By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Lenny Aviles and his girlfriend Lulu Saldana slipped away from his mother's west Phoenix home on the early evening of June 23, 1999.
Lenny stepped outside to tell his mother, 59-year-old Mauricia Aviles, they were leaving. She stopped watering her pomegranate trees and went inside to join Lenny and Lulu's 7-year-old daughter, Alexia, who was watching a Mexican soap opera.
Also in the five-bedroom brick home near 43rd Avenue and Greenway Road was Rodney Aviles, Lenny's youngest of four living siblings. Rodney, then 20, resided with his mother.
Lenny and Lulu got back about 8:30 p.m. Lulu noticed that the inside lights were off, and Mauricia's Dodge Intrepid was gone. She waited as Lenny went to see what was up.
Lenny phoned his sister Carmen Tallebas as he stepped into the big house. Later, Carmen recalled he'd asked if Mauricia and Alexia were with her.
"And I said, 'No, why?' 'Because I just got home. I was gone for a little bit and I can't find mom.' I said, `Maybe they went to the store or something.' And then he said, `Oh my God! There's blood on the walls!' And I thought, maybe Rodney tried to do something to himself."
Moments later, Lenny ran outside to Lulu.
"I just remember him coming out and telling me that they were gone, that [Rodney] had done something to them," Lulu recalled.
Lenny dialed 911: "My brother covered them with a blanket! He's wacko! He's gotta be sick, man! He did this! He did this! My little girl!"
Phoenix police sped to the home, where a gruesome scene awaited them.
Mauricia and her granddaughter were dead on the living-room floor, bludgeoned repeatedly with an unknown blunt object. Neither victim had been sexually molested, but it was a classic example of what police call "overkill."
An officer noted that the little girl was wearing blue denim shorts, a yellow T-shirt and white dress shoes.
Oddly, the killer had put a blue comforter over the legs of the deceased, and placed a statue of the Virgin Mary between the bodies. A photo of the Aviles family was on the floor near Mauricia's battered head.
Police also found a ceramic angel statuette next to Alexia's body, an incongruity that had moved even the most hard-boiled of the responding officers.
Detectives soon learned a stunning piece of information: The murders had occurred less than six hours after a doctor at Maricopa Medical Center had released Rodney Aviles from the psychiatric ward.
For unfortunate reasons that go to the heart of this story, Dr. Carla Denham -- whose legal and ethical duty was to try to protect Rodney and those around him -- had decided Rodney wasn't dangerous to himself or anyone else.
Denham did so even though she knew Rodney was delusional and psychotic, was suffering from an unspecified type of schizophrenia and possibly was hooked on cocaine.
Denham also knew that many of Rodney's ongoing delusions focused on physical, emotional and psychic wrongdoings that his family, especially his mother, supposedly had inflicted upon him.
Just six days earlier, a county judge had ordered the young man to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
Rodney had been mentally unstable for years. But he'd never frightened his family as he had in the days before his commitment, ranting uncontrollably, breaking things and finally threatening a brother-in-law with a knife.
That Rodney Aviles murdered his two family members never has been at issue.
He did everything but confess to a Phoenix detective after his capture near a Gila Bend alfalfa field about 12 hours after the murders. And the evidence against him is overwhelming and undisputed, though the actual murder weapon remains a mystery.
But because of continued questions concerning Rodney's competence to stand trial for the murders, the criminal case against him still remains unresolved, more than five years after the fact.
Rodney has been incarcerated in Maricopa County's Madison Street Jail for much of the past five years, with the exception of a months-long stay at the Arizona State Hospital.
Next month, the remainder of a wrongful-death civil case filed by the Aviles family and Lulu Saldana against Maricopa County and others is scheduled for trial. The plaintiffs are asking for an unspecified amount of money because of Rodney's premature release from the psych ward, and because officials failed to warn them about Rodney's potential dangerousness.
The part of that case against Dr. Denham and her employer MedPro (a consortium of doctors and other personnel that provides medical services for the county) settled last year for an undisclosed sum and without any admission of guilt.
Lawyers for Maricopa County say hospital staffers handled Rodney's release appropriately, and that no one should be further punished financially for the murders.
No one rightfully can expect a psychiatrist or anyone else to predict exactly when and how a patient may turn violent.
