A Lancaster woman charged along with her boyfriend with the torture and murder of her 10-year-old son inflicted some of the same type of punishment on her children that had been used against her by her mother and stepfather years earlier, the defendant’s brother and sister testified Thursday.
David Barron and Crystal Diuguid told Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta — who is hearing the non-jury trial of Heather Maxine Barron and Kareem Ernesto Leiva — that they warned their sister against inflicting the same kind of punishment they had faced as children. The pair testified that they subsequently repeatedly notified the county Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse of Anthony Avalos and three of his half-siblings.
David Barron said he told DCFS during one of the calls that he believed one of the children would be dead in five years if they were left in the home. He said it wound up being only about three years before Anthony died.
Heather Barron, 33, and Leiva, 37, are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony’s June 2018 death, along with two counts of child abuse involving two of the boy’s half-siblings.
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 2018 election of District Attorney George GascÃ³n, who issued a directive that “a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case.”
The two could now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
“Most of the time she would say the kids did it to each other or themselves,” David Barron testified Thursday, adding that he didn’t think children who were that young would be making up their accounts of the alleged abuse.
Anthony’s uncle said he saw his younger sister hit three of her children, including Anthony, with her hand, a wire hanger and a wooden spoon, and another of her children with her hand alone.
The defendant’s brother testified that his younger sister begged him not to call the Department of Children and Family Services and that she told him she would have Leiva leave the home. He said he and his wife heard from the children that Leiva was still at the home.
Anthony’s aunt said she also provided information to a mandated reporter who notified DCFS that there were “four victims” of abuse by Barron and that the one receiving the “worst treatment” was Anthony, who was 5 years old at the time.
Diuguid told the judge that she and her sister were forced as young children to kneel on uncooked rice — something the prosecution contends that Anthony was also forced to do.
“She told me that she did a lot of punishments to her children that we had to do as children,” the defendant’s sister said. “It did get worse after Kareem entered the picture.”
The boy’s aunt and uncle testified that Barron subsequently didn’t allow them to see the children after they reported the alleged abuse, and that she never saw Leiva abusing any of the children.
The boy’s cousin, identified in court only as Luz B., grew emotional when shown a photo of Anthony, whom she described as “more like a brother to me.”
She testified that she remembered asking him once about a bruise and that he told her that his mom and Leiva hit him a lot.
“I never once thought Anthony was lying,” she said.
The boy’s father, Victor Avalos, testified that he split from Barron when the boy was about six or seven months old and that he only saw him on video chats after moving to Mexico to find a job.
“She said she never needed me. She could do it herself,” he said of Barron, whom he said rebuffed his attempts to see his child.
When asked by the prosecutor whether he loved Anthony, the boy’s father responded, “Yes, very much. I still do … I still can’t believe what I’m going through.”
Michael Gelardo — who was a patrol deputy at the Los Angeles County sheriff’s station in Lancaster at the time and is now a detective — testified that three of Barron’s children, including Anthony, reported in September 2015 that Leiva had been abusive to them and that they had been locked in a room. He said he was called to the woman’s home after she complained that her brother wouldn’t return her children to her while she got off work, but said he decided after speaking to the children that they should temporarily remain at David Barron’s home.
He subsequently called a DCFS hotline to report what the children had told him, but said he was never contacted by a sheriff’s detective to follow up on the allegations.
Testimony is set to resume Monday, with three of the boy’s half siblings expected to be called to the stand later next week.
In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Saeed 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.
The prosecutor played an audio recording of an interview with Barron, in which she told investigators, “I promise I did not hurt my son. I did not let nobody hurt my son … I swear he was just acting up and he threw himself because he didn’t want to eat.”
She told investigators that the boy said he might be gay and that she responded that she would love him no matter what because he was her “baby.”
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.
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, who alleged that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The other remaining defendant in the lawsuit, Pasadena-based Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, settled its portion of the case for an undisclosed amount.
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.