The mother of Lancaster 10-year-old Anthony Avalos and her live-in boyfriend have been found guilty of first-degree murder by torture, a special circumstance that carries with it a minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On Tuesday afternoon, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta announced that Heather Barron, 34, and Kareem Leiva, 38, were guilty on one count each of murder and torture of Anthony, who was found dead of blunt force trauma and prolonged child neglect in Lancaster on June 21, 2018.
The guilty verdict in the non-jury trial was reached on March 6 and it was announced by today to a courtroom packed with the boy’s relatives, the defendants, and members of the media. It comes after the court heard six weeks of gut-wrenching testimony from relatives, social workers, school officials, counselors, and deputy sheriffs that attested to a documented history of abuse in the family and futile attempts to remove him from the dangerous home over the years before his murder.
Prosecutors had argued that Barron and Leiva abused the child with a torturous regimen of punishments—including beatings, the withholding of food, confined in small spaces, and forcing Anthony to kneel on uncooked rice. They told the court that this occurred from the day after he completed the fourth grade until his death from severe head trauma.
On June 18, 2018, Leiva, who is a member of the transnational crime organization MS-13, was living with the family of Avalos at the time He’d picked up Anthony and repeatedly slammed him on his head until the boy lost consciousness. His mother, who had attempted to revive her son with cold water, waited two days while he lay unresponsive in the apartment before she called for medical help. By the time emergency first responders arrived, they found that Anthony was brain dead.
The prolonged child abuse element of their case refers to the boy’s dehydrated and malnourished condition at the time of his death. He had not been given food or water for a long period of time, causing his body to begin to deteriorate and shut down.
Prosecutors said that Leiva ran a youth fight club in the apartment, where they alleged that he would force the children to fight each other until somebody cried. They alleged in detail to the court a number of horrific abuses that Anthony was subjected to by Leiva and Barron: they would hit Anthony with the metal part of a belt and an extension cord; the couple would force-feed the child hot sauce; they would demand he kneel down on uncooked rice for long periods; they’d make him hold books up with his arms outstretched for hours at a time; and the couple would put out cigarettes on his body, pick him up by the feet and bash his head into the ground, and lock him in a room for 8-10 hours at a time, prosecutors said.
Sentencing for Barron and Leiva is scheduled for April 25. They face a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In addition to the convictions for the intentional murder of a child, the pair was also found guilty on Tuesday of two counts of child abuse against two of Anthony’s younger half-siblings.
The verdict comes nearly five years after the settlement of justice in another, equally horrific, child abuse death in Antelope Valley—that of 10-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez, the Palmdale boy who was abused and tortured over a period of months before he was murdered at 8 years old by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. The similarities between the two murders are striking, particularly in what many believe ultimately led the boys’ murderers to kill them.
Shortly before his brutal murder, Anthony had told his family he might be gay, according to his mother; this was also the case with Gabriel, who was murdered in 2013. And like Gabriel’s life, Anthony’s short time was tangled in a jumble of fumbled interventions and botched opportunities that might have saved him. Virtually every system set up to protect children like Anthony—from the Department of Child and Family Services to the Sheriff’s Department—failed to protect him from his torturers.
Jonathan Hatami was the lead prosecutor in both cases. Pearl Sinthia Fernandez and Isauro Aguirre were handed a life sentence and the death penalty, respectively. Hatami has said he had planned to seek the death penalty for Barron and Leiva prior to the election of District Attorney George Gasón, who enacted a “no death penalty in any circumstance” edict.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.