Aaron Cortez made the right decision.
When the registered nurse and Army reservist noticed that 19-year-old Rebecca Lee Cantu’s toddler looked a lot like her stepfather, 58-year-old Saul Ramon Avila, he began asking questions.
Rebecca resisted at first, but eventually the young woman confided in the 30-year-old: Avila had been sexually abusing her since she was 14. Not only did her mother, 48-year-old Magdalena Cantu, know about it, Rebecca told Aaron, she was complicit in the abuse.
Then Aaron helped Rebecca make the right decision. He convinced her to go to the Edinburg Police Department and file a police report against Avila. Rebecca bravely did just that on Dec. 6, 2019 at 12:07 p.m.
But neither Aaron nor Rebecca could have ever predicted the terror Avila would unleash on them.
A little more than three days later, Avila, rather than face arrest and justice, violently killed Aaron, Rebecca and Magdalena inside Apartment 5 at 301 W. Kuhn Street. After the murders, Avila shot himself near the heart in the upstairs master bedroom of the residence. The only survivor was Rebecca and Avila’s child, a toddler, who needs 24-hour medical care.
That case is now closed.
Edinburg police officially closed the investigation May 6 — five months to the day after Rebecca went to police to report her stepfather for continuous sexual abuse.
The Monitor obtained the 84-page police report and 911 call through a Texas Public Information Act request about a week later.
The document paints a picture of a man who realized something was terribly wrong in Apartment 5 at 301 W. Kuhn Street and how Aaron did everything he could do to convince a young woman to seek justice and escape abuse. The report also shows the abuse Rebecca endured at the hands of Avila while detailing how Magdalena, her mother, not only knew about the abuse; she participated in it.
The report also details a level of brutality committed against all three by Avila on the night of Dec. 10 and 11 that can only be described as extreme.
Aaron arrived for night duty to care for Rebecca’s son around 7 p.m. on Dec. 10, a Monday. The child needed 24-hour care and the nurses who cared for the toddler worked 12-hour shifts.
Michael Cano was scheduled to relieve Aaron the following morning.
His wife dropped him off at the small two-story brick apartment complex near the Hidalgo County Courthouse just before 7 a.m. on Dec. 11. They both noticed that a wooden gate to the back patio at Rebecca’s apartment was ajar, which was odd because it was always closed. Cano, 44, kissed his wife goodbye and went to investigate.
Nothing could prepare Cano for what he was about to find.
His first words to the dispatcher are harrowing and the tone of his voice is from a man who has seen a truly horrible sight but knows his duty is to get help to the location as soon as possible. That voice is also one of someone who knows at least two people have been killed while not knowing if the killer is still inside the apartment.
“I need, I need, I need, uh, the police out here, and I need an ambulance right here … just hurry up,” Cano says once the dispatcher answers his call.
The dispatcher, unaware of the events that are about to be discovered, asks Cano what is happening.
“I’m the morning nurse. I walked in and I saw blood everywhere,” Cano replied.
He then urges the dispatcher to hurry up. His voice is one of exasperation.
Dispatch curtly tells him she needs to continue to ask him questions.
As the call continues, Cano explains there are two bodies inside the house.
“One in the stairs and, and one in the bathroom. I walked right out. I don’t know what’s in there and there’s blood everywhere,” Cano says.
He tells the dispatcher that the child he’s there to care for is alive and moving, but is still inside the house. And Cano also immediately thinks he knows exactly what happened inside the apartment.
“Look, I think what happened was she had filed a police report on the stepdad that he was molesting her and there was some strife between the nurse and him and I think that man may have done something,” Cano says.
Dispatch, still trying to grasp the situation, asks whether the male attacked the woman.
“I think they’re dead. I think they’re dead. I think they’re dead,” Cano says.
In shock, he continues trying to explain to dispatch what is happening.
“The door was open this morning, the door was open this morning, and it’s never open and I walked in and I see blood everywhere and I say ‘Oh, what’s going on’ and I started going to the stairs and I found her and she was cold and I ran upstairs for the baby and I saw something in the bathroom right there and he was laying in the bathroom and he was bloody and I called him and he didn’t answer,” Cano says. “And I didn’t know if the man was inside or not and I hauled ass outside. I don’t, I don’t, you need to hurry up!”
