A Palmdale man was sentenced to death and his girlfriend to life in prison without parole Thursday for murdering the woman’s 8-year-old son, who was routinely beaten, starved, forced to sleep in a closet and tortured until his death in 2013.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli called the couple’s actions “horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil” before handing down the sentences against Isauro Aguirre, 37, and Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 34.
Jurors recommended Dec. 13 that Aguirre be sentenced to death after convicting him of first-degree murder and the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture for the death of Gabriel Fernandez.
The boy’s mother pleaded guilty Feb. 15 to first-degree murder and admitted the torture special circumstance allegation in exchange for a life prison term without the possibility of parole. She had been facing a possible death sentence if the case against her had gone to trial and if she had been convicted as charged.
“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 … It’s beyond animalistic,” the judge said, noting that he hoped the two would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what they had done to the boy.
In denying an automatic motion to reduce the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence for Aguirre to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the judge cited the “repeated beating, binding, burning and starving” of the boy. The judge also denied the defense’s motion for a new trial for Aguirre.
“… This case is without a doubt the most aggravated and egregious case of torture this court has ever witnessed,” Lomeli said. “The weight of this factor alone is simply enormous.”
In a brief statement shortly before she was sentenced, the boy’s mother said, “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 made better choices.”
One of the boy’s cousins, Emily Carranza, spoke directly to the defendants, saying the boy was an “innocent child who didn’t deserve the abuse.”
“Pearl, you need to know that Gabriel loved you, and all he ever wanted was acceptance from you. … The world fell in love with Gabriel as their own. Why couldn’t you?” she asked.
The boy’s first-grade teacher, Jennifer Garcia, who called authorities to report that the boy had asked her if it was normal for a mother to hit her children with a belt, said she goes “back and forth between sadness and guilt and anger.”
“Then, I just remember that no matter what, I can’t bring him back. I can’t change what happened … For me, it will never go away. This will always be a part of me, something I will think about until the day I die,” the boy’s teacher said. “But I know who is truly to blame. We can blame different people for what should or should not have been done. But when it comes down to it, the defendants are the ones who ended his young life …”
During her testimony in Aguirre’s trial, Garcia said it fell to her to explain to the boy’s classmates at Summerwind Elementary School in Palmdale that he was not coming back to class because he had died. She said she hasn’t used the number 28 — which was assigned to the little boy — since his death.
The boy’s biological father, Arnaldo Contreras, who is in custody on an unrelated case, was brought into court in blue jail clothes, but Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami told the judge that he simply wanted to listen to the hearing from his jail cell. He testified during the trial’s penalty phase that he was in jail in Riverside County when he learned that his son had been severely beaten and was on life support.
In a statement, District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the case “showed how evil can not only inflict lasting damage to those who loved Gabriel but our society as well.”
“The horrific nature of Gabriel’s abuse and murder has been seared into our minds and the defendants will now spend the rest of their lives in prison for their reprehensible actions,” the county’s top prosecutor said.
Several jurors who heard the case against Aguirre returned to court for the sentencing.
Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel went to the family’s home in the 200 block of East Avenue Q-10 in Palmdale on May 22, 2013, in response to a call that Gabriel was not breathing. He was declared brain-dead that day and taken off life support two days later.
During Aguirre’s trial, prosecutors told jurors that Gabriel Fernandez was routinely beaten, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat cat feces and sleep inside a small cabinet while gagged and bound.
Hatami called Aguirre an “evil” man who “liked torturing” the boy and did so systematically in the months leading up to the child’s death. Aguirre hated Gabriel because he thought the boy was gay, according to the prosecutor.
The boy was 7 when the abuse began and was killed three months after he turned 8, according to the prosecutor, who handled the case with colleague Scott Yang.
One of Aguirre’s attorneys, Michael Sklar, contended that Fernandez was the one who hit the boy with a belt, shot him with a BB gun and was responsible for much of the abuse prior to his death.
“I think they both pointed the fingers at each other, which sometimes happens in co-defendant cases,” Hatami responded after Fernandez’s plea. “The evidence showed and our office believed that they were both equally culpable in the case, and I think the evidence showed that.”
The judge agreed, saying that the evidence indicated that Aguirre was a “major participant.”
“Based upon the overall evidence presented to the jury, defendant Aguirre was by no means a passive participant in the crimes,” Lomeli said, adding that he was convinced that Aguirre’s participation was “major, personal and active.”
The boy’s death and the arrests of Fernandez and Aguirre led to an outcry over the handling of the case by Los Angeles County social workers, who had multiple contacts with the family. A subsequent investigation led to criminal charges being filed against two former social workers — Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement — and their supervisors, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt. They are awaiting trial on one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records involving the boy.