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Parents of 9-year-old Phoenix boy shot in head charged with first-degree murder

Wendy Lavarnia, left, and Kansas Lavarnia (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Photos)
LISTEN: Greg McKay, Director of Arizona Department of Child Safety

PHOENIX — The parents of a 9-year-old Phoenix boy who was shot and killed in a Phoenix home have been charged with first-degree murder, police said Wednesday.

Sgt. Vince Lewis, a spokesman for Phoenix Police Department, said Landen Lavarnia was on life support for about two days after he was allegedly shot by a toddler sibling in a house near 35th Avenue and Cactus Road earlier this week.

The parents, Wendy Lavarnia and Kansas Lavarnia, were taken into custody. Their other three children have been placed in foster care, according to Arizona Department of Child Safety officials.

In addition to murder, Kansas is accused of child abuse and hindering prosecution, while Wendy is accused of first-degree murder, court documents said.

Prosecutors had not filed criminal charges, said Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Judges ordered both held in lieu of $1 million bond each.

Police said Wendy, 28, told them she left a loaded gun on her bed within reach of two of her four children while she turned to get a holster. She said a 2-year-old picked up the gun and accidentally shot the older sibling who was seated a few feet away.

Wendy told police she had previously taught the 2-year-old to pull the trigger using an unloaded gun.

Court documents released Wednesday said officers found extensive blood residue in several areas of the home and a car owned by the family. Police said at the time that they had also found drugs inside the house.

A statement from an investigating officer said a “significant amount of time and effort was taken prior to contacting emergency services. The amount of clean up evidenced could not have been accomplished during the two-minute police response time.”

The documents also said Kansas had suffered a gunshot wound that was bandaged with tissue and packing tape. He would not tell police how he received the injury.

The mother previously was suspected of child abuse in the case, while Kansas had been booked on weapons misconduct.

According to DCS officials, the Lavarnia family had been contacted twice before, once in 2014 and once in 2015, after officials learned Wendy had given birth to a “substance-exposed newborn.”

The family first received in-home services in June 2014, after a child who was born and exposed to methadone and heroin. At that time, Wendy had agreed to participate in-home services with DCS, but tested positive for illegal substances while participating in the services.

DCS officials then removed Landen and his siblings from the home in August 2014 to allow Wendy and Kansas to “address their substance abuse and domestic violence issues,” according to a DCS statement.

Once the couple successfully completed training, the children were returned to the home in November 2015, but DCS maintained legal custody of the children.

The second incident occurred in November 2015, after Wendy gave birth to another baby who was exposed to methadone, but DCS officials said the methadone was “prescribed by a doctor as part of Ms. Lavarnia’s treatment plan.”

The family continued to receive services until March 2016 and the case was closed in June 2016 after the family completed the services, DCS officials said.

Kansas was barred from having a gun in the home because of three 2009 convictions for theft and possession of burglary tools. He completed a three-year prison sentence in 2012.

Kansas blamed his convictions on a longstanding addiction to pain medications, saying he started taking the drugs after he broke his back in an ATV accident when he was 15, according to court records.

He said he was sober from 18 to 21 but later resumed using pain medications. Once such drugs got too expensive, he turned to cheaper illegal drugs, using cocaine and heroin for a few years, records say.

Neighbors of the couple said the children could sometimes be seen outside wearing only a diaper.

Marie Mosley, who lives next door, said they initially seemed nice but she later disapproved of the way they handled themselves around their children.

“Their kids were always running in the front with their diapers on,” Mosley said. “They always yelled and cussed at them, which I didn’t think was right, to cuss at little babies like that.”

Kansas’s first conviction stemmed from a January 2009 arrest when he was seen crouched down in a car outside a home where $480 in property had been stolen. The victim recognized the driver as Kansas, who used to clean fish tanks for the victim, authorities said.

Seven months later, police said Kansas tried to steal a sports car in his apartment complex and used tools in a bid to tamper with the vehicle’s ignition.

A month later, Kansas used a friend’s stolen driver’s license to withdraw $4,500 out of his bank account, investigators said. Kansas told authorities he was abusing drugs at the time and wasn’t thinking clearly, court records said.

On Wednesday, the elementary school that Landen attended sent out a letter to families offering grief counseling on campus.

“Landen was a very sweet and kind boy who was a good friend to all,” the letter read. “He was very smart, creative and clever, and always helped his classmates when working in groups. Our hearts are absolutely broken.”

School officials said teachers and administrators would have a plan in place by Monday, when students are set to return from spring break.

The Associated Press and KTAR’s Martha Maurer contributed to this report.

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