At this point in the call, the dispatcher’s tone of voice changes. It’s as if she realizes this is no ordinary call. She seems to also know something is horribly wrong and works to assure Cano that help is on the way while continuing to try to obtain information from the man.
“Oh, my God. You know, I worked in the ER but I never walked into a scene like that,” Cano said. “Oh my goodness. I’m in the corner in case he does come out. I’m going to run. And the dog came outside. The dog was a little distressed too. He’s right next to me.”
The call lasts less than six minutes and as it ends, the sounds of sirens are heard and Cano can be heard telling an Edinburg police officer that he thinks people were murdered.
On Dec. 4, a Wednesday, Aaron called his brother, Lionel, a Palmhurst police officer.
Aaron sought legal advice and as he spoke with his brother, Rebecca listened into the conversation.
He asked his brother whether a minor who was raped, who is now an adult, can file charges.
Lionel responded that the woman could still file charges. Aaron additionally told Lionel that the mother would record the encounters between her daughter and Avila. And that the minor would record Avila and her mother.
The Palmhurst police officer went on to explain to Edinburg investigators that Magdalena, Rebecca’s mother, would “plead” with her to have sex with Avila and that Rebecca would give in to please her mother.
“He said it started at a young age and it went on for years. The girl eventually had a child at 16 years old with the stepdad being the father,” Lionel said. “Aaron told me that at this time the girl wanted to come forward and file a police report. Aaron told the girl that I was a cop and that I would know what to do.”
Lionel advised that if the rape occurred in Edinburg, Rebecca needed to file a report with the Edinburg Police Department.
“Aaron’s only concern was that the guy would retaliate against the girl once police got involved,” Lionel told investigators.
When Edinburg police arrived at Lionel’s residence on Dec. 11 to break the news of Aaron’s death to his brother and ask if he had any information, Lionel immediately told the investigators that Avila was responsible for his brother’s murder.
“He said Aaron had recently convinced the female to come forward and file a police report,” Edinburg investigator Daniel Arredondo wrote in his report. “He said Aaron made a comment to the effects of ‘if you don’t hear from me you know why.'”
Aaron’s wife, Yaqueline, also told police that she believed Avila killed her husband.
“Yaqueline went on to say that the stepfather ‘Saul’ had probably killed Aaron because he was angry that Aaron had convinced the 19-year-old stepdaughter to file a report,” Arredondo wrote. “She mentioned that Aaron had told her that Saul had made a comment that he would rather die than go to jail.”
Yaqueline went on to tell police that she believed Magdalena was upset about Aaron and Rebecca being in a room talking about personal things.
“Yaqueline goes on to say that she believes that they did not like that Aaron would talk to Rebecca because they did not want anyone to find out about what was going on in the home,” investigator Clarivel Vallejo wrote in a report.
Yaqueline told the investigator that Aaron told her this on Dec. 5 — a day before Rebecca filed the police report.
“Yaqueline stated that Aaron told her that Rebecca’s mother had cheated on Saul when Rebecca was 14 years of age. Saul then told Magdalena that if she wanted him to forgive her, she needed to let him have sex with her daughter Rebecca,” Vallejo wrote. “Magdalena agreed and convinced Rebecca to have sexual intercourse with Saul.”
From there, the sexual abuse was continuous, Yaqueline told investigators, reiterating what her husband had told her.
“Yaqueline also stated that Magdalena had asked Rebecca to have another child with Saul,” Vallejo wrote.
She also said that somehow Avila found out about the report and said he would rather die than go to jail.
Aaron also talked about this with his ex-wife, Jessica Hernandez. She told police she spoke with Aaron the night before he was killed. Aaron told her that Avila threatened to come to the apartment and kill everyone inside.
The last time Yaqueline heard from her husband via a text message was at 11:22 p.m. on Dec. 9.
A detective who canvassed neighbors after the discovery of the crime scene learned that one of those neighbors heard shots at around 11:30 p.m. — eight minutes after Yaqueline last heard from her husband.
