A decade after the brutal murder of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez by his mother and her partner made national headlines, this week an equally horrifying case of child abuse heads to an L.A. court, as the trial of Kareem Leiva and Heather Barron for the torture and murder of her son, Anthony Avalos, opens.
Anthony, 10, was found dead of blunt force trauma and prolonged child neglect in Lancaster on June 21, 2018.
The defendants are his biological mother, Barron, 33, and her live-in boyfriend, 37-year-old Leiva; both have been charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances of torture. Prosecutors will argue that the couple tortured and killed Anthony because they believed the fourth-grader was gay. The lead prosecutor, Jonathan Hatami, also prosecuted the mother of Gabriel Fernandez and her boyfriend, who received a life sentence and the death penalty, respectively.
The blunt force trauma in Anthony’s cause of death has been attributed to Leiva grabbing the boy and slamming his head repeatedly on the ground. As a result, he had severe brain injuries.
The prolonged child abuse element 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 as a result of the prolonged period of severe abuse that led up to his death.
In October, L.A. County already agreed to pay $32 million to the Avalos family for negligence and malfeasance; this is the largest payout in the county’s history. By comparison, the family of Gabriel Fernandez, the victim of one of the most infamous cases of child torture and murder in the history of the country and whose tragedy was immortalized in the Netflix documentary series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, received a $4 million payout.
Like the Fernandez murder trial in 2018, the Avalos case will probe questions of negligence and misfeasance on the part of officials from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Why did detectives investigating the abuse allegations fail to interview the children away from their mother? Why were the cases involving abuse closed without being brought to the District Attorney’s office? Why was Leiva, whose name had come up in multiple allegations of child abuse during those years and who was listed as a suspect in two domestic violence cases, never interviewed by the Sheriff’s Department?
Hotline calls to the child welfare agency by relatives, social workers, and elementary-school staffers reporting Anthony’s abuse will be played in court. Police reports on the extensive abuse of the child will be entered into the court record. The assistant principal at El Dorado Elementary School in Lancaster, where Anthony placed on the honor roll, is expected to testify. So will Harmony Bell, the boy’s teacher, as will Sophia, a classmate of Anthony’s and his best friend.
Leiva is also accused of running a youth fight club in the apartment, where he would allegedly make the children fight each other until somebody cried. Prosecutors say that Leiva and Barron would hit Anthony with the metal part of a belt and an extension cord; they allege the couple would force-feed the child hot sauce, demand he kneels down on uncooked rice for long periods, and make him hold books up with his arms outstretched for hours at a time; 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, they allege.
On multiple occasions, county officials removed Anthony from the custody of Barron and Leiva—only to send him back.
Anthony was one of four children in Leiva and Barron’s custody who were reportedly victims of abuse that was reported to the child welfare agency from 2013 until Anthony’s death in 2018.
The couple is also alleged to have abused Raphael, Anthony’s half-brother; Destiny, his half-sister; and Angel, his half-brother. But Anthony, the oldest child, got the worst of it. Raphael, Destiny, and Angel will testify at the trial about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Barron and Leiva.
Baron had seven children—three from Kareen Leiva; one from Victor Avalos, who is Anthony’s dad; one (Angel) from Carlos Garcia; and though his given name is not publicly known, Raphael and Destiny’s dad’s surname is Osuna.
In court records, Kareem Leiva is referred to as an active MS-13 gang member. His brother, Mauricio Leiva, also a suspected MS-13 member, was indicted on federal charges in connection with a violent drug ring in 2016.
If convicted, Leiva and Baron could face a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
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