On the 22nd of May, 2013, Los Angeles paramedics were responding to a report of a child not breathing. When paramedics arrived at the scene, they found 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. They knew immediately that something much more sinister had taken place. “It was just an unbelievable amount of trauma on his body,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic, James Cermak.1
Gabriel was rushed to hospital where he was found to have a cracked skull, broken ribs and two missing teeth. BB pellets were also discovered in his lung and his groin and he was riddled with bruises and burn marks. He was declared brain dead and sadly, two days later, Gabriel died from his injuries.
An investigation uncovered a prolonged catalog of abuse at the hands of Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
In the months leading up to Gabriel’s death, he was sprayed with pepper spray, forced to eat his own vomit and was regularly gagged to keep him quiet and locked in a cabinet. In addition, Aguirre and Fernandez burned Gabriel with cigarettes, whipped him, shot him with a BB gun, starved him and forced him to eat cat litter and cat faeces. Gabriel would often be bound, rendering him unable to move, while Aguirre would bite him. In a bid to conceal the abuse, Fernandez and Aguirre put makeup on Gabriel to hide his bruising.2
In the aftermath of Gabriel’s death, it was revealed that a social worker, Gregory Merritt, had been supervising the family. Gabriel and his siblings had initially lived with their grandparents, Robert and Sandra Fernandez; when Gabriel was just one month old, Fernandez had dropped him at her parents’ home, stating she “did not want Gabriel and had no love for the child.”
Robert and Sandra raised the children until October of 2012 when Fernandez returned and said she wanted to reclaim custody. Despite the fact that Fernandez had abused her children in the past and had documented mental health issues and drug abuse issues, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department removed Gabriel from his grandparents. Once back with Fernandez and Aguirre, the abuse began.3
Despite numerous warning signs and reports of abuse to DCFS – including over 60 reports from teachers, therapists and relatives – Gabriel was not removed from the home. In fact, no social worker ever conducted any private interviews with Gabriel or fully examined him for evidence of abuse. One of the reports from a therapist said that Gabriel had confided in her that he was forced to perform oral sex on a relative. Merritt and another social worker, Patricia Clement, had actually closed the case shortly before Gabriel was murdered.4
Four social workers at Los Angeles DCFS were charged with child abuse and falsifying reports. Among the numerous reports to DCFS was several from Gabriel’s teacher, Jennifer Garcia. She reported that Gabriel often came to school with numerous bruises and wounds. Gabriel had confided in his teacher that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun and said that he had been beaten with a belt. When Garcia contacted DCFS, they informed her that there would be an investigation. However, no such investigation ever came. Prosecutors stated that the four social workers had falsified reports that would have documented signs of physical abuse.5 Later, the social workers would be cleared of the charges.
During the trial, Prosecutor John Hatami told the jury that the reason Gabriel had endured so much abuse was because Aguirre believed that Gabriel was gay. In fact, as Gabriel was being abused at home, he was forced to wear girls’ clothing to school. “This wasn’t about drugs. This wasn’t about mental health issues. Aguirre did it because he didn’t like him… he believed Gabriel was gay and to him, that was a bad thing… he did it out of hatred of a little boy,” said Prosecutor Hatami.6
He described how Aguirre – who stood at 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 270 pounds – beat Gabriel – who stood at 4 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 59 pounds – to death. “Gabriel’s last vision was that man over there standing over Gabriel, beating him to death,” said Prosecutor Hatami. He also presented text messages between Aguirre and Fernandez that showed that the couple had transpired together to torture and kill Gabriel. “The evidence will show that the defendant is nothing more than a bully. He was a security guard who intentionally tortured and abused a helpless and innocent little boy,” said Prosecutor Hatami.
Aguirre’s defence attorney, John Allan, refuted this and stated that Aguirre had a difficult time in handling stressful situations. He said that Aguirre admitted to causing the injuries on Gabriel but said that he had exploded in a rage after Gabriel told his mother to leave Aguirre. “He is guilty of murder, but the special circumstance alleged, that he intended to kill Gabriel with the infliction of torture, is not true,” said Allan.
Gabriel’s older siblings – Ezequiel, 12, and Virginia, 11, – told the court room how Aguirre would punch and kick Gabriel and pick him up by the neck until he passed out. The court room fell eerily silent as a cabinet was rolled in. Ezequiel said that Gabriel would be handcuffed and stuffed inside the box for hours with no food or water. He described how Aguirre and his mother would laugh as they beat Gabriel together and taunted him by calling him “gay” while carrying out the attacks. Virginia also told the court how her mother punched Gabriel so hard that she knocked his two front teeth out.7
Gabriel’s siblings also described how if Gabriel vomited while being forced to eat cat faeces then he would be forced to eat his vomit as well. If he needed to go to the bathroom while locked in the cabinet, he would be forced to go inside the cabinet where he would be locked for hours on end. They also stated that Gabriel was the only one out of them that was abused but Ezequiel said that if he attempted to help Gabriel then his mother would hit him.
On the day that Gabriel was murdered, Fernandez had dragged Gabriel into a bedroom and Aguirre followed. The siblings said that they heard screaming from Gabriel as the couple punched and kicked him. “And that’s when it all stopped,” said Ezequiel. “It just went quiet…”8
After deliberating for a day, the jury found Aguirre guilty of first-degree murder. As the verdict was read, Prosecutor Hatami wiped a tear from his face; he was a survivor of child abuse. Fernandez subsequently pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and admitted to the torture special circumstance allegation in order to be saved from a death sentence. Aguirre was sentenced to death while Fernandez was sentenced to life in prison.
Before reading out their sentences, Judge George G. Lomeli said: “You want to say that the conduct was animalistic, but that would be wrong because even animals know how to take care of their young, some to the extent that they would sacrifice their own lives in caring for their young.” He continued: “I can only wish…that in the middle of the night you wake up, and you think of the injuries that you subjected on this poor young man, this poor 7-year-old, and that it tortures you.”
- The Sunday Mail, 18 October, 2017 – “Man Forced Girlfriend’ Eight Year Old Son to Eat Cat Faeces”
- CBS – 3 WTKR, 15 November, 2017 – “Mother’s Boyfriend Found Guilty in Systematic Torture, Murder of 8-Year-Old Boy”
- KPCC – 89.3FM, 27 August, 2013 – “Relatives Claim LA County’s Child Welfare System Responsible”
- LAist, 3 June, 2015 – “Social Worker Fired Over Heinous Child Abuse Death Wants Job Back”
- LAist, 31 January, 2017 – “Teacher Gives Testimony Saying She’d Contacted Social Workers”
- International Business, 17 October, 2017 – “Man Tortured 8-Year-Old Boy to Death Because he Thought Child was Gay”
- The Sunday Mail, 9 June, 2018 – “Mother Sentenced to Life and Boyfriend Gets Death Penalty After Torturing Son”
- LAist, 19 August, 2014 – “Boy Was Pepper-Sprayed, Forced to Eat Feces”