But an analysis of the evidence in this tragic case reveals the fatally haphazard manner in which mental-health officials released an extremely sick and dangerous man into the care of his vulnerable mother.
And Rodney Aviles was released without anyone warning Mauricia Aviles or her family of the real physical dangers they could face in light of his mental illness (mothers of schizophrenics are statistically at far higher risk than the rest of the population, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill).
"Maricopa County has taken irony to a new level with the Aviles family," contends Jeffrey Miller, the family's civil attorney.
"First, the family entrusts Rodney to the county because they are concerned for him and for themselves, and need help. Then the county releases Rodney prematurely, saying that he is not a danger to himself or others. Then he kills his mother and niece, and the county's response is to seek the death penalty -- over the family's objection -- for someone who is clearly mentally ill, [all the while] denying that the county did anything wrong. The time for the county to be aggressive was before anyone was dead."
A few years ago, one of Rodney's two sisters sent an impassioned e-mail to one of America's most famed attorneys.
Spence -- he of the signature fringed-Buckskin jacket and silver tongue -- became intrigued by the myriad legal issues and heartbreaking facts of the Phoenix double-murder.
He soon spoke with Rodney's attorney, assistant public defender Vikki Liles, whom he happened to know. Spence then told Anita that he'd work for free as her brother's co-counsel.
Spence had many reasons to be interested. First, the Aviles siblings deeply opposed a death sentence for Rodney, even though he'd killed their fellow family members (Alexia's mother, Lulu, didn't oppose it).
The Wyoming barrister has declined to comment extensively to New Times,saying recently, "I do not want the judge in Rodney's case to conclude that I took the case for publicity or for any other reason than the justice of the case. I am profoundly against the death penalty."
Spence was appalled that Maricopa County prosecutors were seeking a death sentence against Rodney, despite his serious mental illness and profound underlying learning disabilities. Without fanfare, he attended several hearings at the downtown Phoenix courthouse over a two-year period as Rodney's criminal case inched along.
Spence's unexpected involvement was another turn in a case that has had more legal zigzags than a motocross course. One came earlier this year, when prosecutors abruptly decided against seeking the death penalty against Rodney.
But Rodney Aviles still faces two first-degree murder charges, even though experts on both sides agree he's currently incompetent to stand trial because of his chronic mental illness.
The criminal courts can't seem to figure out what to do with Rodney.
Judge Warren Granville has yet to decide if Rodney may be mentally "restorable" to competency through treatment and medication. To be deemed competent, Rodney will have to be able to understand the legal proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense -- and that hasn't happened, according to mental-health reports obtained by New Times.
Like other jurists in similar shoes, the respected Granville has been relying on the "experts" to try to get at the young man's mental state, both now and when he committed the murders.
If Granville does decide Rodney is restorable and, later, that he's been returned to legal competency, Rodney still may be tried for murder. Once already, in 2001, another judge concluded that Rodney was restored. But the young man apparently deteriorated again mentally -- if he truly had been restored -- and his case returned to legal limbo.
But if Granville rules Rodney never will be competent to stand trial, he'll likely send him to the Arizona State Hospital. There, Rodney likely would spend his remaining days, a fate far more acceptable to his family than a cell at the state prison in Florence.
However, Mauricia Aviles' children know too well that there are no guarantees in this life. Once, her kids saw her as an indestructible spirit, an unstoppable force. Then, one June night, Mauricia's youngest child slaughtered her and her dear granddaughter.
A devout Catholic, Mauricia Aviles' life revolved around her six children, and they reciprocated in kind.
Her husband Jesus returned to Mexico in the early 1980s, leaving her to finish raising the kids at the family home on West Tierra Buena -- which sits in a comfortable subdivision of one-acre horse properties called Sunburst Farms. The size of the lot afforded Mauricia room to grow her pomegranate trees, and to let the family's Great Danes run free.
An earlier tragedy struck the family in the late 1970s, when the oldest sibling, Ralph, died in a car wreck. That drew his brothers and sisters even closer to their mother.
"Each sibling needed my mom," her daughter Anita Watson later told a lawyer in the civil case against Maricopa County. "She was like the center of everything. We were all very close to her."
They also were close with each other. Things, however, always were different with Rodney.
The family always treated him like a young child, which he was in terms of intelligence and maturity.
Dubbed "Mini" because of his small stature, Rodney had no real friends, scant educational background and little job history.
