Blood on their hands

Page 7 of 8

That sounds like a very sick human being.

Yet in a contradictory discharge summary dictated after the 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 . . .

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin