The boyfriend of the mother of a Lancaster boy who died under suspicious circumstances last week has been arrested on suspicion of murder, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials announced Wednesday.
The child, Anthony Avalos, was found unresponsive after family members reported he had suffered a fall at their Lancaster apartment along the 1100 block of East Avenue K on June 20.
The boy died the following morning.
He had a head injury and bruises covering his body, family members said. The director of the county Department of Children and Family Services said in a statement Tuesday that Avalos had evidence of "being a victim of physical abuse, including signs of being severely beaten, as well as malnourishment."
Sheriff Jim McDonnell said that description was not accurate and was "grossly overstated," and he said detectives did not see cigarette burns on the child's body, as had been rumored.
Investigators would not comment on the extent of the injuries until a coroner's report is completed, but McDonnell confirmed the boy is believed to have died from abuse.
Kareem Leiva, 32, the boyfriend of the boy's mother, was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of murder after statements he made during an interview with investigators at the Lancaster sheriff's station, officials announced at a news conference.
Leiva had a self-inflicted laceration to the upper chest and was being treated for his injuries, McDonnell said. Authorities have at times described Leiva as the boy's stepfather, but at Wednesday's news conference authorities described him as the child's mother's boyfriend.
After he is medically cleared to go to jail, Leiva will be booked and his bail will be set at $2 million, McDonnell said. He's expected to appear at the Antelope Valley courthouse Friday.
The boy's mother, identified by the Los Angeles Times as Heather Barron, has not been arrested in connection with the crime, but the investigation is ongoing, McDonnell said.
The county Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, had previously responded to reports of child abuse at the same home.
Law enforcement officials and child protection workers had documented years of abuse allegations, and those were detailed in the statement release Tuesday by DCFS Director Bobby Cagle. Twelve referrals to the department were made for Anthony between February 2013 and April 2016, beginning with an allegation of sexual abuse against a grandparent who did not live at the home, Cagle stated. That allegation – made when the boy was 4 – was found to be "substantiated," and Anthony was medically treated and "referred for services."
Ten further calls about Anthony were for "allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as general neglect," and at one point in 2014 Anthony was moved to live with other relatives, Cagle stated.
"In private interviews, Anthony disclosed details consistent with media reports that he was beaten, locked up, and not fed," Cagle said.
The last call made regarding Anthony – an allegation of general neglect – came in April 2016, when the allegations were deemed "unfounded or inconclusive." The case was closed a month later.
Cagle said the department was grieving Anthony's death, and his case was undergoing an internal review.
During a vigil for Anthony on Saturday, an aunt told KTLA that the boy "bruises all over his body" and a head injury at the time of his death. Maria Barron said she filed a report with DCFS three years ago over concern for his mother and her boyfriend's treatment of their kids.
Barron told the Times that the children also said Leiva locked them in small spaces where they had to urinate and defecate on the floor.
Eight children who either lived or were associated with the victim’s family were removed from the home, according to the Sheriff's Department. The children’s ages ranged from 11 months to 12 years old.
The suspect and the boy's mother have several children together, and multiple children are in the custody of DCFS for proper placement," sheriff's homicide Capt. Chris Bergner said Wednesday. Leiva lived in the apartment with the family "on and off," the captain said.
Another aunt told KTLA that her feels "a little bit better" after an arrest was made in her nephew's death, but more needs to be done to achieve justice.
"We want everybody that was involved in his death to pay for it," Karla Avalos said. "He might not be here, but we are his voice right now."
The boy had come out as gay in recent weeks, the Times reported, and authorities are investigating whether that played a role in the boy's death. During the news conference Wednesday, however, Bergner said homophobia "hasn't come up as a motivation."
A DCFS official told the Times that caseworkers had documented that Leiva was an alleged member of the MS-13 gang, but that detail did not merit the child being removed from the home. McDonnell said investigators have not "corroborated" the alleged connection to MS-13, and he said the suspect has a criminal history that is "not an extensive one."
During the news conference, Supervisor Kathryn Barger thanked the Sheriff's Department for its "swift action" in making an arrest in the case.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered officials in charge of child protection to review shortcomings in the system. She said the board intends to develop a "full timeline" of what led up to Anthony's death and examine "structural issues" in the Antelope Valley.
"There's so much more to be done," Barger said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect figure for the number of children removed from the couple's home, incorrectly attributed a statement to the sheriff that should have been attributed to the captain, and gave the wrong date for the boy's final hospitalization. The post has been updated, and clarifying language has also been added to describe the victim's relationship to the suspect.