Blood on their hands

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

"I attempted to explain to [Mauricia] that I felt strongly there [was] other pathology perhaps underlying his drug use, and encouraged her to support the completion of the court-ordered process. She replied that she knew that was not the case because he had never had symptoms prior to using drugs."

But Denham was supposed to be the mental-health expert, not Mauricia Aviles, and she knew Rodney was a very sick young man. However, years later, Denham told lawyers in the civil case that she'd been in an untenable spot.

Under Arizona law, being psychotic isn't enough of a reason to commit someone involuntarily for extended treatment. Denham said Rodney had to meet four criteria to remain involuntarily committed, including having two witnesses willing to testify to his "dangerous or disabled behavior."

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.

Without Anita and Mauricia's testimony, she claimed, a judge would have dismissed the case and immediately released Rodney. A Phoenix attorney hired as an expert witness by Maricopa County agreed with Denham in his own deposition.

But plaintiff's expert, Dr. Bernstein, points out that Denham fully intended to support Rodney's continued stay at the hospital until being told of the family's alleged change of heart.

"The clinical crux," Bernstein testified, "is that if Rodney needed to be in the hospital, it was not directly related to his mother and sister testifying."

In other words, it had been Dr. Denham's dutyto ensure Rodney's continued hospitalization.

Dr. Denham wrote in her last note before releasing Rodney on June 23: "It is probable that patient has some underlying pathology -- as his affect is impaired, he is isolative and his delusions persisted for a significant period of time after cocaine left his system. Actually, although he is no longer agitated and bizarre, his delusions are still present."

That sounds like a very sick human being.

Yet in a contradictory discharge summary dictated afterthe murders, Denham returned to the cocaine-induced psychosis theory, noting Rodney "did admit to me that he had been using cocaine daily" for days before his commitment.

Also, before approving Rodney's release, Denham didn't read Kristi Walter's June 22 test summaries that strongly minimized the likelihood of drug abuse. Instead, the psychiatrist concluded that Rodney was suffering from a dual diagnosis of a schizophrenic-type illness and a delusional disorder caused by "cocaine abuse."

Denham later admitted to serious doubts about whether Rodney would have sought counseling after his release, or would have continued taking his anti-psychotic medications.

But she approved his release anyway, and wrote in her post-murders summary: "He was not felt to be a danger to self or others at the time of discharge."

Denham said she saw Rodney hug his mother at the hospital on the afternoon of June 23, 1999, when Mauricia and her daughter Carmen had gone to pick him up.

"The recollection that I have," Dr. Denham testified in deposition, "is that he was someone who cared very much about what his mother thought, and they appeared close."

Astonishingly, she approved the return of the folding knife to her still-delusional patient before sending him on his way.

"Did you have any concern about the return of the knife to Rodney Aviles upon discharge?" civil attorney Jeff Miller asked her in a deposition.

"No," Denham replied.

That Rodney didn't use that knife as his murder weapon of choice six hours later is beside the point.

And there was another disturbing piece to the puzzle:

Just one day before the murders, Rodney had reported a dream he'd had to a doctor on the psych unit. The physician noted that Rodney had spoken "of wrestling with a small child, which was concerning to him."

Denham and others at the hospital said the dream's possible significance meant little to them at the time.


Mauricia, Carmen and Rodney left the Maricopa Medical Center about 2:30 p.m. on the afternoon of June 23.

But Anita Watson, who had been with her mom every step since the June 13 knife-threatening incident at the house, wasn't there. Anita's husband, Charlie -- the ex-cop Rodney had threatened with the knife just 10 days earlier -- had asked her not to go.

"I didn't want her to," Charlie said later. "Because I didn't trust Rodney."

For the same reason, Charlie also asked Anita not to visit her mother's home later that day.

Carmen Tallebas recalls how Rodney berated them from the back seat all the way home. She'd felt extremely unsettled about his state of mind, but thought that all she could do was pray for the best.

Back at the house, Rodney went to his room for a while, may have gone outside for a short walk (whether he used cocaine at that time is unknown), then ate a fish dinner with family members.

Among those at the dinner table were Lenny Aviles, Lulu Saldana and their daughter Alexia. The vacationers had returned from their travels a few days before Rodney's release.

Lenny said later he knew Rodney was in an institution of some sort at the time, but that his mom hadn't spoken about it much. Lulu said Lenny had told her while they were in California that "the family was worried because [Rodney] was sick, but I think they thought he was sick because he was using drugs and he needed to go to rehab. That's what I thought the problem was."

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