In the parlance of one sibling, Rodney was "different," which was another way of saying "mentally ill." Still, as his mental woes increasingly revealed themselves, his family believed it was their duty alone to provide for him.
Always a special-education student, Rodney dropped out at age 14. He blamed his scholastic problems on racial prejudice, and began to show other signs of what would become full-blown paranoia.
By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Rodney's older siblings had moved out. The two girls, Carmen and Anita, got married, though they spoke to their mom daily and saw her frequently.
Orlando joined the Marines. And Lenny, who is 16 years older than Rodney, moved to Rio Grande, Texas, to be with schoolteacher Lulu Saldana. Lulu gave birth on May 1, 1992, to their daughter, Alexia.
That left Rodney as the sole sibling at home with Mauricia. She loved him as she did the others. But he seemed to be in another world much of the time.
Phoenix police arrested Rodney in May, 1997, after he allegedly displayed a weapon at a drive-through lane of a Phoenix restaurant. Officers found a handgun in his pocket and a shotgun in his vehicle. Rodney was 18 at the time.
Though the case was dismissed, Rodney's family thought it would be best for him to live in Mexico with his father and half-brothers. But he didn't fare any better there than he had in the States, and moved back to his mother's home in 1998.
By then, Mauricia Aviles had quit her job as an aide with a Head Start program to help out her daughter Carmen, who'd given birth to triplet sons.
Lenny Aviles had opened his own demolition company, and was living much of the time at his mom's house in Phoenix because of work. Lulu Saldana remained with Alexia in Texas.
Lenny and Lulu were anticipating going on vacation with Alexia after the school year ended in May, 1999. The plan was for mother and daughter then to visit Mauricia in Phoenix for a few days before returning to Texas.
The three still were out of town when Mauricia Aviles and Anita Watson sought emergency psychiatric help for Rodney.
Rodney Aviles' family members say he began to act especially badly in the weeks before the murders.
For example, he yanked some food from his infant nephew and ate it. He crawled into a metal crate and wouldn't come out. He'd repeatedly remove baby photos of his nephews from the refrigerator door.
Rodney was spending hours on end in his room, barely communicating with anyone.
"What they would tell us in the Marine Corps [is] somebody is separating themselves from the world," says his brother Orlando, who was based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego in June 1999. "That's what I saw Rodney doing for a long time, and I did tell [Mom] that, too."
By this time, Rodney's delusions were dominating his thinking. He constantly accused his mother of having tattooed his penis after drugging him, and also of scarring his face. He blamed his half-brothers from Mexico for breaking his legs when he'd been living there.
For the record, none of his accusations were true.
About 5 a.m. on Sunday, June 13, 1999, a frightened Mauricia Aviles phoned her daughter Anita Watson. She said Rodney was blasting music, was running around the house breaking things and was cussing loudly at her.
Anita's infant son was sleeping, so she asked her husband Charlie to drive over to West Tierra Buena. He got there shortly before Mauricia's other daughter, Carmen Tallebas, also showed up.
A one-time Arizona Department of Public Safety officer who now owns a concrete-cutting business, Charlie Watson assessed the situation.
Rodney was in his room with his music blaring, and wouldn't leave. Charlie tried to wait him out, and returned to his own nearby home for awhile. When he returned, Rodney had locked himself in a bathroom.
Charlie hollered in that he needed to speak with him, but Rodney was unresponsive.
"Rodney just wasn't making any sense at all," Carmen Tallebas recalls. "When he came out of his room, he had a very, very angry look in his face. He was going toward the kitchen, and I said, `Mini, we need to talk to you.' [Rodney responded,]`I don't need to talk to anything,' this and that . . .He didn't care."
Rodney made a break for the front door, flashing a knife at Charlie to keep him at bay.
"I can basically remember what happened," Charlie said later. "When somebody pulls a knife on you, you remember. So I'm following him, and he turns around and pulls a knife out of the hat, and he keeps going for the door, and I keep following him, but he keeps turning around with the knife."
Rodney darted across the big yard as his mother dialed 911. Charlie jumped into his truck and drove toward Rodney, pleading with him to put the knife down. Instead, Rodney jumped a fence into an alley.
"I figured the police would shoot him if he's got a knife in his hand," Charlie said, "because he didn't seem too afraid that day."
