LOS ANGELES – A teacher testified Wednesday that she called authorities to report an 8-year-old Palmdale boy’s account that he was being abused months before he was allegedly tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend.
Jennifer Garcia, a first-grade teacher at Summerwind Elementary School in Palmdale, told a downtown Los Angeles Superior Court jury that she made her first call about Gabriel Fernandez to Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services hotline on Oct. 30, 2012, after talking with the boy.
Her testimony came during the second week of the trial of 37-year-old Isauro Aguirre, who is charged with murder with a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture in connection with the boy’s May 2013 death.
The boy’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 34, will be tried separately.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the two.
Jurors heard a tape-recording of the teacher’s call to the DCFS hotline, in which Garcia reported that the boy “mentions that his mom hits him” and that he questioned her if it was normal for a mother to hit their children.
The teacher told the hotline worker that the boy told her that sometimes his mom hit him on the buttocks with the metal part of a belt, making him bleed.
“He literally did not want to go home,” Garcia told the hotline worker.
She also said that she saw a bruise under the boy’s left eye and on his hand and that he just looked “beat up.”
The teacher said she called social workers about the boy on other occasions throughout the school year.
“More than any other child you had that year?” Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami asked.
“In my career,” the teacher responded.
In one instance, she said she also saw Gabriel show up to school in November 2012 with chunks of his hair missing. She said the boy — who had a fat lip around the same time period — told her then that his mom punched him in the mouth.
In late January 2013, the youngster — who had “really swollen and puffy eyes” — eventually acknowledged that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun, the teacher said. The boy told her that he didn’t tell the truth right away about it because, “When I tell you, that lady (apparently referring to a social worker) comes and I get hurt worse.”
On another occasion, the boy’s mother brought him to school in a short, tight girls’ pink shirt with polka dots and girls’ pants, the witness said.
“It just seemed like it was they were almost maybe seeing how far they could go,” Garcia said.
The teacher said she stopped sending home notes about behavioral concerns because she was concerned that it was causing him to get injured. She said she noticed that he had “various bruises in different stages of healing” after he was absent from school.
Garcia said that she documented injuries to his forehead and his eye in April 2013 and that he “looked horrible” when he was photographed holding signs with the letters “M” and “O” for a Mother’s Day project that was still sitting on his desk when she was notified of his death.
The teacher said she subsequently found a note in his desk in which he had written “I love you Mom and Gabriel is a good boy.”
Other school employees also testified that they were concerned about the boy and his injuries, telling jurors they were skeptical about his mother’s claim that she had sent him to Texas to live with his grandmother.
Roberto Lopez, who was the school’s principal at the time, said he remembered seeing the boy with injuries on two occasions, including one in which he claimed he had gotten a black eye from falling off his bicycle.
The school’s health assistant, Donna Evans, testified that the child was adamant that he didn’t want to go home when he had a “cherry red” eye, but that Aguirre explained that the boy had fallen and popped a blood vessel in his eye when he came to the school to pick up the boy.
School secretary Pamela Howell grew emotional when she was asked to identify a photo of the boy and said she was “scared for him” when his mother was called about the injury to his eye. She said she was so concerned about the youngster’s welfare that she asked the principal to have a welfare check done after the boy’s mother claimed he had been sent to Texas.
She told jurors that she had questioned Aguirre during the school year about the boy’s repeated absences and that he responded that “he was the father and he would do whatever he wanted with his kids.”
Jurors also heard emotional testimony from a registered nurse who saw the boy on May 22, 2013, after he was brought by paramedics to Antelope Valley Hospital’s emergency room.
Christene Estes described the child’s body as “lifeless” and “little” with “bruising from head to toe,” saying it was “literally worse than any horror movie I’ve seen.”
The jury had heard Tuesday from a security guard who worked at a Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services office in Palmdale, who testified that he called 911 and a Los Angeles County sheriff’s station to report injuries to the boy in an effort to save him about two weeks before he heard about the child’s death.
Arturo Martinez told jurors that the boy was “sad” and “full of bruises,” along with cigarette burns, lacerations and a black eye.
The security guard testified that he decided to call 911 after noticing the boy’s injuries when his mother brought the child into the public welfare office with his siblings on April 26, 2013.
He said he was both surprised and disappointed when he was directed during the 911 call to notify the local sheriff’s station instead.
“…. Were you trying to save that little boy?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes,” Martinez responded, saying that the child “looked very bad.”
Last week, two of the boy’s older siblings provided a harrowing account of abuse, with his older brother testifying that the little boy was forced to eat cat litter and cat feces and was repeatedly beaten in the months leading up to his death.
The boy’s older sister broke down in tears as she was asked to identify a photo of him. She testified that she saw Aguirre shoot her brother with a BB gun and repeatedly punch him, and that her mother knocked two of his teeth out.
The prosecutor told jurors in his opening statement last week that the boy was beaten and systematically tortured because Aguirre believed the child was gay.
One of Aguirre’s attorneys, John Alan, acknowledged during his opening statement that his client committed “unspeakable acts of abuse” against the boy before “exploding into a rage of anger” that the defense contends resulted in the boy’s unintentional death.
Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel were sent to the family’s home in the 200 block of East Avenue Q-10 on May 22, 2013, in response to a call that the boy was not breathing. He was declared brain dead that day, then taken off life support two days later.
The boy’s death triggered investigations into the county’s child welfare system and resulted in the filing of criminal charges of child abuse and falsifying public records against two former county social workers and two of their supervisors, who are awaiting trial.
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