A man was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of murdering his girlfriend's 10-year-old son, whose death led the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to call for a comprehensive review of why the Lancaster boy wasn't removed from his family home despite multiple reports to the Department of Children and Family Services.
The suspect, 32-year-old Kareem Leiva, was taken to a hospital for treatment of a laceration to his upper chest area, believed to be self-inflicted, following his arrest at the sheriff's Lancaster Station, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said at an afternoon news conference in downtown Los Angeles.
Anthony Avalos died at a hospital last Thursday. Deputies and paramedics had responded to a 911 call from his mother about 12:15 p.m. the previous day and found the boy unresponsive inside his family's apartment.
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Authorities said they were told the child had suffered injuries from a fall, but investigators quickly classified the death as "suspicious."
According to NBC4, Leiva was told he would be taken into custody during an interview with sheriff's homicide detectives. At that point, he revealed a wound that he said he inflicted upon himself as a suicide attempt, the station reported, citing law enforcement sources. An ambulance -- along with a sheriff's escort -- took Leiva to a hospital, according to Channel 4.
Once he is medically cleared, Leiva was to be booked and his bail set at $2 million, McDonnell said.
A total of eight children were removed from the home where Anthony lived with his mother, who had several children with the suspect. Leiva lived at the home on and off, sheriff's Capt. Christopher Bergner said.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Kathryn Barger calling for a thorough review of why Anthony wasn't removed from his family home, despite a dozen reports to the Department of Children and Family Services between 2013-16, including a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse by a grandparent when the boy was 4 years old.
"You had teachers, you had family members, you had law enforcement come in contact. And yet, Anthony's at the morgue; we're awaiting autopsy results," Barger said. "One has to wonder what it's going to take to get the attention of not only the social workers, but the public in general, because I'm told that neighbors also were aware of what was taking place."
"As all agencies work tirelessly to get to the bottom of what happened, each day brings to light new updates and information about Anthony's senseless death," according to a statement released by DCFS Director Bobby Cagle. "While we cannot comment on an ongoing criminal investigation, we are committed to cooperating with our law enforcement partners. I reiterate my deep commitment to seeing justice done on behalf of this innocent child. Our hearts go out to those that have been so deeply affected by this tragedy."
Barger and other county officials repeatedly said that they would wait for all the facts to come in before drawing conclusions about exactly what happened to the boy. However, Barger called it a "senseless murder," explaining that "we don't have a conclusion, but there's no other explanation."
Barger noted that an 8-year-old Palmdale boy was beaten to death in 2013 by his mother's boyfriend, despite multiple calls to DCFS over a period of years. The boyfriend has been sentenced to death for the crime and Gabriel's mother was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Four DCFS officials are awaiting trial on criminal charges stemming from Gabriel's death.
Another potential parallel was a concern that homophobia may have contributed to both boys' abuse.
Although a possible motive in Anthony's case remains under investigation, Cagle told City News Service that he was told that Anthony said "he liked boys and girls" and that the context of the boy's comment was not entirely clear.
Bergner said at the news conference that homophobia was not immediately suspected as a factor in the boy's death.
"That has not come up in our investigation as a motivation at this time," he said.
A previous statement released by Cagle laying out details of the case said Anthony had been severely beaten and was malnourished when paramedics arrived last Wednesday in response to his mother's 911 call.
The first call to DCFS was in February 2013 alleging sexual abuse of then-4-year-old Anthony by a grandparent not living in the home. The allegation was substantiated, and the boy was given a medical exam and referred for services.
Following a second call in March 2013, repeating the same allegation, the case was closed when social workers determined that the mother was "appropriately safe," according to Cagle's statement.
The remaining 10 reports involved allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as general neglect, Cagle said. Some were substantiated, while others were unfounded.
"In private interviews, Anthony disclosed details consistent with media reports that he was beaten, locked up, and not fed," according to the statement.
Anthony was sent to live with relatives while the family received in-home counseling, medical and other services and ultimately returned home when social workers deemed it was safe to do so.
The last call to DCFS, alleging general neglect, was made in April 2016. Anthony was interviewed, the allegations were "deemed unfounded or inconclusive" and the referral was closed in May 2016, Cagle said.
Callers to DCFS alleged that Anthony or his siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight each other, and forced to eat from the trash, sources told The Times.
McDonnell said that some of the injuries the boy was reported to have suffered were "grossly overstated."
Callers made allegations against several family members, including Anthony's mother, Heather Barron, and Leiva, according to the sources cited by the newspaper. Barron and Leiva continued to use the grandparent who allegedly sexually abused Anthony for child care even after being made aware of the accusation, The Times' sources alleged.
An aunt interviewed by the newspaper said she began alerting DCFS in 2015, when she noticed bruises and other injuries that the children told her were caused by Leiva. She said the children also reported Leiva locking them in small spaces where they had to urinate and defecate on the floor.
Leiva was convicted in 2010 of domestic abuse, The Times reported.
Cagle said the seven other children in the home have all been placed elsewhere and are receiving critical support services, like therapy. The DCFS director told CNS that he could not disclose whether they were all siblings.