Gabriel Fernandez was only 8 years old when he was brutally murdered by his mother Pearl and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
And as detailed in Netflix’s documentary “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” he was consistently let down by the system when he most needed help.
Based on in-depth reporting by L.A. Times journalist Garrett Therolf, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” chronicles how over 8 months 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.
But even worse, the Department of Child and Family Services and law enforcement were called to the scene multiple times before Gabriel’s death — and no action was taken. At one point social workers even ordered Gabriel to stop lying, allowing his abusers to continue the torture until the horrific end.
Brian Knappenberger directs the docu-series, which launched Wednesday on Netflix.
See the 9 most shocking details about the case below.
1. Incompetent Law Enforcement
As depicted during the series, sheriffs were called to the house by other family members days before the murder — but took no action. In fact, law enforcement often (there were multiple house calls) took Pearl Fernandez’s word that everything was fine, and never even asked to see Gabriel. And when they did, according to family members, they threatened Gabriel, and told him that if he kept lying about his bruises, that he’d be the one to go to jail. They consistently believed the parent over the child with the burn marks and black eye.
2. The Abusers’ Homophobic Motives
According to family members, Pearl and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, would call Gabriel “gay.” In fact, the first thing he told law enforcement when they responded to the 911 call was that Gabriel Fernandez was gay, which confused officers.
Investigators found all of Gabriel’s clothing disposed of, except for two dresses that he was made to wear.
Because of this, there were talks about charging the couple with a hate crime. However, prosecutors decided that it was more of a motive, and could get a bigger sentence charging the couple with child abuse.
3. The Horrifying Evidence
At the crime scene, the investigator came in with red stickers to mark blood spatter around the apartment. However, there was so much blood, that she soon ran out of the color and had to switch to yellow stickers. Inexplicably, there was blood in the sink.
The abuse was substantial — they fed him cat litter, put a bandanna and sock in his mouth, knocked out his teeth with a bat, shot him in the face with a BB gun, and pepper sprayed him for fun while he laid in the bath tub. He would show up to school with bruises all over his face, as well as fresh cigarette burns and shaved hair. Gabriel’s brother testified that Aguirre would hold him up by the neck, while his sister said Aguirre knocked the air out of Fernandez on several occasions.
During the trial, jurors were told the autopsy took an unusual two days because the injuries were so substantive. The thymus gland was barely there — a normal boy’s gland weighs about 100 grams, while Fernandez’s was about 10 grams. The coroner said this was due to stress atrophy, due to all the abuse inflicted on the boy.
4. Gabriel’s Suicide Note and Pleas for Mother’s Love
Gabriel Fernandez often wrote notes to his mother, saying he would kill himself and that he just wants to be a good boy. Days before he was murdered, he wrote a card to his mom telling her all the things he loved about her.
5. Gabriel’s Murderers Punished, but Social Workers Let Off
Unsurprisingly, prosecutors sought the death penalty for Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend. But they also brought charges against four social workers, something that had never happened before. Accused of minimizing “the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered,” and of allowing “a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused,” they were each charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records.
But in the end, while Aguirre was sentenced to death, and 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.”
Prosecutors have asked the court for a re-hearing of the case against the social workers,
6. Gabriel’s Mother Likely Instigated the Abuse
Aguirre delivered the physical blows, but prosecutors believe it was under the instruction of Pearl Fernandez. The documentary explained that she never wanted Gabriel, and actually left the child at the hospital, when family members took him in.
Family members were privy to the abuse — Pearl Fernandez’s sister often slept over to shield Gabriel and the two other kids from the abuse.
According to family members, she was uneducated, started using drugs at an early age which stopped brain development, was diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, suffered from eating disorders, and had abnormalities on her scans. She was also a victim of gang rape and rape by an uncle at an early age.
7. The Jury Wasn’t Unanimous
During Aguirre’s trial, the jury wasn’t unanimous. 11 found him guilty, while one man didn’t believe he should be convicted of first-degree murder. His reasoning? If he had wanted to kill Gabriel, he would’ve done it a long time ago.
When the jury was seeking the death penalty for Aguirre, it was the same juror who voted against it, because he felt they needed to “hear Aguirre out.”
8. Judge Angrily Denounces Gabriel’s Mother During Sentencing
At the sentencing hearing, Pearl Fernandez apologized, saying she wishes Gabriel was still alive and that she hopes her kids can forgive her one day.
The judge, who had been on the bench for 20 years, said he never personally commented on a case he presided over, but had to for this one. He said that the pain Gabriel Fernandez suffered was unimaginable to the point where he would call it animalistic, but even “animals know how to take care of their young.” He wished that both perpetrators would suffer mental torture in prison about what they had done.
9. DCFS Also Failed in Other Similar Cases
Unfortunately, five years later, another boy died under the same circumstances. 10-year-old Anthony Avalos was denied access to food and a bathroom, and was abused in the same way as Gabriel was. Calls were made by teachers and relatives, but DCFS never helped the boy who had come out as gay just weeks prior to his death. A spokesperson for DCFS said that they did indeed provide services to the family from May 2014 to December 2014 and their last referral was in 2016. However, they did not receive enough information but provided the family with further resources. And, this all happened in Antelope Valley — where Gabriel Fernandez had died as well.
When prosecutors went to medical hub in Lancaster, Calif. (part of the Antelope Valley), they found it had been closed due to insufficient funding, the docu-series says. Investigators believe that there have been more than 150 cases where children have been abused even after it was brought to DCFS attention.
Most recently, a four year old boy was being abused. A court order was placed to have him removed from his home. DCFS never followed through, and the boy died under “suspicious circumstances.”
DCFS declined to take part in the series in its entirety.