The 8-Year-Old Boy Brutally Tortured and Killed by His Own Mother Because She Thought He Was Gay
Netflix’s new docuseries “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” explores the horrifying case of an 8-year-old boy who was murdered by his own mother and her equally sadistic boyfriend.
On the night of May 22, 2013, 8-year-old Palmdale, California, resident Gabriel Fernandez was rushed to the hospital after his mother Pearl called 911. Paramedics found Gabriel not breathing and seriously hurt, which Pearl claimed was the result of a fall he’d suffered while playing with his older brother. Yet in the minutes, hours and days that followed, the true extent of Gabriel’s injuries would become clear. His throat was burned. His face was covered in bruises and cuts. His eyes were blackened. He had abrasions on the top of his feet. His teeth were knocked out. He had a weird incision above his penis, and ligature marks on his ankles, and cigarette burns all over his body, and a skull fracture, and BB gun pellets lodged in his lung and his groin.
Gabriel, who’d die the next day, was unquestionably the victim of domestic abuse. Moreover, only two people could have done this to him: Pearl and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. Cases don’t come much more open-and-shut than this one, and though additional details would soon emerge about the duo’s monstrousness, their guilt was as obvious as the sun on a cloudless day.
Which begs the question: why, then, does The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez require six episodes to tell its appalling tale?
Director Brian Knappenberger’s Netflix docuseries (premiering Feb. 26) doesn’t immediately answer that central mystery. Initially, it focuses its attention on the urgent plight to try to save Gabriel’s life, and then on prosecutors Jonathan Hatami and Scott Yang’s efforts to build a case against Isauro and Pearl, who—thanks to the latter’s courtroom belligerence whenever seated near her beau—would be tried separately for first-degree murder with extreme circumstances. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for both, since Pearl and Isauro had not only killed Gabriel but tortured him for the eight months in which they’d had him in their care (this after Gabriel had lived with his uncle, and his grandparents). Not content with merely murdering the child, they’d made his life a living hell, forcing him to endure countless unthinkable beatings, to sleep in a cupboard at the foot of their bed during the night and day (handcuffed to the door, his mouth gagged and his face covered), and to eat nothing but cat litter.
Good luck listening to such repulsiveness—and seeing crime scene and autopsy photos of the damage done to this defenseless kid—without feeling an uncontrollable rage swell in your chest.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez opens with distended dramatic recreations, and closes with a similarly excessive music-montage sequence, that unnecessarily pull on the heartstrings. It also often spends an inordinate amount of time on parts of its story that could have been easily condensed. Nonetheless, if Knappenberger’s series sometimes lingers too long on certain narrative elements, the motivation for such minor missteps is pure: to convey the full extent of Gabriel’s agony and Pearl and Isauro’s villainy, which, it turns out, also had a homophobic component to it, since their apparent excuse for perpetrating these acts was that Gabriel was “gay”—a line they repeatedly hurled at the kid because he’d initially been raised by his homosexual uncle Michael and his partner David.
Pearl and Isauro’s sociopathic cruelty knew no bounds, and deserved as harsh a penalty as the law would allow. Yet while The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez uses much of its six-installment runtime depicting Isauro’s trial (via copious courtroom footage), its condemnation isn’t simply reserved for the kid’s literal killers. In the aftermath of Gabriel’s demise, everyone naturally wondered: how could this boy, who’d gone to school and been seen in public with blatant signs of severe physical abuse, not have landed on the radar of Los Angeles County’s Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS)? The answer, alarmingly, was that he had—his teacher had repeatedly notified DCFS about her concerns, and cops had visited his home on numerous occasions. No meaningful action, however, had been taken, thanks to a system that, Knappenberger’s series contends, is thoroughly broken.
Driven by a litany of talking heads from all corners of the legal and social-worker world—not to mention from Gabriel’s family, and the Los Angeles Times—The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is an exposé about institutional failure. The arguments it makes are so thorough and persuasive that it’s no surprise to learn that, in the wake of this tragedy, LA County district attorney Jackie Lacey opted to prosecute not only Isauro and Pearl, but also the four social workers who had worked on Gabriel’s case (either directly, or as an administrator), and not rescued him from his home. In that expanded purview, Knappenberger finds his true subject: a disorganized, mismanaged, and inane bureaucracy that valued the rights of parents (and the desire to keep families intact) ahead of the welfare of a young boy experiencing unimaginably heinous treatment that was plain for all to see—even to individuals like a welfare-department security guard who tried to get a colleague to file a report, but was informed that office superiors had dissuaded her from doing so because it might result in unwanted overtime charges.
That particular instance of disregard speaks to the privatization of many government functions, which places public safety-net facilities in the hands of individuals, and corporations, with their own skewed priorities. And it further turns the series into an onslaught of micro horrors brought about by breakdowns at various macro levels. Consequently, despite The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’s shortcomings—including a look at the future automation of government child services, which is too expansive a topic to be properly addressed here—it succeeds at inciting outrage at the wide-scale callousness that caused this nightmare to occur. Not that fury is all one feels while watching this saga; despair is also elicited at regular turns, over a dumpster-fire world where individuals behave this way toward children (their own, even!), and those tasked with protecting the innocent and helpless prove negligent in their duties, either because they’re overworked, incompetent, self-interested or indifferent.
Be it with regards to Pearl and Isauro, or to those officials (in DCFS, and the sheriff’s office) who could have helped but, for whatever reason, didn’t, it’s a sprawling, heartbreaking portrait of true evil.