Back at the house, Charlie sifted through Rodney's belongings for illegal drugs, but found none. But he did see an old rifle beneath Rodney's bed that wasn't supposed to be there.
The rifle, an AR-15 once owned by Rodney's grandfather, was unloaded. But Mauricia said she'd heard a clicking noise coming from Rodney's room all night, and now she knew what it was.
Rodney remained incommunicado for two days.
Then, on June 15, Tempe police received a 911 call from a disturbed man who said he needed help.
"The walls were talking back . . .I'm going crazy," the caller told a dispatcher.
It was Rodney Aviles.
He also called his mother's house that day, but made little sense during a short conversation with his brother-in-law, Frank Tallebas, except to say he was in Tempe.
Anita Watson drove over to Mill Avenue and searched in vain for her brother until nightfall. (The family later found receipts from a Tempe motel in Rodney's pocket.)
Another day passed.
On June 17, someone from an attorney's office near I-17 and Dunlap Avenue phoned Mauricia Aviles. Rodney had walked in unannounced and said he wanted to sue family members for injuring him physically and by reading his mind.
Anita Watson already had called mental-health authorities to see if they'd admit him for treatment when he turned up. To commit Rodney wouldn't be easy for a close-knit Latino family that prided itself on handling its own problems. But by now, the Aviles' were thoroughly convinced that he posed an immediate danger to himself and those around him.
Mauricia and Anita drove to the lawyer's office, and took Rodney to an urgent care center in northwest Phoenix.
Rodney at first apparently thought his family was going to pay to fix his "broken" leg and "tattooed" penis. He became unglued when he learned they wanted to lock him up for mental-health treatment.
After a long wait, Rodney grudgingly spoke with nurse-practitioner Katherine Pool. Her report said Rodney was pacing, anxious, illogical, delusional and paranoid, and she quoted him as saying, "I melt in heat. Can't see dogs because of heat."
Noted Pool, "Family does not feel safe with him...Family thinks [Rodney] is using drugs, but [has] never seen [him] using any . . .Paranoid regarding family trying to confuse him or attack him."
Dr. Balwinder Pawar, a psychiatrist, also interviewed Rodney that day. His job was to determine if Rodney needed to be sent to the county hospital for more intensive evaluation.
"He was not agitated, he was not a management problem, he was not threatening or doing anything," Pawar said later. "But he was angry inside . . .I felt he was psychotic and probably could get some help and some more evaluation, and need[ed] to be observed."
Pawar agreed to sign Anita Watson's petition with the court to allow Rodney's transfer to the county hospital's psychiatric ward.
That day, Rodney tested positive for cocaine use, which lent credence to his family's initial impression about why he'd cracked mentally. But, even now, it remains frustratingly uncertain if or how much Rodney's possible use of cocaine fueled his festering paranoia and rage against his family.
That's because a second drug test administered two days after the June 17 one came up negative. According to experts contacted by New Times, that speaks against Rodney's chronic coke use (he once claimed he'd ingested it for several days before his county commitment) and raises legitimate questions about how often he actually did the drug.
The best evidence against the cocaine-induced violence theory (which criminal prosecutors and attorneys for Maricopa County in the civil case have raised in various pleadings) may be the continued intensity of Rodney's mental illness since his arrest and incarceration.
"The severity of [Rodney's] unawareness of illness is among the worst I have ever seen," says Dr. Xavier Amador, a New York clinical psychologist hired last year by the Aviles criminal defense team. "He is still not normal in his mental capacities. He will never be normal, and there is no way to `compensate' for his problems."
Rodney Aviles tried to smuggle a six-inch folding knife into the Maricopa Medical Center when he was admitted on June 18, 1999. Authorities confiscated the weapon.
How Rodney had kept the knife hidden until then is uncertain. He may have had the mental capacity to be cunning, but he also was psychotic.
"I see lasers ever since I was young," Rodney earnestly told a hospital nurse during his intake interview on the evening of June 18.
He told the nurse about his mother's alleged tattooing and scarring of him. Trouble was, no one could see the markings but Rodney.
Doctors put Rodney on Haldol, a potent anti-psychotic with a sedating effect that's often a plus in an acute-care setting.
Rodney would insist until his June 23 release that he wasn't sick. But, tellingly, his medical charts indicate that his psychotic delusions, most of them focused on his mother, continued unabated until he walked out the door.
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.'"
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:
"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."
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."
