‘Torture box’ 8yo lived in before murder
WARNING: Disturbing content
For the first seven years of his life Gabriel Fernandez was like any other happy child.
While his mother Pearl Fernandez gave him up to relatives shortly after giving birth, Gabriel found stability and love from his great-uncle Michael Lemos Carranza and his partner David Martinez.
"At one point he was with his uncle and his partner and during that period of time there's no question he seems happy," Brian Knappenberger, the director of new Netflix series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, told People.
"He seems like a young, curious kid. I think you see that in a lot of the pictures of Gabriel. If you look at him, it's easy to understand the kind of warmth and potential he had."
Mr Carranz and Mr Martinez were Gabriel's primary caregivers from 2005 to 2009 when he was taken into the care of his grandparents Robert and Sandra Fernandez.
Gabriel lived in another loving home until October 2012 when he was forcibly removed from his grandparents as Fernandez wanted her son back - reportedly so she could claim welfare from him.
But on May 22, 2013, Gabriel was discovered at his mother's Los Angeles home naked and with horrific injuries.
The eight-year-old was rushed to hospital where he was declared brain dead and died two days later, triggering a firestorm of media coverage and eventual criminal convictions of Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre.
Released on Netflix last week, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez looks at the horrendous abuse that led to Gabriel's death - and whether it could have been prevented.
GABRIEL KEPT 'BOUND AND GAGGED' AT NIGHT
When Gabriel moved in with Fernandez, the-then seven-year-old tried to connect to the mother he didn't know.
Days before he was murdered he wrote her a card, telling her all the ways he loved her.
Living with Fernandez was her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre and Gabriel's two older siblings Virginia and Ezequiel.
But as soon as Gabriel moved in he began being abused by both Aguirre and Fernandez, who subjected him to eight months of torture until his death.
According to relatives, Fernandez was responsible for inciting the cruelty towards Gabriel.
"Pearl was the abusive one to him," Fernandez's aunt Elizabeth Carranza told the Netflix series.
Ms Carranza's husband George Carranza also said their "niece was always controlling with her boyfriends. They would do what she says. If not, she would leave them."
According to testimony from Gabriel's siblings, Fernandez and Aguirre targeted Gabriel because they thought he was gay.
Older brother Ezequiel, who was 12 when Gabriel died, would testify in court that the couple focused their cruelty towards Gabriel and not him and their sister.
Ezequiel said Gabriel was beaten daily, made to eat cat faeces and cat litter, shot with a BB gun, had his teeth knocked out, was subject to cigarette burns and made to wear girls clothes to school.
"My mum and her boyfriend made Gabriel eat spoiled stuff or expired stuff," Ezequiel said.
Even worse, Fernandez and Aguirre would sometimes force Ezequiel to join in on his brother's beatings.
Chillingly, Ezequiel said Gabriel was made to sleep "bound and gagged inside a small cabinet", which Fernandez and Aguirre nicknamed "the box".
"The box" was one of several items used as evidence in trial that showed the torture Gabriel was put through - and led to Fernandez and Aguirre's conviction.
'IS IT NORMAL FOR YOUR MUM TO HIT YOU?'
Gabriel's year 1 teacher Jennifer Garcia first reported that she suspected her student was being abused in late October 2012.
Ms Garcia told The Atlantic Gabriel had asked her: "Is it normal for your mum to hit you with the part of the belt that has that metal thing on the end?"
Ms Garcia reported Gabriel's abuse to a hotline where the case ended up with social worker Stefanie Rodriguez, who the Netflix documentary alleges did not take enough steps to investigate the boy's case.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times would later find several police were disciplined after it was found they visited Gabriel's home "multiple times" but did not find any signs of abuse.
They also allegedly failed to file paperwork that would have allowed more specialised detectives to investigate further.
Four Los Angeles County social workers were later sacked and eventually charged with child abuse and falsifying records about Gabriel's case.
Ms Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were charged in 2016, with prosecutors claiming Ms Rodriguez and Ms Clement had faked official reports and their supervisors Mr Bom and Mr Merrit "knew or should have known" they were false.
