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Sheriff's investigators arrest mother's boyfriend in death of 10-year-old Lancaster boy

Sheriff's investigators arrest mother's boyfriend in death of 10-year-old Lancaster boy
Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old boy who died last week in Lancaster. (Family photo)

Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives have arrested a woman’s boyfriend in the death of her 10-year-old son, who was found unresponsive at their Lancaster home a week ago.

Kareem Leiva, 32, was arrested on suspicion of murder after he “made statements” during an interview at the Lancaster station that led detectives to believe he was involved in the boy’s death, Sheriff Jim McDonnell told reporters at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. He did not elaborate.

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Leiva, who lived with the family on and off and had three children with the boy’s mother, Heather Barron, was being treated for a self-inflicted laceration to his upper chest. After he is medically cleared, he will be booked on a murder charge and held on $2-million bail, McDonnell said. Barron was interviewed but not arrested.

Anthony Avalos died at a hospital the morning after he was found, and investigators classified the death as suspicious. In a statement Tuesday, the Department of Children and Family Services director, Bobby Cagle, said the boy was taken to a hospital and appeared to have been malnourished and severely beaten.

But McDonnell disputed those initial reports, saying Wednesday that the extent of Anthony’s injuries had been “grossly overstated.” He said detectives did not find cigarette burns on Anthony’s body, as reported, but he did not elaborate on the injuries the boy had sustained.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell announces an arrest in the death of Anthony Avalos.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell announces an arrest in the death of Anthony Avalos. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“What you’ve heard there is not accurate based on what our detectives have seen,” McDonnell said. The autopsy has not been completed.

Brandon Nichols, deputy director of DCFS , said in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys,” prompting speculation that his sexuality played a role in his death. Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Bergner said homophobia has not come up as a motive in the investigation.

County officials removed eight other children — from 11 months to 12 years old — from the home as the investigation continued. They are all in the custody of DCFS.

From 2013 to 2016, DCFS received a dozen reports related to Anthony that included allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as general neglect. The last one was two years ago.

The Times reported Sunday that callers alleged that Anthony or his siblings had been denied food and water, beaten, sexually abused, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, and forced to eat from the trash.

One afternoon last week, deputies responded to a 911 call from Anthony’s mother and found the boy unresponsive inside his family’s apartment. Authorities said they were told the boy had “suffered injuries from a fall.”

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ordered officials in charge of child protection to examine shortcomings in the system.

The case evoked the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and beaten for months in a case that triggered far-reaching reforms within L.A. County’s child welfare system and led to unprecedented criminal charges against social workers who handled the boy’s case. The boy’s mother was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and her boyfriend to death.

But sources familiar with the preliminary results of Anthony’s autopsy said the injuries are consistent with an assault but don’t show the signs of torture and prolonged abuse that investigators saw in Gabriel’s case.

“Systems have been put in place to ensure that things don’t happen again wherever we find deficiencies, and so when we look at this we will dig into it to see, could we have done a better job, as will the other agencies that are involved in this,” McDonnell said.

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9:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a news conference.

4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with more information about the suspect.

This article was originally published at 4:40 p.m.

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