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Anthony Avalos was extensively tortured over days before dying, prosecutors allege

Pictured above: Anthony Avalos, 10, was found with severe injuries at his family’s apartment in Lancaster last month. He died June 21. (Family photo)

This story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 3, 2018

By Garrett Therolf

Anthony Avalos suffered at least five days of sustained torture that culminated in the 10-year-old boy’s death last month, Los Angeles County prosecutors allege in new court papers.

The district attorney’s office said that Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, poured hot sauce on Anthony’s face and mouth, whipped the boy with a looped cord and belt, held him upside-down and dropped him on his head repeatedly. Prosecutors also alleged that the couple alternately withheld food and force-fed him, slammed him into furniture and the floor, denied access to the bathroom and enlisted other children in the home to inflict pain.

“At one point, Anthony could not walk, was unconscious lying on his bedroom floor for hours, was not provided medical attention and could not eat on his own,” according to the motion by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami that seeks to establish a long-standing pattern of alleged child abuse. The court released a copy on Tuesday.

Barron and Leiva have both been charged in Anthony’s death. The two appeared in a Lancaster courtroom Monday but their arraignments were postponed until Aug. 3. If convicted as charged, Barron faces a possible maximum sentence of 22 years to life in prison, and Leiva faces 32 years to life.

Neither they nor their attorneys could be reached for comment Tuesday. They have not entered pleas. But when Sheriff’s Department officials were called to the house and found Anthony mortally injured, authorities said, they were told he fell.

Although sources and family members initially told The Times that some of Anthony’s injuries included cigarette burns, sheriff’s officials have since said there was no evidence of such burns. The prosecution motion describes the wounds stretching from head to toe as bruises, abrasions, red dots, scabs, cuts and a traumatic brain injury.

In addition to the injuries suffered by Anthony that resulted in his June 21 death, the prosecution motion said that Leiva previously struck one of his brothers so hard that the boy required a trip to the hospital and staples on his head. The motion does not provide a date for that injury, but Hatami told the court that he had reviewed 74 pages of reports to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Department of Children and Family Services detailing years of abuse against Anthony and at least three of his siblings.

Both departments have come under criticism by some of Anthony’s family members and community protesters for never permanently removing Anthony from the home and never arresting Barron and Leiva on suspicion of child abuse.

The prosecution motion provides new details on some of the calls both agencies documented, beginning with a referral in April 2014 alleging that Leiva hit Anthony and three siblings with various objects, including a hose. The caller said Barron screamed at the children and locked them in their rooms for hours.

In October 2014, a caller said Barron screamed at the children, dragged one of Anthony’s brothers across the room by his arm, showed no affection and “seemed completely detached.”

In November 2014, a caller said Barron “frustrates easily” and hits the children.

In the first half of 2015, two callers said Barron bruised and injured one of Anthony’s brothers.

In September 2015, a caller said Anthony and his siblings were being hit by Leiva and a brother was dangled upside-down from the staircase. Another caller the same month said Leiva and Barron made the children squat for long periods. Yet another caller that month said Leiva slammed Anthony and one of his brothers onto the floor and locked the children in a room where he threw dirty diapers at them. Leiva also allegedly withheld food for up to 10 hours, and one of Anthony’s brothers ate so ravenously that he regurgitated “because he was not sure when he would get another meal.” That brother, the caller said, was not registered in school because the family was worried he would tell teachers about the abuse.

The same month, the reports said, Anthony went to live with his aunt and uncle. That stay was not long-lasting, however, and he went back to Leiva and Barron.

In April 2016, another caller said Leiva was again physically abusing the children and withholding food from them.

DCFS officials have previously said that some of the allegations by callers were marked “substantiated,” and others were marked “inconclusive” or “unsubstantiated.”

The aunt who briefly cared for Anthony, Maria Barron, said in an interview that Leiva and Heather Barron cut ties with her family following Anthony’s stay with her that began in September 2015. She said Heather Barron wanted to prevent any additional reports to authorities. In the years since, she said, she saw the children at Wal-Mart once, but Heather quickly ushered them away when the women spotted each other.

DCFS Director Bobby Cagle declined to discuss further why Anthony was not removed earlier, citing ongoing investigations.

“Since this is a part of the criminal investigation, I must refer you to the sheriff to avoid the possibility of hindering prosecution,” he said in a statement. “I am focused on cooperating with their investigation and getting to the bottom of what happened, and it would be wrong to speculate while that process is moving forward.”

The Department of Children and Family Services has said in recent days that no workers have been placed on desk duty for their handling of the case and no case management errors have yet been identified.

A spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said the DA filing paints “a clearer picture of the senseless and horrific torture and murder of an innocent child at the hands of his own mother and her boyfriend.” He added that Barger has asked for a report examining the case to be prepared and presented to the supervisors.

Therolf is a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Common Sense News, a nonprofit focused on child well-being.

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