Prosecutors on Wednesday announced that a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend could face the death penalty in the slaying of her 10-year-old son, Anthony Avalos, who authorities allege was whipped, beaten and body-slammed before his death in June.
During a court hearing in Lancaster, Heather Barron, 29, and Kareem Leiva, 32, pleaded not guilty to all criminal charges, as well as a newly added special-circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, making the pair eligible for capital punishment.
Barron tapped her right foot incessantly and Leiva stared at the ground. Both defendants sat in silence with their hands in their pockets, whispering softly — “yes” — when the judge asked if they understood their rights.
Anthony’s death this summer drew swift comparisons to another Antelope Valley case that roiled the county’s child welfare system — the 2013 torture and murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. In both instances, the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services received tips about abuse but left each boy in the home with his mother and her boyfriend.
In Anthony’s case, the agency investigated 88 claims of abuse stretching back to 2013, according to an attorney representing the boy’s relatives. Fifteen of the claims were substantiated, the lawyer said, including two involving sexual abuse.
For a week or so before Anthony slipped out of consciousness and died on June 21, Barron and Leiva allegedly poured hot sauce on the boy’s face, forced him to kneel on rice and repeatedly lashed the bottom of his feet with a belt, according to a motion filed by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami. The defendants gave the boy rug burns, dangled him upside down and dropped him on his head, and switched between withholding food for long periods and force-feeding him, Hatami wrote.
But the brutality, prosecutors say, began long before Anthony’s last tortured days and, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and DCFS records, included at least three of Anthony’s siblings. Hatami wrote that Leiva hit them with a hose, forced them to squat against a wall for long periods of time — the “captain’s chair,” he called it — and hurled dirty diapers at them. In one instance, the prosecutor wrote, Leiva hit Anthony’s younger brother with enough force that the boy needed medical attention and staples to close a head wound.
Prosecutors filed an additional child abuse count against both defendants on Wednesday, accusing them of beating the younger brother in May.
Leiva's attorney Dan Chambers said he believes his client is innocent.
“The first layer of defense is we have to get through the records,” Chambers said, adding that there is a “mountain” of evidence in the case.
After the hearing, Barron’s brother told reporters it doesn’t make a difference to him if his sister faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
“As long as she doesn’t walk free,” David Barron said, tears filling his eyes.
His voice rose to a hoarse shout as he spoke about the DCFS and the social workers who handled Anthony’s case.
“We want a full-blown investigation!” he said.
“How many more kids need to die?” added his wife, Maria. “Enough is enough!”
She praised prosecutors for filing the new charges.
“The baby had to suffer,” she said of Anthony’s younger brother. “It was all the kids.”
Both defendants are scheduled to return to court for a hearing on Nov. 27.