Before 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was allegedly beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend, they doused him with pepper spray, forced him to eat his own vomit and locked him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, according to court records made public Monday.
Sworn grand jury testimony provided a graphic examination of the abuse that the Antelope Valley boy allegedly suffered before his death in May of 2013. The incident prompted calls for sweeping reforms to the troubled Los Angeles County foster-care system because child welfare workers failed to remove the boy. Officials have taken steps to fire two social workers and two supervisors, while others involved in the case received letters of warning or reprimand.
More than 800 pages of testimony reviewed by The Times also provide a clearer picture of how, despite multiple allegations of abuse, Gabriel’s case seemingly slipped through the cracks.
Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, called 911 on May 22, 2013, to report that her son was not breathing. She told sheriff’s deputies who arrived at the apartment that Gabriel had fallen and hit his head on a dresser, according to testimony. When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel naked in a bedroom, not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. He died two days later.
"It was just like every inch of this child had been abused," testified James Cermak, a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic.
Fernandez, 30, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 34, are in jail awaiting trial on charges of capital murder and a special circumstance of torture. They have pleaded not guilty. Attorneys representing the couple could not be reached for comment Monday. Because of repeated delays in setting a preliminary hearing, prosecutors convened a grand jury. The indictment was returned July 28.
Fernandez and Aguirre deliberately tortured the boy to death, hiding their tracks with forged doctor’s notes and lies to authorities, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami told the grand jury. "For eight straight months, he was abused, beaten and tortured more severely than many prisoners of war," Hatami said.
The abuse worsened in the months leading up to Gabriel’s death, according to testimony from two of his siblings, both of whom are minors. They said Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, rotten spinach and his own vomit. He slept in a locked cabinet and wasn’t let out to go to the bathroom. Fernandez and Aguirre called Gabriel gay, punished him when he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls’ clothes to school, the siblings said.
Fernandez and Aguirre hit Gabriel with a belt buckle, a metal hanger, a small bat and a wooden club, Gabriel’s brother said. Their mother once jabbed Gabriel in the mouth with a bat and knocked out several teeth, according to testimony.
Several agencies investigated allegations of abuse before Gabriel’s death without removing the boy from the home. On multiple occasions, deputies went to the family’s apartment or to Gabriel’s school to investigate reports of abuse and of the boy being suicidal. Each time, they concluded there was no evidence of abuse and did not write a detailed report.
Timothy O’Quinn, a sheriff’s homicide detective, told grand jurors that there was no indication that deputies had removed any of Gabriel’s clothing to check for signs of abuse.
Investigators searching the family’s apartment after Gabriel’s death found bloodstains, BB gun holes and a wooden club covered in his blood, according to testimony.
In the wake of Gabriel’s death, the Board of Supervisors convened a special commission to study the county’s response to child welfare issues. They ordered a reorganization that includes setting up a "child welfare czar" to better coordinate communication between departments charged with protecting children and responding to reports of abuse.
The county has been battling a backlog of child abuse investigations for years. The problem has been especially acute in the Antelope Valley, where Gabriel lived, because some of the department’s least experienced social workers work there with the highest caseloads.
On the day of the fatal beating, Fernandez began hitting Gabriel because he didn’t want to pick up his toys, his older brother testified. She dragged him into a bedroom, where Aguirre joined her, and the siblings heard screaming and banging, he said. "And that’s when it all stopped," said the brother, 13. "It just went quiet."
Gabriel died as a result of blunt-force trauma and child neglect, James Kemp Ribe of the L.A. County coroner’s office told the grand jury. "I have never seen this many skin injuries on one child," he said.
Soon after his birth in 2005, Gabriel was sent to live with relatives. In October 2012, Fernandez reclaimed Gabriel and two of his older siblings from her parents.
Two weeks after Gabriel moved in with Fernandez, his first-grade teacher at Summerwind Elementary School called social workers to say that Gabriel’s mother had hit him with a belt buckle and made him bleed. Gabriel had demonstrated that he knew how to snort cocaine, she testified.
The teacher, Jennifer Garcia, said she called the county several more times after the child came to school with a bloody lip, black eyes and bruises on his face. A social worker who followed up on the complaint about his injured lip said it was a blister, according to testimony.
In the spring, a counselor at a children’s center called 911 after discovering a suicide note Gabriel had written, according to testimony. Authorities dismissed the complaint because he had no specific plan to carry out a suicide, records show.
Gabriel’s siblings said their mother had told them to lie to social workers who came to check on them. His brother said he did it "because I thought she was going to do the same things to me."
A week before Gabriel’s death, school officials asked a deputy to investigate his many absences and what they suspected was child abuse. The deputy said he was given the wrong address and that when he eventually reached Gabriel’s mother by phone, she told him her son had moved to Texas with his grandmother.