Blood on their hands

Page 3 of 8

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.

In early June, the parents and their 7-year-old visited Disneyland, Sea World and the Grand Canyon. It was a perfect trip.

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin