EDINBURG — A jury has awarded the surviving family members of a mother and daughter killed in a heinous triple homicide here in 2019 nearly $16.6 million in damages.
The lawsuit stems from the Dec. 10, 2019, killings by 57-year-old Saul Ramon Avila.
Avila shot and stabbed 19-year-old Rebecca Lee Cantu, whom he had repeatedly raped for five years. He fathered a child with her who was a toddler at the time of her death and the only person left alive that day in Apt. 5 of 301 W. Kuhn Drive.
Avila also shot and stabbed his girlfriend, 48-year-old Magdalena Cantu, who was Rebecca’s mother.
He also shot and killed Aaron Cortez, a 30-year-old home healthcare worker who provided care to the toddler, who had 24-hour medical needs at the time.
Then Avila turned the gun on himself.
Following the tragedy, Magdalena’s son, Stephen Cantu, and Maria Teresa Andrade, the legal guardian of the toddler who was only identified as J.G.C. in the lawsuit and named Rebecca’s heir, filed a lawsuit against a number of defendants, including Aveanna Healthcare, the estate of Saul Ramon Avila, his wife Oralia Avila, Isaac Guzman, an Aveanna employee, and the estate of Cortez.
All of the defendants except for Aveanna Healthcare were either dismissed or non-suited, and late Friday night, following a trial, the jury found Aveanna Healthcare was negligent for the killings because employees of the company knew about the “unique” and “dangerous” situation in the apartment about a month prior to the murders.
According to the lawsuit, the healthcare company was aware of the sexual abuse allegations and failed to report them to police.
Avila killed the three victims following Rebecca’s report to police days before the tragedy.
At the time, Edinburg police said Rebecca made the report on Dec. 6, 2019 and that officers made efforts to contact her after she filed the report and also on Dec. 10, but the lawsuit said a sworn statement was made on Dec. 4, 2019 by Cortez’s brother, who is a police officer.
In all, the jury found Aveanna was negligent and ordered the company to pay $15.75 million for Rebecca’s death. It also awarded her son $820,000 and Magdalena’s son, Stephen, $20,000.
Court records indicate the jury began deliberating punitive damages Monday afternoon.
THE DARK DAY
The news of the massacre began to break early that morning after police responded to a 9-1-1 call at 6:49 a.m. that led them to the initial discovery of three bodies inside the apartment.
Police found Rebecca dead on the first floor of the apartment at the bottom of the stairs. Investigators found Cortez dead upstairs in a bathroom.
Officers discovered Avila dead in an upstairs bedroom with a gunshot wound to his chest. The .45 caliber he used in the killings was next to him.
Several hours later, investigators found a fourth body. Magdalena was found dead under a thick blanket in a laundry room adjacent to the apartment.
At first, aside from confirming that something horrible had happened and the number of people killed, the Edinburg Police Department said little about the tragedy.
It wasn’t until eight days later that former Edinburg Police Chief Cesar Torres held a news conference where he identified the victims and named the deceased suspect.
The Monitor, however, had already publicly identified the victims and suspected causes of deaths after obtaining preliminary autopsy reports through a Texas Public Information Act request.
During that news conference, Torres revealed that Avila had been sexually assaulting Rebecca since she was 14 years old and that investigators suspected the toddler was born out of those sexual assaults.
The then-chief also said Magdalena knew about the abuse and allowed it to happen.
He also revealed that on Dec. 6, 2019, a Friday, Rebecca reported the abuse to police. The Monitor later obtained the entire police report, which said Cortez encouraged her to report the abuse.
However, on the day of the report, Torres said police called Rebecca to come back to the department after she left that day and that she didn’t answer her calls.
The investigator went home at 5 p.m. that day and didn’t attempt to make contact with Rebecca until the following Monday, but the investigator was not successful.
Either late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, Rebecca died, as did Magdalena and Cortez.
While Edinburg police were aware of the sexual abuse allegations days before the murders, the lawsuit against Aveanna Healthcare alleged that the company was aware of the sexual assaults a month before the killings and failed to report it to protective services and law enforcement as required by its contract with Rebecca for her child’s medical care.
The parties signed that contract on April 16, 2019, and the lawsuit alleged the company failed to report the sexual assault allegations on Nov. 10, 2019, when a nurse named Michael Cano told them. That breach of contract negligently resulted in Rebecca and Magdalena’s murders, according to the petition.
The lawsuit had also targeted Cortez’s estate because he allegedly did not report the abuse to law enforcement and instead delegated that task, which he was contractually and legally required to do, to Rebecca.
As for Cano, he testified that a month prior to the killings he “became aware of a dangerous situation” at the apartment.
“During the course and scope of his employment, Michael Cano testified that he had learned that there was violent animosity between Aveanna’s nurse Aaron Cortez and defendant Saul Avila,” the lawsuit stated. “RN Michael Cano testified that Saul Avila had told him ‘there was going to be problems in the future,’ and that he had warned Isaac Guzman at least 30 days before the tragic deaths of Rebecca and Magdalena to remove Aaron Cortez from the apartment.”
Guzman, who was also initially sued, was Cano and Cortez’s supervisor.
Cano took the warning seriously and said Aveanna created a danger every time it sent Cortez to provide medical care for J.C., according to the lawsuit, which also said Cano testified that Aveanna “never did anything” and that it was “stupid and so dumb and reckless.”
“Nurse Cano testified that Aveanna did this because ‘They didn’t want to lose revenue,’” the lawsuit stated.
Furthermore, the lawsuit alleged that Cortez’s brother, Lionel Cortez, who is a police officer, provided a sworn statement at the Edinburg Police Department, which said that on Dec. 4, 2019, his brother knew that Rebecca had been repeatedly raped by Avila when she was a child and that his patient was a product of those sexual assaults.
“Nurse Cortez did not report that an adult (J.G.C.’s mother) was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, specifically the statutory rape of their patient’s (J.G.C.’s) mother,” the lawsuit stated. “Nurse Cortez & Aveanna failed to report this on many days, including December 4th, December 5th, December 6th, December 7th, December 8th and on December 9th, 2019.”
Additionally, the lawsuit alleged that Aveanna knew of the possibility of danger in the home because Cortez expressed concern for Rebecca’s safety because “he knew that Saul Avila ‘would retaliate against the girl once the police got involved,’” the lawsuit stated.
That’s exactly what happened.