Blood on their hands

Lenny Aviles and his girlfriend Lulu Saldana slipped away from his mother's west Phoenix home on the early evening of June 23, 1999.

The longtime couple wanted to shop at Sam's Club before Lulu went home to Rio Grande, Texas, the next day.

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.