By: Terri Vermeulen Keith
LOS ANGELES – A Lancaster woman and her boyfriend who tortured and murdered the woman’s 10-year-old son were sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, were convicted in a non-jury trial March 7 of first-degree murder and torture for the June 21, 2018, death of Anthony Avalos. Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta, who found the couple guilty, handed down the life-without-parole sentences for the pair Tuesday morning after hearing more than two hours of emotional statements from the boy’s relatives and friends, many of whom referred to the defendants as “monsters.”
“Anthony was a helpless child who was dependant (on the defendants) … for his basic physical needs and emotional support. Instead Anthony was tortured and killed,” Ohta said as he meticulously walked through his sentencing decision.
Neither Barron nor Leiva spoke during the hearing.
The judge said in his March 7 verdict that the couple “worked together to deprive Anthony access to liquids for a substantial length of time causing severe dehydration,” and that the “condition of Anthony’s body, which shows multiple bruises, cuts, possible burn marks all over his body show the extreme torture caused by the combined treatment of Anthony by both defendants manifesting an intent to kill by each defendant.”
Ohta rejected the defendants’ claims that Anthony had been injured after throwing himself to the ground and said that their statements were intended to “deceive authorities” about what had actually happened to the boy.
“Defendant Barron waited to call 911 until Anthony was literally deceased on the afternoon of June 20, 2018. This flagrant lack of care for Anthony’s life all points to intent to kill by both defendant Barron and defendant Leiva,” the judge said, adding that subsequent statements by Barron and Leiva were part of a coordinated effort to cover up their liability for the boy’s death.
The judge also found true the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture of Anthony.
The two were also convicted of two counts of child abuse involving the boy’s half-siblings, identified in court as “Destiny O.” and “Rafael O,” although the judge rejected an enhancement of great bodily injury against Leiva involving Rafael.
The judge said testimony during the trial from the two half-siblings and one of Leiva’s daughters — who said they witnessed Leiva repeatedly dropping Anthony on the bedroom floor — showed that Barron and Leiva “worked together to abuse Anthony.” He said the boy died from severe dehydration and blunt force trauma to the head, saying then that “the evidence supports the conclusion both defendants hurt Anthony for pleasure” and that the 10-year-old boy was “helpless to protect himself against the wrath of defendants Barron and Leiva.”
One of Leiva’s attorneys, Daniel Nardoni, said after the verdict that the defense team had hoped for a conviction on the lesser charge of second- degree murder and that he was “somewhat disappointed that the special circumstance was found to be true.” He said he expects the defense to file a notice of appeal on Leiva’s behalf.
In a sentencing memorandum, Deputy District Attorneys Jonathan Hatami and Saeed Teymouri wrote that Barron and Leiva “assaulted and abused a totally vulnerable victim” who depended on them for nearly everything and that they “took the life of an innocent child” and deserve to be in prison for the rest of their lives.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office had dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that “a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case.”
Hatami — who objected to the decision and has announced plans to run for the job as the county’s top prosecutor — told reporters that he had refused to comply with an order by Gascón to remove the special circumstance allegation, which would have resulted in a 25-year-to-life sentence in which the two defendants could have eventually been eligible for parole.
David Barron said his nephew will “never get the justice that he actually deserved because of Gascón,” saying that the death penalty would have been the closest thing. He and his other sister, Crystal Diuguid, testified that they had repeatedly notified the county Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse of Anthony and three of his half-siblings.
In a statement issued by the District Attorney’s Office after the judge announced his verdict, Gascón said, “The brutality that was meted out on this young child was unimaginable. No child should endure this kind of violence and torture at the hands of the people who are supposed to love and protect him from harm.”
Anthony’s biological father, Victor Avalos, told reporters last month, “It’s hard to find the correct words to explain how I’m feeling right now. … Nothing’s going to bring him back.”
He testified during the trial that he split from Barron when the boy was about 6 or 7 months old and that he only saw him on video chats after moving to Mexico to find a job. He said then that he loved the boy “very much” and still can’t believe what he’s going through.
