The last four years of Anthony Avalos’ life were almost constant torture.
The Antelope Valley boy spent hours locked in a room with no access to food, water or a bathroom. His body was ravaged by welts caused by the whipping of belts and power lines. Wounds on his knees would scab over and reopen after he was forced to kneel on uncooked rice and concrete. His blood flowed through the room where he slept.
Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, sat stoically in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday as prosecutors opened trial against them by outlining the horrific abuse the couple is accused of inflicting on the boy, who eventually died of head trauma in 2018. They have pleaded not guilty to torturing and murdering Anthony, as well as abusing two of Barron’s other children. If convicted on all charges, they face life in prison.
At the time, Anthony’s death exposed the failure of the Los Angeles County social services system to protect the 10-year-old and his siblings, despite more than a dozen reports from family members claiming that Leiva and Barron were abusive. Now, the start of the trial, four and a half years later, the focus is entirely on the tragedy of the boy’s short, painful life and the people accused of ending it so violently.
“She has been torturing her children for a long time,” said LA County Deputy Dist. Attention. Saeed Teymouri said about Barron on Wednesday. “Once Defendant Leiva entered the picture, it became deadly.”
Although Leiva admitted to severely abusing the boy in a taped interview with Sheriff’s Department detectives played in court Wednesday, his attorney, Dan Chambers, argued that Leiva did not cause Anthony’s death and should be acquitted of his murder.
Barron’s attorney, Nancy Sperber, declined to make an opening statement. At trial, Sperber is expected to attempt to shift the blame onto Leiva. Barron has claimed in interviews with police that Leiva abused her as well.
Instead of a trial by jury, both defendants chose to have Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta render a verdict in the case.
A 2019 Times investigation provided a timeline of Anthony’s devastating life. When he was 4 years old, his mother told relatives that her son had been sexually assaulted by a relative. Two years later, the boy’s aunt, Crystal Diuguid, told a therapist that Barron beat Anthony and locked him in a room.
Reports of violence against the boy became increasingly serious. One day he arrived at school with wounds believed to have been caused by BB pistol bullets, according to The Times report. He told a deputy principal that his mother’s abuse included forcing him into a crouching position with outstretched arms for long periods of time, which she called “the captain’s chair.” A family member called an abuse hotline, claiming that Leiva had left the children dangling over a balcony and threatened to drop them, and sometimes picked Anthony up by the armpits before slamming him on the head.
Amid the abuse, Anthony wrote a suicide note, according to records previously reviewed by The Times.
During his opening statement on Wednesday, Teymouri detailed the burns, cuts and malnutrition suffered by the boy, and repeatedly showed photos of his battered body taken at the hospital before he died. Sobs escaped from the gallery every few minutes as family members passed around a box of tissues.
Switching between a picture of a younger, healthier and smiling Anthony and an image of the boy lying in a hospital bed with sunken, bloodied eyes and a body covered in cuts and bruises, Teymouri looked at the defendants and said: “They are so beautiful become 10-year-old boy from this to this.
According to Teymouri, Anthony was brain dead and had no pulse when paramedics arrived at his family’s home in Lancaster in June 2018. Barron told paramedics that the boy threw himself on the floor and hurt his head, but Teymouri said some of the other children in the home later told police he had been unconscious for nearly two days. During that time, Teymouri said, Leiva fled the house and signed custody of his own five children to relatives, fearing he would be arrested.
During the trial, which is expected to take up to six weeks, multiple doctors and paramedics are expected to testify that Barron did not look bothered and feigned tears at other times as her son lay unconscious and dying. Other witnesses are expected to portray Leiva as a violent gang member who starved and beat the children whenever they were out of Barron’s sight.
In addition to determining the guilt or innocence of the defendants, the trial will also serve as a referendum on the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.
Barron’s sister-in-law, Maria Barron, took the stand on Wednesday and cried after prosecutors repeated a phone call her husband made to a county hotline in 2015 detailing the abuse of Anthony and the other children who allegedly suffering from Leiva. After the report was filed, Maria Barron said, the agency allowed her sister-in-law to visit the children unsupervised, recording that she recanted the abuse allegations. The agency’s social workers later returned the children to Leiva and Barron, who cut off contact with her sister-in-law.
“We weren’t allowed to see the children again… we couldn’t save them,” said Maria Barron.
It was the first of many failures. The agency, which monitored Anthony for most of a four-year period from 2013 to 2017, received at least 13 reports about him in that time from family members, teachers, counselors and police, but the boy remained at the home of Leiva and Barron. No DCFS employees have been disciplined in connection with the case, the agency said.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Det. Chris Wyatt also took on a report alleging that Leiva molested another of Barron’s children. Wyatt noticed wounds on the child’s ear but made no attempt to find Leiva or conduct an investigation, according to the detective’s grand jury testimony. Despite investigating the family for three years, DCFS staff never interviewed Leiva, according to notes previously reviewed by The Times.
The case has often drawn comparisons to the torture and murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, whose case also revealed major flaws within DCFS. Prosecutors tried to charge four social workers for failing to properly report Gabriel’s abuse, but an appeals court dismissed the case.
Prosecutors did not attempt to press charges against DCFS employees after Anthony’s death, although counselor Barbara Dixon was placed on probation by a state court for failing to report suspected abuse from both boys before their deaths.