LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- A man who is charged along with his live-in girlfriend in her 10-year-old son's death acknowledged to investigators in an audio-recorded interview played Thursday in court that he had disciplined the boy by hitting him with a belt, slapping him and pushing him to the floor in their Lancaster apartment.
Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, and Heather Maxine Barron, 33, are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony Avalos' June 2018 death, along with two counts of child abuse involving two of the boy's half-siblings, identified in court only as "Destiny O.'' and "Rafael O.''
The murder count includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Over the objection of Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the 2020 election of District Attorney George Gascon, who issued a directive that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case.''
Barron and Leiva now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
During a three-hour interview with Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives in June 2018, Leiva said he pushed the boy on one occasion and "he just fell.'' He said he believed the boy struck his head.
"Okay, is there any doubt in your mind that there is nobody else that is causing that bleeding to his brain in the house?'' sheriff's Detective Scott Mitchell asked Leiva.
"No, that was, that was nobody but me,'' the defendant told investigators.
When asked if he believed whether the discipline that involved pushing caused the bleeding to the brain, he responded, "Yeah.''
"I didn't do it to hurt him. I did it to get him to act right,'' he told investigators. "I didn't have no intent of making him pass out ...''
Leiva also acknowledged that he would "whoop'' Anthony on the butt with a belt. He said he had also slapped the boy on the cheeks because "he was misbehaving,'' but maintained that he didn't do it "as hard as I can.''
"Was there anything that was seen or heard that would lead you to believe that any of those bruises were from anybody else but you? The bottom line is did you put those bruises on his body?'' the detective asked.
"Yeah,'' Leiva responded.
When asked if he really knew why "all of this had happened,'' the defendant responded, "Maybe I need help ... And I can't blame anybody but myself because I'm the one, you know? It's my fault. Everything is just my fault.''
Leiva said the boy and his two half-siblings had also been subjected to punishment in which they were forced to kneel on uncooked rice.
In her first two interviews with police, Anthony's mother denied any knowledge of alleged abuse of her children, but told investigators shortly before her arrest that she was afraid of Leiva -- whom she said had abused her -- and that he had punished her children, according to sheriff's Detective Adam Kirste.
The boy's two half-siblings testified Wednesday that they had seen their mother's boyfriend repeatedly dropping Anthony on the bedroom floor shortly before his death.
Destiny, now 13 years old, testified that Anthony had been forced to undergo a series of punishments the night before her mother called 911 to report that he was not breathing, including Leiva picking him up and dropping him "probably 10 (times) or a little more.''
"I think it was giving him brain damage,'' she said, noting that the boy "was saying weird things.''
"Where was mommy?'' the prosecutor asked.
"She was watching,'' the seventh-grader testified.
She said her mother subsequently directed her and Rafael not to say anything to the police when they were called to the house the next day.
Rafael, who is now 12, said he saw Anthony being dropped by Leiva about 20 times the night before his mother called 911 to report that his half-brother wasn't breathing. He said his mother "didn't try to protect Anthony.''
He acknowledged that he didn't initially tell police about what had happened because he was trying to protect his mother, but testified that he didn't want to cover it up any longer "now that I see what she did.''
In testimony Thursday, another of Anthony's siblings broke down in tears when asked if he liked living with his mother and her boyfriend.
The 10-year-old boy, identified in court as Angel G., told the judge "they would constantly hit us.''
In interviews with Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives after Anthony was taken first to Antelope Valley Hospital and then to UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, Barron maintained that she "didn't do nothing.''
"He has been throwing himself. He has. I promise you ... He has been throwing himself around,'' Barron told investigators, maintaining that the boy "had been acting up and he threw himself (on the floor) because he didn't want to eat.''
"I know you guys are coming at me like, like I'm Gabriel's mom,'' she said, in an apparent reference to the case against Pearl Fernandez, who was convicted along with her boyfriend of murdering her 8-year-old son. "And it was nothing like that. I promise I did not hurt my son. I did not let nobody hurt my son. I promise you to God. You can give me a lie detector test. I did not do this.''
In a second interview with detectives, Barron acknowledged that she hadn't initially told them that Leiva had been at the house because she was "scared'' and didn't want to go to jail.
She maintained that Leiva "didn't touch Anthony'' and said that "no one did anything to him,'' but said Leiva wasn't supposed to be at her apartment because it is a low-income facility and had been threatened by the managers that she would be kicked out if anybody kept coming over.
When asked by Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri about Barron appearing to be "hysterical'' and "stuttering'' at times during the audiotaped interviews with detectives, sheriff's Sgt. Robert Wilkinson said, "It appeared that she was trying, in my opinion, to fake an emotion. I never saw any tears.''
Several first-responders testified Tuesday that the woman was not crying or hysterical as they tried to revive her son.
Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Vanarsdale testified that emergency personnel who were treating the boy appeared to be more upset than his mother was.
In his opening statement of the trial, Teymouri told the judge that Barron and Leiva tortured and abused Anthony for two weeks before his death, while an attorney for Leiva countered that his client should be acquitted of murder.
"Anthony Avalos graduated the fourth grade on June 7th, 2018, and for two consecutive weeks he was abused and tortured every single day culminating to when the first responders found his lifeless body on June 20th,'' Teymouri said.
The boy died early the next morning.
Teymouri told the judge that there had been multiple contacts with the county's Department of Children and Family Services dating back to 2014.
"She's been torturing her kids for a long period of time, and once defendant Leiva came into the picture it turned deadly,'' he said.
The prosecutor said the boy was "already brain dead'' and had been lying on the floor in the family's townhouse "for at least a day, possibly more'' when Barron called 911 to seek assistance for the boy, and that the two "concocted a story that Anthony Avalos had injured himself.''
The boy had "new and old injuries -- literally from head to toe,'' the deputy district attorney said, showing a photo of the boy while he was alive and then in a video from the hospital in which some of his injuries were depicted.
Leiva subsequently acknowledged that he had the boy kneel on uncooked rice and admitted that he had rendered him unconscious for about five minutes just days earlier, according to the prosecutor.
Leiva's attorney countered that the evidence would demonstrate that there is "reasonable doubt'' involving the murder charge against his client. Dan Chambers said the two major issues will be "a lack of intent to kill'' and the issues of "causation.''
The defense lawyer questioned the accounts of the boy's half-siblings, whose testimony he said has changed over time.
Chambers told the judge that many of the statements by the children are "inconsistent,'' saying that their initial statements "showed a lack of any actions on behalf of Mr. Leiva with respect to the treatment of Anthony'' and that Mr. Leiva's conduct allegedly grew worse'' as the children underwent further questioning.
"Those inconsistencies in the evidence will be apparent and once we demonstrate that it will show that what the children claim they say Mr. Leiva doing is inconsistent with the medical evidence,'' the defense attorney said. "This case is a case of severe abuse, but as to Mr. Leiva, it is not a murder,'' the defense lawyer told the judge.
Barron's attorneys reserved their right to make an opening statement when the defense begins its portion of the case.
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.
Last 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.
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