Heather Barron’s sister told reporters that she wanted everyone to remember the boy as being loved.
“We loved him very much. But because the system chose to look the other way, he was put in the hands of the devil,” Diuguid said.
Two of the boy’s half-siblings — who were called during the prosecution’s case — testified in February that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined.
In his closing argument during the trial, Hatami said the children’s prior accounts of abuse had not been believed.
The prosecutor told the judge that the two defendants are “evil” and “monsters” who should be held accountable for her 10-year-old son’s torture and murder.
Hatami noted that the defendants “blamed Anthony” for his injuries, and that they were both abusive before meeting each other.
“Together, they were deadly,” the deputy district attorney told the judge, explaining that Barron was the one who “came up with many of these torture techniques” and that she chose Leiva to act as the enforcer for the discipline used on the boy and two of his half-siblings.
“They’re bad, bad, evil people. … They’re nothing short of monsters for what they did,” Hatami said.
“It wasn’t just Leiva doing the abuse,” Hatami said. “Heather Barron participated in the torture … Heather Barron participated in the abuse.”
Hatami told the judge that the prosecution believes that Barron had seven children within eight years because she “wanted them for the money” she received in government benefits.
One of Barron’s attorneys, Nancy Sperber, contended that her client is a victim of battered woman syndrome, and said Leiva had taken “full and complete responsibility for every act of violence” against Anthony.
“I would submit to the court that Ms. Barron … she didn’t have the power to prevent this. She didn’t have the power to say no,” Sperber told the judge.
She said her client was a victim of a “cycle of abuse” that began with repeated alleged abuse of Barron as a child by her stepfather.
Leiva was in charge of discipline in the house and forced the children to fight each other when they were left in his care when Barron wasn’t home, according to Sperber.
Barron’s attorney agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment that Leiva is “evil.”
She told the judge that Leiva survived his own attempt to slit his throat because he is “so evil” that the devil didn’t even want him.
“He admitted to brutalizing Anthony,” she said of his interview with Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives. “He confessed to every single act of violence and torture.”
One of Leiva’s attorneys, Dan Chambers, said in his closing argument that “this case is one of extreme, unjustified, out-of-bounds behavior,” but added that it doesn’t rise to the level of intent to kill.
He said there was “reasonable doubt” on the issues of intent to kill and what actually caused the boy’s death.
He told the judge that the intersection between the testimony of two of Anthony’s younger half-siblings and one of Leiva’s daughters — who said they saw Leiva repeatedly dropping Anthony — and the medical evidence “will show reasonable doubt on the issue of intent to kill.”
He noted that the children initially denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and said that their accounts have changed dramatically since they first spoke to the police.
“Sometimes kids are just wrong. It’s not a matter of lying,” he told the judge.
He said the medical testimony indicated that there was a “lack of external head injuries” to Anthony.
Leiva’s lawyer said it was a “bunch of crap” to suggest that the alleged abuse started with Leiva, saying that some of the ideas for punishments came directly from Barron, whose sister testified that they had been subjected to some of the same type of discipline when they were children. He noted that most of the calls made to a child abuse hotline involved Barron’s alleged conduct.
Chambers said the woman hadn’t looked at a single photo shown on large courtroom screens and “doesn’t shed a tear” or even make eye contact with her children when they testified, while his client grew emotional and “showed some semblance of humanity” when his own daughter testified.
Leiva’s attorney had urged the judge to acquit his client of first- degree murder and the special circumstance allegation, along with the torture charge.
Barron and Leiva were charged in June 2018 with the boy’s killing and were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury in October 2018. They remain jailed without bail.
In October, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved a $32 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by the boy’s relatives — two of whom testified last week that they notified the county’s Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse. The lawsuit contended that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The lawsuit cited other high-profile deaths of children who were also being monitored by the DCFS — 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, both of Palmdale — to allege “systemic failures” in the agency.