts with the county's Department of Children and Family Services dating back to 2014.
"She's been torturing her kids for a long period of time, and once defendant Leiva came into the picture it turned deadly," he said.
The prosecutor said the boy was "already brain dead" and had been lying on the floor in the family's townhouse "for at least a day, possibly more" when Barron called 911 to seek assistance for the boy, and that the two "concocted a story that Anthony Avalos had injured himself."
The boy had "new and old injuries -- literally from head to toe," the deputy district attorney said, showing a photo of the boy while he was alive and then in a video from the hospital in which some of his injuries were depicted.
Leiva subsequently acknowledged that he had the boy kneel on uncooked rice and admitted that he had rendered him unconscious for about five minutes just days earlier, according to the prosecutor.
Leiva's attorney countered that the evidence would demonstrate that there is "reasonable doubt" involving the murder charge against his client.
Dan Chambers said the two major issues will be "a lack of intent to kill" and the issues of "causation."
The defense lawyer questioned the accounts of the boy's half-siblings, whose testimony he said has changed over time.
Chambers told the judge that many of the statements by the children are "inconsistent," saying that their initial statements "showed a lack of any actions on behalf of Mr. Leiva with respect to the treatment of Anthony" and that "Mr. Leiva's conduct allegedly grew worse" as the children underwent further questioning.
"Those inconsistencies in the evidence will be apparent and once we demonstrate that it will show that what the children claim they say Mr. Leiva doing is inconsistent with the medical evidence," the defense attorney said.
"This case is a case of severe abuse, but as to Mr. Leiva, it is not a murder," the defense lawyer told the judge.
Barron's attorneys reserved their right to make an opening statement when the defense begins its portion of the case.
Barron and Leiva were charged in June 2018 with the boy's killing and were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury in October 2018. They remain jailed without bail.
Last October, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved a $32 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by the boy's relatives -- two of whom testified last week that they notified the county's Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse. The lawsuit contended that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The lawsuit cited other high-profile deaths of children who were also being monitored by the DCFS -- 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, both of Palmdale -- to allege "systemic failures" in the agency.