However, in January California's second appeals court threw out the case, with judges finding the social workers couldn't control the abusers and did not have custody or care of Gabriel.
GABRIEL'S TREATMENT 'BEYOND ANIMALISTIC'
After enduring eight months of abuse, Gabriel would be beaten for the last time on May 22, 2013, when Aguirre and Fernandez began punishing him for not cleaning up his toys.
After Gabriel stopped breathing Fernandez called emergency services, with Ezequiel later testifying their mum made him lie and say the two had been play fighting.
One paramedic who arrived on the scene described the sight of the little boy as the worst she'd ever seen in her career - Gabriel had shattered ribs, a cracked skull, burns and BB pellets buried in his body.
The first thing Aguirre said to law enforcement when they arrived on the scene was that his girlfriend's son had been gay.
Nurses at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where Gabriel was brought in, would later testify that he looked like a "a shell of a boy".
"It seemed like every inch of Gabriel was bruised and swollen," nurse Emily Rebar would recall in court.
An autopsy of Gabriel's body took two days to complete because his injuries were so extensive.
Aguirre and Fernandez were arrested and charged with first degree murder with a special circumstance of intentional murder by torture.
In 2018 Aguirre was found guilty of both charges and received the death penalty. Fernandez pleaded guilty to first degree murder and was given a life sentence.
At the couple's sentencing judge George Lomeli took the rare step of commenting on their horrific crimes, describing them as "beyond animalistic".
"It goes without saying that the conduct was horrendous and inhumane and nothing short of evil," Judge Lomeli said. "It's beyond animalistic because animals know how to take care of their young."
Judge Lomeli also said: "I hope you think about the pain you caused this child and that it tortures you."
'I WILL LOVE HIM UNTIL I DIE'
Knappenberger worked on the The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez for two years, with the director telling The Wrap that making the documentary had been "super emotional".
"We actually had a therapist that was being offered to people - we had never done that on a production before," he said.
"It was very emotional to go through. We spent time with interviews, we fact-checked everything, but everybody that went through this just felt like there was a purpose, and it was a story we had to tell."
Viewers of the series have also taken to Twitter after watching, with one person describing it as the "saddest thing I've ever witnessed".
Bawling my eyes out watching @Netflix doco Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. How can anyone do this to a defenceless child - let alone a mother? This poor little boy. I can’t even... heartbroken 💔— Rebekah Scanlan (@rebekahscanlan) March 1, 2020
As hard as #GabrielFernandez story is to watch.. we all owe it to him to learn and share his story. You think watching it is hard? Imagine being locked in a box, starved and beat to death and have everyone turn your back on you when you ask for help. we have no idea what hard is.— Sab 🌹 (@sabrinaanc) March 1, 2020
The part that had me in tears, where my soul and heart was broken was when he wrote his mom a Mother’s Day Card even after eveything. He told her I promise to be good, he just wanted love and for his mom to be proud of him. RIP beautiful angel ❤️#GabrielFernandez pic.twitter.com/Zle4EhOsho— Fahima (@dreamgirlfahima) March 2, 2020
I started watching the Gabriel Fernandez case on Netflix and it is the saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life 😕💔 I can’t believe that there are evil people like that, poor baby boy. Rest In Peace 👼— Jenny Sixty Nine (@Jen_ny69) March 1, 2020
Gabriel's siblings Virginia and Ezequiel now live with a relative in another state. In 2014, grandparents Robert and Sandra Fernandez brought a lawsuit over Gabriel's death against the multiple parties responsible for investigating Gabriel's abuse.
Newsweek reports the lawsuit never made it to court and appears to have been settled for a $2.825 million sum shared with Gabriel's biological father.
Gabriel's great-uncle Mr Carranza died a year after his death.
Speaking in the documentary, Mr Carranza's partner Mr Martinez described Gabriel as "my baby".
"I had never known pain before until he passed away. I will love him until I die," he said.