THE POLICE REPORT
During a press conference at the Edinburg Police Department on Dec. 19, about a week after the killings, Chief Cesar Torres told reporters that Rebecca filed the police report on Dec. 6, at 12:07 p.m.
About three hours later, Rogelio Salinas, the lead detective on the homicide and sex abuse cases, wrote in a report that he called Rebecca after familiarizing himself with the offense report.
“I asked Rebecca if she was able to come into the Edinburg Police Department to discuss the case and provide a written statement. Rebecca stated that she had talked to Officer Betancourt and that she had told him that she no longer wanted to file charges against her stepfather Saul Avila,” Salinas wrote. “Rebecca said that she had told Officer Betancourt that she did not want to file charges against Avila because her family was standing near her and were listening to her conversation.”
The report does not state whether Salinas asked which family members were standing near her, but the police records indicate that Avila lived in the apartment with only Magdalena, Rebecca and the toddler. In fact, Avila shared a bedroom with Magdalena and Rebecca, according to the report. He had been kicked out of the house sometime after Rebecca filed the police report, but that report does not indicate when Avila left the house.
At that Dec. 19 press conference, Torres, the chief, told reporters that no one from his department contacted Avila about the accusations.
“We are not sure if Magdalena or Rebecca told someone else or told him. We don’t know that. We don’t have that information,” Torres said at the time.
After Salinas called Rebecca, the young woman told him she would come to the department on Dec. 6 to give a statement. She didn’t show up that Friday and investigators waited for her until 5 p.m., Torres said previously.
About three hours after that call, Sara Wong, a caseworker with Child Protective Services showed up at the apartment.
“Sara advised she had already spoken with Rebecca and her mother Magdalena. Sara reported that her meeting with the mother and daughter occurred on late Friday afternoon about 5:45 p.m.,” detective Jesse Moreno wrote in a report. “Sara advised that Rebecca reported that Saul has been sexually abusing her and that Saul is the father to her baby. Sara added a safety plan had been initiated when Rebecca was told that Saul was not to have any contact with her and he was not allowed back to the apartment.”
Torres said at the Dec. 19 press conference that police contacted CPS that Friday and that the agency initiated an investigation and told the family Avila was no longer allowed at the house. Torres also said police didn’t know when Avila found out about the investigation and that the contact occurred sometime between Dec. 6 and 10.
The report, however, indicates from witness interviews taken on Dec. 11 that Avila knew about the investigation at least less than an hour after the CPS visit.
At 6:28 p.m., Avila calls Magdalena’s older sister, Maria Teresa Andrade, according to Moreno, who interviewed Andrade after the crime.
“In this call, Saul told me that Rebecca just filed a police report that he was the father to her baby. I got so upset with Saul I started yelling at him over the phone to tell her it wasn’t true but Saul never denied it,” Andrade said in an affidavit. “That same day I called my sister. When I confronted her about this (is) when she confessed that she knew.”
At 7 p.m., Cano, the registered nurse who called 911 a few days later, shows up at the apartment to work the night shift taking care of the child.
“When he arrived he felt things were very tense, the dynamic wasn’t as normal, he felt they were more reserved,” Salinas wrote. “Michael said that he noticed that Magdalena had been crying and saw that her eyes were very red and puffy.”
Wong, the caseworker, asked Cano some questions and when she left, Rebecca explained why she was there.
“Michael stated that he later found out that Saul had been kicked out of the apartment by the time he arrived to work on Friday,” Salinas wrote. “Michael reported that Rebecca also told him that Saul was very upset because she came forward, and that he told her he would rather kill himself before he went to jail.”
The following Monday, Salinas writes that he noticed a missed call and voicemail from Wong at 4:15 p.m. He had been out of the office.
Wong had called Salinas to let him know she made contact with Rebecca the previous Friday and to update him on what she did, as well as telling Salinas that while she was there Avila was not in the apartment and that he would not be coming back.
“Sara also mentioned that she had interviewed Rebecca and had questioned Rebecca’s mother Magdalena about the allegations,” Salinas wrote in the report. “Sara mentioned that she had not interviewed Saul Avila. Sara and I agreed that she was not to attempt to interview Saul Avila until I finished my investigation or he was in custody.”
