For journalist Garrett Therolf, reporting on the grisly details of a child’s torture and eventual death wasn’t easy. The process left him with “battle wounds” that sent him into therapy, he said, though he’s quick to make it clear that what he went though “doesn’t come within 100 miles” of what the victim experienced.
Without his reporting in the Los Angeles Times, Pearl Fernandez would never have been sentenced to life without parole in 2018 for the 2013 death of her 8-year-old son, Gabriel Fernandez. Her boyfriend would never have been convicted of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of intentional murder by torture, then sentenced to death. And Netflix would not be releasing a six-part docuseries on how many adults in the child’s life could have interceded in a way that would have saved his life — but didn’t. In fact, very few people would know about Gabriel at all.
“It wasn’t a complete shot in the dark to know that there might be a story behind the fatality,” Therolf told TheWrap of his decision to look deeper into a one-line obituary he came across for an eight-year-old boy. The new Netflix docuseries “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” looks deeper into that choice and all the subsequent events it spawned as one by one, the adults in Gabriel’s short life were questioned and held accountable.
Uncovering the story took a lot of work, Therolf said, because “the bureaucrats really put so many obstacles in the way of reporters” trying to determine the chronology of events and which authorities, if any, were aware of them in a situation like Gabriel’s. Therolf’s reporting uncovered that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services had been contacted by Gabriel’s teacher and family members and had conducted multiple visits to his home that never resulted in his removal. He found out they never even asked to see the child, but believed his mother when she said everything was fine.
“When I was in conversations with my friends and family, I think I was probably distracted a lot of time because the story was on my mind,” he recalled of the time he spent looking into Gabriel’s circumstances. “But the emotional distress that I was under doesn’t come within 100 miles of Gabriel’s experience, and I think that, you know, what happened to him and the reasons for that really required me and everybody else to put our feelings and needs aside because the story was so important.”
Still, he said, “I had a therapist for a lot of the time, so there was an opportunity to kind of step back and deal with my mental health in that way.” Therolf added that the Times, too, “did make little gestures” to help staffers mitigate stress, like providing a nap room and “puppies being brought in at one point.”
“To really deal with kind of like the secondary trauma of that reporting requires — at least for me — finding a good therapist,” he concluded.
As for then rehashing the reporting experience for the Netflix series, Therolf called the experience “emotional.”
“I remember after watching the final cut all the way through, you know, weeping very deeply,” he said. “It’s a lot to process, what happened to Gabriel and the reasons for that.”
“You can’t get through like a reporting experience like this without some, you know, kind of battle wounds and scars and so I think I was mindful of that, too,” he said.