Anywhere you go, children are always the most vulnerable people in need of protection. Instinctively, children turn toward their parents for that protection. The ones that brought them into the world ideally can give them everything they need.
But life is often not ideal. When a child’s parents can’t or won’t protect and support, it falls to the rest of society to fulfill those needs. For one child, that was his last hope…
Grandma and Grandpa
From when he was just a few months old, Gabriel had lived with his grandparents. His mother Pearl was struggling with a drug problem at the time of his birth and, without a reliable father in the picture, her parents Robert and Sandra felt it best that they step in.
Pearl agreed. She knew she wasn’t equipped to raise a child at the time. She gave Gabriel to her parents and even signed over legal guardianship in a notarized document. But 8 years later, Pearl decided she wanted her son back…
Bad Track Record
Her parents Robert and Sandra didn’t believe that Pearl would provide proper care for Gabriel. They thought that she still had a number of problems that she needed to address and she also had a history of neglecting and physically abusing her children. Though she was their own daughter, they tried to fight for custody of their grandson.
After Pearl had taken Gabriel away from their home, Robert and Sandra asked the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to mediate the custody dispute, telling them of Pearl’s abusive past. They also showed the deputies the notarized guardianship document as well as school records that said they were authorized to act as Gabriel’s parents…
But the deputies that came to Gabriel’s grandparents’ home dismissed the documents as fakes. “He just said it was fraud. So he got into an argument with my wife,” Robert said. They sided with the boys mother. What’s worse, they didn’t even file a report, meaning there would be no further investigation. So Gabriel went to live with his mother and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre.
Mrs. Garcia Is Nice
When Gabriel moved in with his mother, he switched schools. Gabriel liked his new teacher, Mrs. Garcia. She was nice to him and really seemed to care. But for Mrs. Garcia, she was troubled by Gabriel, almost from day one…
Black and Blue
What troubled Mrs. Garcia is that Gabriel would sometimes show up to school with bruises and cuts. The day before Halloween, Gabriel confided in her that the fresh cut he came in with that day was from his mother hitting him with the metal part of a belt. Mrs. Garcia called a child abuse hotline later that day.
The caseworker she spoke to had a sheriff’s deputy go to Fernandez’s home. For whatever reason, the deputy noted that she saw no injuries on Gabriel and no signs of abuse. Even though it was policy to file a report unless she could articulate beyond a reasonable doubt that no child abuse occurred, the deputy who went to the Fernandez home didn’t file a report. If she had, it would have triggered a more thorough investigation by detectives…
Just a Joke
The social worker Garcia had spoken to also investigated the belt beating. When she spoke to Gabriel about it, he said that what he’d told his teacher earlier was just a joke. That was the end of it, as far as the social worker was concerned.
Things Are Getting Worse
But as time went on, it was clear to Mrs. Garcia that his home situation was getting worse and worse. Every time Gabriel would come to school with a new instance of possible abuse, which was happening more and more often, she reported it to a social worker. She even started lying on the weekly behavior reports she sent home, saying his behavior was perfect for fear that a bad report would lead to more abuse…
Out For A Week
Then, in late January, Gabriel was out of school for a week straight. When he returned, his eyes were swollen and there were bruised dots all over his face. At first, he said he fell down while playing with his brother but then told Mrs. Garcia the truth: his mother had repeatedly shot him in the face with a BB gun.
Again, Mrs. Garcia notified social services but nothing seemed to happen. A month later, a counselor assigned to the family by the Department of Children and Family Services called 911, telling them that Gabriel had written a suicide note. But the deputy who went to investigate simply took Aguirre’s word that Gabriel was fine and left without even seeing the boy…
Again… and Again
Sheriff’s investigated again the next year when there was another call for abuse and again, filed no police report. Then, a security guard at the county employment office called 911 about bruises and burns all over Gabriel’s face and head. He was actually yelled at by a deputy who told him that a burned child was “not an emergency.”
A few days after the security guard incident, Gabriel returned to school. In photos the class took, for a Mother’s Day project of all things, there is skin peeling off of Gabriel’s forehead, bruises on his neck, and one of his eyes was completely bloodshot and had a black eye in the healing stages. Again Mrs. Garcia called social services and again, nothing happened.
Then in May, Gabriel was out of school for several days. The school sent a sheriff’s deputy who worked there to check on the boy and see if he was being abused. Unfortunately, they gave him the wrong address and he couldn’t find Gabriel’s house. When he called Fernandez she told him that the boy had gone to live with his grandmother in Texas. Mrs. Garcia had a terrible suspicion that something awful had happened to her student.
Then, on May 22, 2013, police got a call from Gabriel’s mother, saying that he wasn’t breathing. Fernandez claimed he had fallen while playing , making various excuses for his different injuries. But none of her excuses mattered anymore. Gabriel was dead…
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Gabriel’s body said he’d never seen so many skin injuries on a child. He had a fractured skull and several fractured ribs as well as BB pellets embedded in his chest and pelvic region. He also had a burn above his groin that went through the skin all the way into the soft tissue beneath.
Tortured To Death
Apparently, after months of abuse, Fernandez and Aguirre had beaten Gabriel to death. Before they did, they’d pepper sprayed him, forced him to eat cat feces, then his own vomit, then bound his hands and feet, gagged him with a sock and made him sleep in a cabinet. Detectives found a wooden club covered in Gabriel’s blood…
Thrown In Jail
Fernandez and Aguirre were both arrested and charged with murder as well as several child abuse related crimes. Aguirre was found guilty and the jury recommended the death penalty at his trial. Fernandez is being tried separately and her trial has yet to begin. But Gabriel’s despicable killers weren’t the only ones to blame.
Heads Will Roll
The 4 social workers who’d worked on Gabriel’s case but had done nothing to prevent his death will stand trial for child abuse and other charges for ignoring the many red flags for abuse. There were also internal discipline measures taken against the sheriff’s deputies who failed to follow proper procedure. The county also made several reforms to how they handle cases of potential abuse. Still, none of that will bring back the little boy who died a senseless death.