LOCKED in a cabinet, shot in the genitals with a BB gun and battered until his skull felt like "Rice Krispies" – the sickening injuries sustained by Gabriel Fernandez were like nothing doctors had ever seen.
The tragic eight-year-old boy was repeatedly beaten and tortured by his evil mother and her partner before he died in 2013 – all because they thought he was gay.
The defenceless child was rushed to hospital with extensive injuries – including a fractured skull and bruises and burns over his entire body – in May that year, but died two days later after being declared brain dead.
Paramedics had been called out to his house in Los Angeles by his mother Pearl, who claimed over the phone that he had slipped in the bathroom and hit his head.
The truth was far more chilling.
In fact, she and her partner Isauro Aguirre had been severely beating Gabriel for eight months – often in front of his siblings.
Shockingly, despite several warnings and reports of abuse, authorities failed to step in and help the little boy in time – resulting in four social workers being hauled into court.
Now, Gabriel's haunting story is being retold in new Netflix series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez – and it's left viewers feeling physically sick and unable to keep watching thanks to its unflinching portrayal of the nightmare.
Sadly however, it's far from a work of fiction, and is based on very real events.
'He didn’t look like a child'
Gabriel was rushed into hospital on May 22, 2013, after his mother Pearl called paramedics and claimed he'd slipped and hit his head in the family bathroom.
However, medical staff instantly realised it was much worse as they noticed injuries covering his entire body.
Speaking in the documentary series, Christene Estes, a trauma nurse at Antelope Valley Hospital, breaks down in tears as she describes having to document each of the injuries they found individually – while her colleagues fought to save his life.
“He had a depressed skull fracture, meaning you could feel his skull… You could feel the crepitus – it’s almost like Rice Krispies, you could feel it crunching on his head," she recalls, as the notes and diagrams are shown on screen.
“I remember his throat just looked like somebody had burned him, bruising and cuts all over his face, black eyes… He had like a weird cut above his penis, he had abrasions on the top of his foot like he’d been dragged.
“Ligature marks on his ankles like he’d been tied up. I mean every part of his body there was something."
Ms Estes also describes how they found a BB gun pellet in Gabriel's lung, and even one in his groin, signalling he'd been shot in both places.
She also recalls seeing "cigarette marks like people had been putting cigarettes out on him".
“He didn’t look like a child," she says. "I just remember that night thinking, I just can’t… I just can’t wrap my head around how it got to this."
Struggling to speak through tears, she adds: “There’s no way you couldn’t have seen it, there’s so much trauma. So much damage, and so many questions.”
Ms Estes admits that no other case has ever affected her like Gabriel's – so much so, her whole family now celebrate his birthday each year and put up balloons in his honour.
Gagged and beaten with belt
In the subsequent trial, Gabriel's brave siblings testified against their mother and her partner – with both of them speaking off camera to protect their identity.
They described how he was often locked in a cabinet – nicknamed "the box" – with a sock shoved in his mouth and a bandanna over his face.
The court was also shown evidence that Gabriel was tied, gagged, beaten with a belt, shot with a BB gun and had his teeth knocked out with a bat.
Meanwhile, his siblings described watching their brother being forced to eat cat litter and have cold baths while being pepper sprayed – all while their mother forced them both to lie to social workers amid fears the same could happen to them one day.
Recalling one incident his sister, who was reportedly 11 at the time, told the court: "He [Aguirre] knocked the air out of him, and he fell over, and didn't get back up. So they picked him up.
"They threw him in the shower. And they kept yelling at him to wake up. When he didn't wake up, my mother decided to call the police.
"She told me to grab a rag and we cleaned most of the blood that was on the floor."
Gabriel was just 4ft 1in and weighed just four stone, while hulking 6ft 2in security guard Aguirre tipped the scales at 19 stone.
An autopsy found cat litter and animal hair in the boy’s stomach and a shrunken thymus gland “from being starved.”
The judge described the abuse as "horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil".
Homophobic abuse and suicide note
Fernandez and Aguirre punished Gabriel for playing with dolls and would dress him in girls' dresses – all because they thought he was gay.
Meanwhile, it's been widely reported that Gabriel would write pleading letters to his mother, telling her how much he loved her.
Tragically, the court heard that he penned a suicide note – which Los Angeles County's Department of Child and Family Services was notified of by a counsellor at a children's centre after they found it.
However, according to court records, they dismissed it as Gabriel had not specified a plan to actually kill himself.
Catching his vile killers
The trial itself captured the world's attention, as the true and shocking extent of Gabriel's abuse and neglect was laid bare.
In a chilling reminder of how awful the details were, a court guard was seen saying to everyone in the room: "This is going to be very emotional. If at any point you find yourself overwhelmed, please step out, compose yourself and come back inside."
Gabriel's vile mother Pearl Fernandez pleaded guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Her partner Aguirre, however, was sentenced to death in 2018, after denying the charge. He remains on death row now.
At her sentencing hearing, Pearl read a statement out saying: "I want to say I’m sorry to my family for what I did… I wish Gabriel was alive.
"Every day I wish that I’d made better choices. I’m sorry to my children, and I want them to know that I love them.”
Failed by broken system?
While the Netflix series pays close attention to Gabriel's horrific abuse, it also focuses heavily on the shocking mistakes made by the child service system – meaning he was left alone without help in his final days.
Teachers first raised the alarm after Gabriel demonstrated how to snort cocaine and arrived at school bleeding having been beaten with a belt, but social workers are said to have dismissed the concerns.
Meanwhile, an LA Times review found that county sheriff’s deputies visited Gabriel’s home multiple times during the eight months he was being tortured.
They reportedly found no signs of abuse, however, and didn't request to question the boy following claims of the suicide note.
None of the deputies were ever charged but a series of reforms have been put in place to ensure better handling of future child abuse cases – including better training for officers and better communication systems between police and social workers.
A child protection czar was also appointed, who would be responsible for developing a countywide funding and policy strategy for the Department of Children and Family Services, the LA Times reports.
However, in what has been described by US media as an unprecedented move, four social workers were charged with criminal negligence in the case.
They were initially accused of minimising “the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered,” and of allowing “a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused".
The charges were later dropped because prosecutors did not prove the social workers “had the requisite duty to control the abusers,” and concluded they “did not have care or custody of Gabriel".
All four of them have now reportedly been fired by the LA County Department of Children and Family Services.
In his closing statement, Judge George Lomeli told the couple that he hopes they wake up in the middle of the night and think of the injuries they inflicted on Gabriel, adding: "I can only wish … that it tortures you.
"It goes without saying that the conduct was horrendous and inhumane and nothing short of evil," he added.
"It's beyond animalistic because animals know how to take care of their young."
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