Mother of Anthony Avalos, Boyfriend Sentenced to Life in Prison in 10-Year-Old Boy's Torture, Murder

Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, were found guilty of first-degree murder in a horrific case of child abuse.

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The mother of Anthony Avalos and her boyfriend were sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the torture and murder of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy.

Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, were found guilty of first-degree murder in March during a non-jury trial. They sat in court during a sentencing hearing that included nearly two hours of emotional, sometimes tearful, victim impact statements from Anthony's family members and others.

Speakers included 8-year-old cousin Matthew.

"He always played with me and made me laugh," Matthew said. "I have a video I like to play over and over again of him making me laugh when I was little. We will never get to see Anthony grow up. I will never get to play again with my older cousin."

Another cousin, Dana, said the boy's death devastated her family.

"Every since the death of my cousin, things have never been the same," said Dana. "I used to call (Barron) my aunt. Now, I only call her a monster."

Diane Ravago, a paramedic and first responder of nine years who testified at the trial, said she often thinks of Anthony and the agony inflicted on the young child.

"Of all the trauma, tragedy and death I've ever seen or heard of, this surpasses them all," Ravago said. "It may seem counter-intuitive as someone who rushes to save lives to publicly wish death on another human. I actually wish the opposite for you both. I would hope that you are both made to feel alone, tormented, neglected, scared, confused, unwanted, unsafe, disgusting, useless, hated, lost, unloved, and every other horrible emotion you inflicted on Anthony and even more. Death would only end those feelings for you."

A judge gave a guilty verdict to a woman and her boyfriend who were charged with torturing and murdering their 10-year-old son in 2018. Ted Chen reports for the NBC4 News on March 7, 2023.

 Barron and Leiva did not speak during the hearing.

Anthony died June 21, 2018 following what the judge described as years of cruel and calculated abuse that included denying Anthony liquids to cause severe dehydration. There were signs of extreme torture on the young boy's body such as bruises, cuts and possible burn marks, Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta said.

"Anthony was a helpless child who was dependent (on the defendants)... for his basic physical needs and emotional support," Ohta said. "Instead Anthony was tortured and killed."

The defendants, convicted March 7, claimed Barron's son self-inflicted the injuries by throwing himself on the ground.

Ohta rejected that defense, and said the couple showed an intent to kill by delaying a 911 call the day before Anthony died, then engaged in an attempted cover-up. Anthony was found unresponsive on the floor of the couple's townhouse when paramedics arrived. He had suffered cardiac arrest and a traumatic brain injury.

"Defendant Barron waited to call 911 until Anthony was literally deceased on the afternoon of June 20, 2018," Ohta said. "This flagrant lack of care for Anthony's life all points to intent to kill by both defendant Barron and defendant Leiva.

Anthony had just graduated from fourth grade about two weeks earlier.

The judge also found true during trial the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture of Anthony. Barron and Leiva also were convicted of two counts of child abuse involving the boy's half-siblings, but the judge rejected an enhancement of great bodily injury against Leiva involving one of the half-siblings.

Anthony's half-sister, Destiny, broke down in tears when asked to speak first at the sentencing hearing. The judge gave her a few moments to compose herself before she continued.

"Kareem, you came into our life and ruined everything,'' she wrote in her statement, some of which was read in court by Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami. "He did not protect us and took part in the torture. To me, you're both monsters.

She wrote that she wishes it would have been her who died instead of her brother.

During the trial, the two half-siblings and one of Leiva's daughters said they saw Leiva repeatedly drop Anthony on the bedroom floor.

Anthony died from head injuries.

"What these people did to these children is unspeakable,'' Barron's brother, David, said to the judge. "You need to make sure these people never walk the streets again.

"Please don't let these monsters out ever.''

The half-siblings testified 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 Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office had dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two adults 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 objected to the decision and announced plans to run for the job as the county's top prosecutor. He 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.

In an exclusive interview the Director of LA County's Department of Children and Family Services, he shares how the agency is making changes after the Anthony Avalos case. Lolita Lopez reports for NBC4's I-Team on Feb. 28, 2023.

David Barron said his nephew will never get the justice that he deserved. He said 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.

"The brutality that was meted out on this young child was unimaginable," the district attorney's office said in a statement after the verdicts. "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, 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.

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 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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