Blood on their hands

Six hours after County mental health officials sent a psychotic man back home, he killed his mother and young niece.

Rodney was getting little, if any, treatment at the hospital. He spent hours on end under his bed covers, lost in his own thoughts.

Rodney first spoke with his "treating" psychiatrist, Dr. Carla Denham, on June 21. It was his third day of what would be a six-day stay.

"Patient believes his ankle is broken when it is not: 'It snaps now!'," she wrote immediately after the session. "Believes he has scars, tattoos on face that he wants to have removed (skin is not scarred or tattooed) . . .Believes others can read his mind: `I'm bugged right now in my head.'"

Rodney Aviles was so delusional that he thought "evil" family members had disfigured him.
David Hollenbach
Rodney Aviles was so delusional that he thought "evil" family members had disfigured him.
Mauricia Aviles and her niece Alexia, about a year before 
the murders.
Mauricia Aviles and her niece Alexia, about a year before the murders.

To put the time frame into perspective, Denham would authorize Rodney's release from the psych unit less than two days later.

Rodney's mother and sisters visited him at the hospital every day, though he didn't have much to say to them.

The magnitude of the situation was great enough for Rodney's Marine brother Orlando to take an emergency leave from Camp Pendleton. Orlando felt compelled to visit after his mother told him by phone that "`Rodney had gone crazy, that he's not good in the head.' That's what she told me, and she cried."

The second youngest of the Aviles siblings, Orlando visited Rodney at the hospital. He, too, was troubled by Rodney's demeanor:

"He was quiet, didn't look me in the eye . . .He [said] that he had something on his penis, and he wanted it removed . . .I didn't know what to tell him," Orlando recounted. "I just said, `Don't worry brother, don't worry. We'll take care of it.'"

Orlando returned to Camp Pendleton later that day.

He never again saw his mother alive.


If things had gone differently, Anita Watson and Mauricia Aviles would have testified in favor of keeping Rodney in the hospital for months of in-patient treatment.

But several key events on June 22, 1999, conspired to keep that from happening. To the contrary, Rodney Aviles was just one day from murdering his mother and niece after summarily being released.

He met that day with a graduate psychology student named Kristi Walter, who administered a series of standardized tests designed to assess his current state of mind.

The results showed a marked elevation on the schizophrenia scale, but surprisingly no indication of drug abuse. That led Walter to note that Rodney "may have exaggerated [his drug use] in an attempt to get help . . .Although his drug use has likely resulted in problems, he does not meet the criteria for substance abuse."

That afternoon, hospital social worker Shari Rodriguez spoke briefly and separately on the phone to Anita Watson and Mauricia Aviles.

She later suggested in hospital notations and in a civil deposition that the Aviles women had reassessed their position on Rodney's continued confinement.

From Rodriguez's notes: "[Mauricia] was minimizing everything . . .She feels it was just drug-induced, messed up his mind, caused him to react like this. He didn't make the threats. He broke a lamp . . .She did not want to pursue the petition [for lengthy court-ordered treatment]."

Rodriguez later admitted that she had become convinced Rodney "was not a mental-health patient," but had been adversely affected by a cocaine-induced psychosis. For sure, she said, Rodney didn't belong in the psych unit.

One reason that the Aviles were fixating on Rodney's possible drug abuse lay in the positive results of his first drug test. It's not clear if anyone had told them about the negative results of the second test.

Also, blaming illegal drugs somehow seemed more palatable to the family than having to face the stigma that one of their own was suffering from an organic mental illness.

Shari Rodriguez also claimed Anita Watson told her that she, too, wouldn't testify at Rodney's upcoming commitment hearing. Watson later denied saying any such thing.

Carmen Tallebas had a far different recollection than Rodriguez of her mother's five-minute conversation with the social worker. She'd been at a mall with Mauricia when Rodriguez had called on a cell phone, and had listened to her mom's side of the conversation:

"My mom said after they hung up the phone that Rodney was ready to come home if she wanted him to come home. And my mom said, `Well, if you think he's ready to come home, yeah, I want him home.' My mom wasn't afraid of Rodney. She didn't fear him or nothing. She was happy he was going to come home. We were all happy."

Even if the Aviles women said what Rodriguez claims they said, hospital officials should have known that having second thoughts in such situations is commonplace, especially with mothers, says a psychiatrist hired by the family for their lawsuit.

"This mother may have been ambivalent," Dr. Basil Bernstein testified in an October, 2002, deposition. "She may have . . .wanted Rodney home, wanted her son home, and, on the other hand, she didn't want Rodney home until he was ready to come home because deep down in herself [she] knew that there was something -- in quotes -- wrong."

Dr. Denham relied heavily on the accuracy of Shari Rodriguez's interaction with the two Aviles women when she decided to cut Rodney loose on June 23. Her own notes also suggest Mauricia told her by phone that morning that Rodney only needed treatment for drug abuse, not mental illness:

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