Authorities arrested the stepfather of a 10-year-old Lancaster boy on suspicion of murder Wednesday after suspected physical and sexual abuse, NBC4 has learned.
Kareem Leiva, 32, the stepfather of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, was told he would be taken into custody during an interview with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives at an unmarked law enforcement office on Sierra Highway.
At the conclusion of the interview Leiva pulled down his shirt collar to reveal a day-old gash across his neck, an injury he told detectives was self inflicted as part of a suicide attempt, law enforcement sources said.
NBC4 was outside as paramedics were called to treat Leiva, who was taken by ambulance to a hospital with a sheriff’s escort.
“Homicide detectives interviewed Kareem Leiva earlier today at Lancaster Station and he was arrested for the murder of Anthony Avalos,” a sheriff’s spokesperson said.
Avalos was found unresponsive at the family’s apartment when Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies responded to a 911 call from the boy’s mother June 20. Investigators said they were told the boy had suffered injuries from a fall.
He died at a hospital Thursday morning, and investigators classified the death at that time as “suspicious.”
The coroner’s office has placed a security hold on the case, according to the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.
The arrest comes after it was revealed earlier this week that Anthony may have come out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are investigating whether homophobia played a role in his death, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the agency’s deputy director said that Anthony Avalos “said he liked boys,” but Nichols declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when.
The department confirmed the report to NBC4 Tuesday morning.
Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, told the Times it would have taken great courage for Anthony to have announced he was gay in the home and “only reinforces how brave Anthony was.” The aunt said she began alerting DCFS in 2015, when she noticed bruises and other injuries.
Nichols said the criminal investigation is ongoing.
Anthony, was the subject of severe abuse allegations, including not being fed, being locked up and suffering physical and sexual abuse, the DCFS told NBC4.
Calling the death a “senseless murder,” a Los Angeles County supervisor asked for a review of all county contacts with the boy’s family, seeking an answer to why he was not removed from his home despite repeated complaints to the Department of Children and Family Services that he was being abused. The review of the case’s handling will involve the Office of Child Protection, law enforcement and the Department of Children and Family Services. The group will evaluate staffing, supervision and collaboration, or the lack thereof, between social workers and law enforcement officers in child abuse and neglect referrals.
The Office of Child Protection was established to transform the child welfare system in response to the 2013 murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale. Gabriel was long tortured and ultimately beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend despite numerous previous reports of abuse to DCFS.
Prosecutors said the boyfriend of Gabriel’s mother became enraged because he thought the child was gay. Gabriel’s mother was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison without the possibility of parole and her boyfriend was sentenced to death.
The head of the Department of Children and Family Services said the agency will work with law enforcement to determine what led to Anthony’s death.
“In each and every one of these cases, what we do is take a deep dive into the case, try to understand the best we can what was going on there,” said DCFS director Bobby Cagle. “What kind of services were provided? Were they adequate? Should we have done something differently.”