Conversation during dinner that night was forced, Lulu said. Rodney just sat and stared off into space and she, too, had felt uncomfortable in his presence.
But Lulu and Lenny didn't think twice about going out for a while after dinner. It never entered their minds that Rodney posed a danger to their little girl or to his mom.
"The best way that I could describe it," Lulu Saldana says, "is like if somebody were to have chopped off my legs and my arms and I had to learn how to live life a different way. My mind would just travel to ugly places, thinking ugly things, thinking of what happened that night."
Asked to describe the effect of Alexia's death on Lenny, Lulu Saldana says simply, "It killed him."
The murders also shattered Lenny and Lulu's long relationship. In January 2000, according to Saldana, "Lenny left me at my mom's house [in Texas], and I never saw him since . . .
"I try to think of, God took [Alexia], and you're left here to be good and do what you have to do until it's your turn to go with her. That's what I'm trying to do."
Phoenix police detective Ira Williams read Rodney Aviles his rights against self-incrimination at a sheriff's substation in Gila Bend on the early afternoon of June 24, 1999.
Rodney readily agreed to talk, and offered his correct date of birth, height, weight and address.
In response to a question, he said he wasn't on any medication or illegal drugs. That should have prodded the detective into requesting a search warrant for a blood test, but it didn't.
Inexplicably, authorities never did test Rodney for drugs after the murders, which left unresolved the issue of whether he'd ingested cocaine after his release from the hospital.
Rodney spoke animatedly to the detective about his "evil" family, of which he included 7-year-old Alexia. His explanation for what was everything short of a full murder confession sounded chillingly sincere -- and insane.
"They were backstabbing me," he told Williams. "All these years since I've been young. Abusing me. That's why my mother . . .I think they're evil. They're evil. They'll all. They are evil to me."
"How can you say that a 7-year-old is evil?" Williams asked.
"Because my brother teaches her a lot of stuff to say that ain't true about me," Rodney replied. "This is my life, and we only live once, and I don't want to leave this world thinking that I've been used by people such as them."
Rodney claimed that his brother Lenny had been nasty to after his release from the hospital.
"I'm not gonna tolerate that," he said. "They get mad at me for no reason . . .Like, they've done so many things with those radios. Drugged me, made me go to sleep . . .Put a fake vein on [my penis]. I wanted to get that fixed, but there was no money."
Williams repeatedly tried to hone Rodney in on the murders. Finally, the suspect said his mother had been watching television in the living room.
"And I came up behind her. And that was it."
"Was she seated in a chair?" the detective asked.
"Yes, by the sofa."
"Where was Alexia?"
"By the side of my mom."
The detective asked Rodney to describe what had happened next.
Rodney paused, and asked for a glass of water. Williams left to fetch it.
"Are you supposed to be my lawyer?" Rodney asked when the detective soon returned. "Or you're a cop?"
"I'm Detective Williams from Phoenix Police Department." The officer repeated.
Rodney then said something that sounded quite sane under the circumstances.
"I better not talk anymore about this situation until I speak with a lawyer," he told Williams. "Is that fine with you, sir?"
That ended the police interview after 20 minutes, leaving several critical questions hanging: Had Rodney waited until Lenny and Lulu left for the store to kill his mother? If so, had he been surprised by Alexia's presence and felt that he had to kill her, too?
More than three years later, court-appointed psychiatrist Jack Potts seemed to answer yes to those questions after interviewing Rodney.
Potts wrote in a September 2002 report, "Mr. Aviles knew the wrongfulness of his behavior in murdering his mother. I cannot come to the same conclusion with a reasonable degree of medical certainty about the murder of his niece."
Recently, Rodney Aviles' sister, Anita Watson, was in court listening to lawyers hash over the next step in determining Rodney's possible "restorability" to competency.
She and her sister Carmen rarely miss a hearing, and visit Rodney regularly at the jail. But they never talk about the tragedy with their little brother, nor will they.
Lenny Aviles has been to court a few times, but hasn't spoken to Rodney since the murders.
Rodney sat politely in a jury box, shackled to another prisoner also in jailhouse black-and-white pinstripes. As is often the case in such settings, it's difficult to reconcile the image of this passive-appearing little man with what he did five years ago.
But whatever finally happens in Rodney's criminal case and in the rest of their civil case, Anita and her family forever will be asking themselves and their God: Why?!
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