A member of a violent gang, MS-13, in Southern California was arrested Wednesday and charged with the murder of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, reports NBC News. Avalos had recently come out as gay, and some believe homophobia contributed to his death.
The accused is Kareem Leiva, 32, the boyfriend of Avalos's mother. At a news conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said Leiva was arrested because statements he made led detectives to suspect him, He is being held on $2 million bail. Leiva was convicted of domestic abuse in 2010.
The child was found covered in cigarette burns and suffering from a head injury last week in his Lancaster home. His mother, Heather Barron, called 911 to report he had been injured in a fall. When first responders arrived, he was unresponsive, and he died the next day.
Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, told the Los Angeles Times that Avalos recently announced he "liked boys."
David Barron, Avalos's uncle and a coworker of the accused, said Leiva had a history of homophobia, recalling a number of times he was “uncomfortable just being around” gay men.
Caseworkers reportedly documented that Leiva was a member of the criminal gang MS-13, which has a branch in El Salvador that murders members if they are outed as gay.
Sheriff McDonnell declined to discuss Leiva's possible motive, telling reporters homophobia “has not come up in our investigation as a motivation at this time.”
According to teachers, counselors, and family members, Avalos and his siblings had been repeatedly abused, resulting in at least 16 calls made to the Department of Children and Family Services regarding the mistreatment of the children. Caseworkers had responded to 12 different complaints, including one of sexual abuse by a grandparent when Avalos was only 4 years old. However, Avalos remained in his mother's care. Eight other children have now been removed from the home.
Maira Barron, Avalos's aunt, repeatedly warned officials about Heather Barron and her boyfriend. She said the children were beaten, starved, sexually abused, locked in small spaces, and denied water.
"Nobody did anything. I don’t know why they thought that was OK for them to go back with their mother," said Karla Avalos, another of Anthony's aunts. “What is wrong with the system?”
“In private interviews, Anthony disclosed details consistent with media reports that he was beaten, locked up, and not fed,” DCFS director Bobby Cagle told NBC News, but he also said it was "premature" to describe Avalos's torture and death as a failure of the child welfare system.