In 2017, a California jury heard the unspeakable acts of torture and abuse 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez suffered at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend because they believed he was gay.
Now, Netflix has released a documentary surrounding the horrific crime titled The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez.
Isauro Aguirre was on trial for capital murder in the beating death of the child, while Fernandez's mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, was tried separately. If convicted, they both faced the death penalty.
Before the opening statements began, the bailiff had to warn the court that this was a "highly emotional case," and asked that everyone keep their emotions in check or leave the room.
According to Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, Fernandez was happy and healthy before he moved from his grandparents' house to live with his mother and her boyfriend.
And after eight months of living with the couple, his body was battered and he was dead.
In fact, just two weeks after moving in with Aguirre and Fernandez, the boy asked his first grade teacher if it was "normal to be hit with the metal part of the belt and to bleed." One month later, he came into school with his head shaved into a mohawk style, but with noticeable chunks of hair missing, bloody scabs and a busted lip.
Gabriel often cried after school because he didn't want to go home. According to the prosecution, the couple even texted about the torture and beatings they gave the boy.
In April 2013, a welfare employment officer called 911 and reported seeing Gabriel's injuries, which included "black eyes, bruises, burn marks, and ligature marks." Gabriel was taken out of school for the second time just 13 days before he died. Inside his desk, his teacher found a note that read, "I love you mom and Gabriel is a good boy."
At home, the prosecution said the boy was forced to sleep tied up and bound in a small cabinet with a sock gagging his mouth and a bandana over his face.
On the night he died, May 22, 2013, Aguirre punched him repeatedly in the head and body, and slammed his head into a wall so hard that the wall was damaged.
Fernandez's two other children were at the home during the murder. The couple told police that Gabriel "liked to hit himself, he was gay and he wanted to kill himself."
Evidence was found that Gabriel wrote several notes about wanting to take his own life.
Police also found a wooden club, a collapsible metal baton, BB guns, pepper spray, steel-toed boots, and a data cord that was used as a whip inside the home. In an autopsy report, cat litter and animal hair were found in the boy's stomach along with signs that he had been starved.
"This wasn’t about drugs. This wasn’t about mental health issues,” Deputy District Attorney Hatami said. “(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.”
According to a firefighter who testified in court, neither of his parents were seen crying when they responded to the call that the boy wasn't breathing.
Gabriel Fernandez was taken to the hospital and declared brain dead. He was taken off life support two days later.
Aguirre and Fernandez were indicted in July 2014. In 2018, Aguirre was sentenced to death and Fernandez was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Four social workers were also charged in Fernandez's death for falsifying records and child abuse, but their charges were dismissed in January 2020. Both of Fernandez's siblings testified in court.
Now, the new documentary is taking a deeper look into the tragic case.
Director Brian Knappenberger explained why he decided to make the documentary. He revealed that it was inspired by former journalist Garrett Therolf's reporting, explaining, “I just thought it was a really compelling story. It was so powerful and so tense, and it was so clear that Gabriel’s story had touched nearly everybody he had come in contact with. [H]earing those stories, I think we were just blown away and we had to dig deeper.”
The documentary attempts to go deeper into the social workers, in particular, and how the system failed Fernandez.
Knappenberger said, “The Department of Children and Family Services is very secretive. We don’t know much about them. They’re not very transparent and I want people to understand the reach of this agency. Some people are great. We have social workers that are amazing... But the way that the system is structured right now is problematic.”
The director also revealed that they had reached out to Aguirre and Fernandez, but both declined to be interviewed. He also said that he hopes the documentary will inspire people to demand change, so that a crime like the Fernandez one will never happen again.
“This system is the result of politicians, people on the [Los Angeles] Board of Supervisors, who have made decisions in order to create a system that we have. The answer is [to] hold the politicians’ feet to the fire.”
The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez premiered on Netflix on February 26.
Emily Blackwood is an editor at YourTango who covers pop culture, true crime, dating, relationships and everything in between.