Anthony Avalos death trial: Witness called hotline after boy reported alleged abuse by his mother
LOS ANGELES - Less than three years before his death in 2018, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos told a school vice principal he had been abused by his mother, prompting a report to a child abuse hotline, the then-vice principal testified Wednesday in the murder trial of the boy's mother and her boyfriend.
Gia Greaux, who was a vice principal at the time at Lincoln Elementary School in Lancaster, told Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta that she called the hotline on Sept. 18, 2015, after Anthony Avalos told her that he was being abused at home.
Her testimony came during the non-jury trial of the boy's mother, Heather Maxine Barron, and her live-in boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, who are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony's June 2018 death, along with two counts of child abuse involving 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 election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case."
Barron, 33, and Leiva, 37, now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
In an audio-recorded call to the child abuse hotline, Greaux said Anthony told her that his mother had been hitting him and his half-siblings and locking them in their rooms for long hours, and that he had moved to his aunt's house.
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Greaux, now a principal in the Palmdale school district, testified that the boy reported being struck by his mother with a ping pong paddle.
She said the boy told her that his father was in Mexico and that his aunt and uncle were going to be his mom and dad from then on.
"So, only the mom was doing this to him as far as we know?" the hotline operator asked.
"Yes," Greaux responded.
The boy's aunt, Maria Barron, testified last month that Anthony came to live with her and her husband on two occasions -- first in 2014 and again in 2015 -- and that she had offered to keep him and three of his half-siblings.
"She told me no. She needed her benefits," the defendant's sister-in-law said, noting later that "every time she had a baby it was going up."
Anthony's aunt testified that Barron didn't allow her or her husband to see the children after they reported that the children had told them that they were being abused. She said she didn't see Anthony again until June 20, 2018, when she was told he was at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, recalling that he was "covered in bruises" and that his "beautiful smile was gone."
In emotional testimony Wednesday, Anthony's fourth-grade teacher broke down in tears when she discussed the boy's last day in school.
Harmony Bell, a teacher at El Dorado Elementary School in Lancaster, described the boy as a "joy to be around" and said he was "everyone's best friend." She noted that the boy penned a heartfelt letter to her in which he wrote, "I just want to stay with you forever, but I can't," and said she still has a photo of him hanging in her classroom.
"I feel my life was really enriched from knowing him," the teacher testified, noting that she never saw any injuries on the boy, whom she said often wore a sweater.
One of Anthony's friends, identified in court only as "Sofia P.," said he opted not to take his sweater off "even if it was really hot" and that he described enjoying school so much that he never wanted to leave.
The teenager said the boy told his classmates that he needed to play with a rainbow-colored football at school because he couldn't play with it at his own house. She said the boy frequently asked other students for leftover food and requested extra snacks when they were handed out in class.
"He would save enough not only for him, but his siblings," the 14- year-old girl testified. "He always thought about them, too."
Another prosecution witness, Mildred Blue, testified that she called the child abuse hotline in April 2016 after seeing a bruise on the face of one of Anthony's half-siblings, Rafael. She told an operator on the child abuse hotline that she was told that a man named Kareem -- the father of their half- siblings -- "made them fight each other" while their mother wasn't home, and that Barron told her, "They're lying. They're always fighting."
She said she subsequently received a letter indicating that the case had been closed.
Anthony's half-brother, Rafael, and half-sister Destiny testified last week that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined in their Lancaster home, and that they saw Leiva repeatedly dropping Anthony on a bedroom floor shortly before his death.
During 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.
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.