Torres said at the press conference that police made several attempts to contact Rebecca that Monday but the police report only indicates two attempts in immediate succession just before 5 p.m. were made.
At 4:50 p.m. that Monday Salinas called Rebecca, but it went straight to voicemail. He called again and it went to her voicemail, which was full.
Police, however, weren’t the only ones trying to contact Rebecca that Monday.
Andrade, her aunt, drove to the apartment to try to make contact with her niece. She didn’t leave her car, though, because she didn’t want to see Magdalena or Saul. So she called Rebecca, who didn’t answer. But as she was leaving, Rebecca called her back and said that everything was true.
“I asked Rebecca why she hadn’t said anything when she replied she wanted to but couldn’t get the words out,” Andrade wrote in an affidavit. “I told Rebecca that she wasn’t alone and that she would help in any way. Rebecca told her that Saul would threaten them but they never reported the abuse. My sister never said anything because she is very submissive and keeps quiet.”
At about 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, that fateful Tuesday, Rolando Diaz Jr., who was married to Rebecca’s cousin, showed up to the apartments to pick Rebecca up to take her to the police station. Instead of finding Rebecca, he found an active crime scene.
He had called Rebecca the day before, the same Monday that police couldn’t reach Rebecca via the phone, and offered to give her a ride to the Edinburg Police Department.
“Rebecca stated that she had called and they told her that the investigator was out or on a call, so she called him back and told him they would try again on Tuesday, December 10th, 2019,” Salinas wrote in a report.
Tuesday never came for Rebecca.
A DARK DAY
When Edinburg police responded to Apartment 5 at 301 W. Kuhn Street, Cano, the registered nurse who called 911, told them to prepare themselves for what they were about to see.
Several officers detailed entering the residence through that wooden patio door that was ajar.
“Inside the residence I observed a large amount of blood spatter and pools of collected blood by the rear door (on the inside and outside of the door),” Sgt. Oziel Plata wrote in a report. “We walked inside and more splatter blood on the tiled floor leading into the stairway. At the stairway there was more blood splatter on the carpeted stairway and a bloody hand print on the walls.”
The officers found Rebecca at the bottom of the stairs sitting in a fetal position. She had been stabbed and shot in the face. Investigators recovered a knife and spent bullet casings next to her.
“As myself and Officer Uresti continued to clear the apartment, we walked up the stairs and I observed an empty black magazine to a handgun and observed more empty casings on the hallway area,” officer Ashley Rosales wrote in a report. “I then observed a male wearing gray scrub like pants, deceased on the bathroom floor.”
An autopsy revealed he had been shot in the neck before falling to the floor. Avila then shot him six more times.
Then they found Avila dead in a bedroom to the left of the bathroom.
“The male was lying on the bed facing upward, wearing a dark-colored long sleeve button up and dark jeans. There was blood stains all over the male’s shirt and I observed an entry wound on the male’s chest near his heart area,” Rosales wrote. “Officer Uresti then observed a silver and black handgun near the male’s right hand, on the bed. That male was later identified as Saul Avila. I then discovered a male toddler in a medical crib in a bedroom across from the room Saul was in. The toddler was unharmed.”
Several hours later, an investigator filming the crime scene discovered Magdalena’s body. She was hidden inside a laundry room that was on the back patio. She had been stabbed in her neck.
It may never be known how Avila learned of the investigation, though the police report indicates he found out about the investigation just hours after Rebecca filed the report.
And it also isn’t clear whether anyone reported his suicidal threats and his threats to kill everyone in the house to police.
Investigators can only piece together what happened that night in the exact way they did, through the crime scene investigation, which indicates an extremely violent crime, and through interviews, which suggest Avila committed the heinous act sometime after 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 10.
The only people who really know what happened that night are Rebecca, Aaron, Magdalena and Avila, all of whom are dead.
The only survivor, Rebecca’s child, conceived through the sexual abuse of Avila and who suffers from medical conditions that require 24-hour care, was just 2 years old at the time of the crime.
But for the loved ones of the victims, the world changed that day and those questions may never be answered.