A Family's Vindication

Anita Watson was overwhelmed July 19, after a nine-person jury awarded her and her family $28 million, at the conclusion of a civil trial in downtown Phoenix. But it wasn't like she was thinking about how to spend her share of the money.

"I kept thinking about my mom and the baby and about my sick brother Rodney, too, and how sad this all was and how it didn't have to happen like it did," says Watson.

Rodney is Rodney Aviles, the focal point of the hotly contested trial.

Mom was Mauricia Aviles, the family's late, beloved matriarch.

And the "baby" was 7-year-old Alexia, the daughter of Anita's brother Lenny and Texas resident Lulu Saldana (also a plaintiff).

Mauricia and Alexia died in the early evening hours of June 23, 1999, the victims of particularly vicious murders inside Mauricia's home near 43rd Avenue and Greenway Road.

About 2:40 p.m. on that tragic day, mental-health officials at the Maricopa Medical Center, specifically psychiatrist Carla Denham, had ordered Rodney's release from custody ("Blood on Their Hands," Paul Rubin, October 14, 2004).

Dr. Denham had done so even though she and others recently had diagnosed Rodney as delusional, psychotic, suffering from schizophrenia and probably addicted to cocaine.

Six days earlier, Rodney's family members had pleaded with authorities to commit him after a series of frightening incidents at Mauricia's home, where Rodney was living.

Then 20, Rodney had been mentally unstable for years, but his rapid deterioration in early June 1999 had forced his family into seeking help.

Records from the county medical center indicated that Rodney didn't improve much during his court-ordered evaluation. But doctors released the young man, even though they were aware that his psychotic, violent delusions -- mostly fixated on his mother -- were continuing.

They did so in part because hospital staffers were convinced that Rodney's psychosis was cocaine-induced, and that he didn't belong in the psych unit.

About two hours after he got home, Rodney bludgeoned his 59-year-old mother and little niece to death in the family's living room.

Afterward, he placed a blue comforter over the legs of his victims and a statue of the Virgin Mary between the battered bodies. He also put a ceramic statuette of an angel next to Alexia's body.

Police captured Rodney outside Gila Bend about 12 hours after the murders.

The gruesome double-murder case against Rodney took almost six years to resolve, largely because of continued questions about his legal competence to stand trial.

During that time, Anita Watson convinced famed Wyoming attorney Gerry Spence to help keep Rodney off death row, where county prosecutors had expressed their desire to send him.

Spence was appalled that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against a young man with universally diagnosed severe mental illness and underlying learning disabilities. Pro bono, Spence joined forces on the criminal case with a deputy public defender, Vikki Liles.

Earlier this year, Judge Warren Granville agreed that Rodney Aviles is permanently incompetent to stand trial for murder. He will remain locked up at either a county or state hospital for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the rest of his life.

Rodney's siblings and Lulu Saldana later sued Maricopa County and others in the medical-malpractice case finally decided July 19.

Rodney's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Denham, and her employer at the time, MedPro -- a consortium of doctors and other medical personnel that provided medical services for the county -- settled out of court with the family in 2003 for an undisclosed sum.

But lawyers for Maricopa County insisted hospital staffers had handled Rodney's release correctly, and resolved to go to trial. In hindsight, that decision proved to be the wrong one.

After deliberating less than a day, the jury held Maricopa County liable for $21 million of the $28 million award, or 75 percent. They apportioned blame to Dr. Denham at 18 percent, 1 percent each to Anita Watson and victim Mauricia Aviles (the pair technically had signed off on Rodney's release) and 5 percent to Rodney himself.

"This was a family that went to the county for help and didn't get it, and the jury picked up on that simple theme," says Phoenix attorney Jeff Miller, who represented the plaintiffs. "The case also provided a tragic example of how people with serious mental illness are treated in this county, and I think the jury was sending a message."

That's accurate, according to Mesa juror Jim Sprygada, who sent an e-mail to New Times shortly after the verdict, saying he'd just read Rubin's story:

"After sitting through more than a week of testimony as a juror on the case, we agreed with the same questions brought up in the New Times article and then some.

"We found for the plaintiffs in this case to the amount of $28 million, which to some jurors seemed far too little. My condolences to the Aviles family for all they have been through in this avoidable experience."

Sprygada and the other jurors heard testimony about Rodney's incessant delusions in the days before the murders. For example, he was accusing his mother of having tattooed his penis and scarring his face after drugging him, neither of which was true.

Dr. Denham's last notation to Rodney's chart before releasing him to his mother and his sister Carmen Tallebas on the afternoon of June 23 was telling:

"It is probable that [Rodney] 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 longer agitated and bizarre, his delusions are still present."

Astoundingly, Denham approved the return of a six-inch folding knife to Rodney before releasing him to his family. Authorities had confiscated the knife when they first admitted him to the hospital days earlier.

Though that knife wasn't the murder weapon, which police never did recover, its return to the delusional patient spoke to the haphazard approach that hospital officials used with their patient.

Coincidentally during that time, Rodney's brother Lenny and Lulu Saldana were visiting Phoenix after a trip to Disneyland, SeaWorld and the Grand Canyon.

Sadly, their presence at Mauricia's home gave Rodney the opportunity to kill his niece and his mother.

The size of the civil verdict stunned courthouse observers aware of the difficulties that medical-malpractice plaintiffs' attorneys have had winning cases in Maricopa County in recent years.

The county Board of Supervisors has yet to announce whether it will appeal the verdict.

Anita Watson speaks for herself and her family when she says, "I'm left with a sense that I don't trust anyone inside the system anymore. They still probably don't believe that they did anything wrong. But we took Rodney down there to get help, and they basically just let him out. They knew he was crazy and dangerous. During the trial, we all felt better at just getting the truth out to the jury. We didn't know what was going to happen, but we felt strong about it, that we were doing the right thing."

As for her brother Rodney, she says, "He's a very sick person and he should be where he is right now, not in prison. I love my brother, and I loved my mother and the baby [Alexia]. We won our case, yes, but this is sad all the way around."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin