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The cruel and callous story behind Netflix's Gabriel Fernandez docuseries.

This post deals with child abuse, and might be triggering for some readers.

When paramedics attended to treat eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in his Palmdale, California home, they thought he had a skin disease.

As they worked frantically on his little body which was in cardiac arrest, they noticed the multiple bruises and scabs in which he was covered. They had no idea that many of them were burns from cigarettes being put out on him. Or that the scabs and bruises were inflicted by his own mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

Gabriel’s short but traumatic life, and his eventual 2013 murder, is the subject of the new Netflix documentary, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. Watching the six-episode series is not an entertaining experience; rather a harrowing and heartbreaking one.

Watch the trailer for The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. Post continues below.

Video via Netflix

But doing so is important, because learning from the many gross errors that were made leading to Gabriel’s death is the very least that’s owed to him.

Gabriel’s life was never easy, or typical. His father was incarcerated until after his death. His mother, Pearl, gave birth and then abandoned him at the hospital. It was up to her brother and his partner to care for Gabriel as their own, which they did until Pearl’s parents took Gabriel to live with them a few years later.

Eight months before his death, Gabriel was taken back by his mother, who was then 34. He moved into the flat she shared with Isauro, then 37, and Gabriel’s two other older full siblings, Ezequiel and Virginia.

It was at that point that all the love and care the eight-year-old had been shown in his life simply vanished.

The documentary purports that Gabriel was taken back by his mother to obtain welfare benefits. But security guard Isauro, standing at 187 centimetres and weighing 122 kg, did not welcome Gabriel in his home. For an unclear reason, he viewed the small boy’s presence as an intrusion, and an interference in his relationship with Pearl.

Because of this, Pearl was especially hard on Gabriel. Together, the couple focused their attention on making his life difficult. The documentary shows that the torture they inflicted on Gabriel in a mere matter of months was of the most serious nature.

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As Gabriel had been first raised by his uncle and his partner, Isauro and Pearl regularly accused the boy of being gay. When their Palmdale apartment was later examined by police, Gabriel’s male clothes were found stored, and only two dresses hung in his wardrobe. It was believed that when at home, Gabriel was often told to wear them because he was “gay”.

But the worst of the cruelty Gabriel suffered was in a more physically violent form. Evidence showed that his small body was riddled with wounds that could only be inflicted by someone else; burns, broken fingers, cigarette burns, belt welts – and two bullets from BB guns.

Gabriel was also starved. The coroner discovered that not only did Gabriel have no fat stores, but the only content in his stomach was cat litter.

Much of Gabriel’s starvation occurred when he was locked in a cabinet for hours at a time, including overnight. The cabinet was in his mother’s room, leading investigators to believe that she and Isauro obtained some sort of perverse pleasure from the torture.

Apart from giving Gabriel cold showers to minimise bruising, the couple were seemingly indifferent to being caught, as his injuries were patently visible, yet they continued to send him to school. As a result, his teacher, as a mandatory reporter, called social workers several times – but nothing was ever done.

And despite Gabriel once asking his teacher, “Is it normal for moms to hit their kids with a belt?”, and watching him attend school with chunks of hair missing, broken teeth, a split lip, and a black eye, she did not call the police.

Neither did any of the four social workers involved with Gabriel. Each one of them, despite knowing of some of the abuse, failed to escalate the case. Their culpability in Gabriel’s eventual death was deemed so significant that the District Attorney said their inaction was a “disregard for human life”. On appeal, the charges against them were dropped.

Similarly, although it was found that there were numerous missed opportunities by authorities such as the Sheriff’s department to remove Gabriel from his home, the only people found responsible for Gabriel’s actual death were his caregivers; Pearl and Isauro.

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Pearl and Isauro. Image: Netflix.
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On the night of May 22, 2013, Pearl called 911 to report that Gabriel wasn’t breathing after a rough play-fight with his brother. What had actually happened is that Isauro had beaten him to death for speaking ill of his relationship with Pearl.

As he had so often previously begged, Gabriel told his mother, “If you leave him, I’ll be good.”

Hearing this, a furious Isauro attacked the young boy with his bare hands, instead of his preferred method of torture - a baseball bat.

Gabriel was in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived; with suspected broken ribs and a fractured skull.

It wasn’t until later that the first responders realised Pearl and Isauro’s behaviour had been strange; they were nervous, called Gabriel a liar, and, most surprisingly, did not go in the ambulance with their son.

Gabriel was deemed brain-dead, and placed on life support. He died two days later.

So extensive were the injuries on his body, the coroner took two days to perform the autopsy. It was found Gabriel died by blunt force trauma, and neglect.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the documentary is the evidence given by Gabriel’s older sister and brother, who spoke of their powerlessness and guilt about the torture they witnessed him experience at the hands of their mother and Isauro.

In June 2018, Pearl pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, and was sentenced to life without parole. Isauro was found guilty of the same charge, and given the death penalty.

Judge Lomeli, who presided over the proceedings, said he wouldn’t normally comment in jury cases, but was compelled to say this:

"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."

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is an emotional experience which shows how the abuse and murder of one child can destroy the lives of so many; and how easily it could have been prevented.

Feature Image: Netflix.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is available to watch on Netflix now.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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