‘The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’: Director Had Questions for Abusers, but They Never Called From Prison

“We tried very hard to talk to them,” Brian Knappenberg says of Pearl Fernandez and Isauro Aguirre, who beat 8-year-old to death

Gabriel Fernandez Pearl Fernandez Isauro Aguirre

“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” director Brian Knappenberger wanted to speak to the late Gabriel Fernandez’s mother, Pearl, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, for the documentary, but no matter how many times he reached out, his call was never returned.

“We tried very hard to talk to them,” Knappenberger told TheWrap. “They were demonized in the press and what they did is incomprehensible, but we still wanted to understand them in a deeper way. We set up a mechanism where they could call us from prison and they had my personal number. For six months, I carried around the questions I wanted to ask them in my backpocket because I never knew when and if they were going to call. We also wrote them many letters.”

Based on in-depth reporting by LA Times journalist Garrett Therolf, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” chronicles how over eight months, 8-year-old Gabriel was subjected to horrific torture, which included regular beatings, being shot in the face with a BB gun, forced to eat cat litter, locked in a cupboard for hours, and pepper-sprayed. The cruel nightmare ultimately ended when his mother and her boyfriend beat him to death in 2013.

Even worse, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCSF) and law enforcement were called to the scene multiple times before the boy’s death — and no action was taken. At one point, social workers even ordered Gabriel to stop lying, which allowed his abusers to continue the torture until the grisly end.

The Netflix documentary also delves deep into the trials of Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, as well as the charges brought against the four social workers assigned to the boy’s case — something that had never happened before.

But in the end, while Aguirre was sentenced to death and Pearl Fernandez received life in prison without the possibility of parole, the social workers escaped punishment. Just last month, by a 2-1 decision, California’s second appeals court threw out the case on the grounds that prosecutors did not prove the social workers “had the requisite duty to control the abusers” and further concluded they “did not have care or custody of Gabriel.”

In fact, the filmmakers were also not able to get in touch with DCSF for the documentary.

“Without question, the biggest challenge was getting DCFS to talk to us, and we wanted an interview with the current director of DCFS, Bobby Cagle,” Knappenberger explained. “We asked them for 1 1/2 years — their first excuse was that he wasn’t the director of DCFS at the time Gabriel died. But that was strange especially because our question was how things have changed and how they were addressing things. Unfortunately, there was this rapid series of deaths in Antelope Valley — Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro — and he was the director at the time of these deaths.”

He added: “It’s disappointing that a public agency that touches people doesn’t want to talk. The public deserves better. They have a responsibility to talk about this issue, and their instinct is towards being secretive and looking at it more as a PR problem. They’ve said, ‘It’s about protecting the institution at all costs.’ But toxicity happens when there is secrecy, and the only way to solve problems is to let people understand, be transparent, and then making the system better.”

Click here to read about the nine most shocking details highlighted in “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.”