LOS ANGELES – The mother of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was routinely beaten, starved, forced to sleep in a closet and tortured until his 2013 death pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder.
Under the terms of a plea agreement, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez is expected to be sentenced June 7 to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the May 2013 killing of her son, Gabriel.
Along with the first-degree murder charge, the 34-year-old woman admitted a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture.
Fernandez’s plea came about two months after a downtown Los Angeles jury recommended that her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 37, be sentenced to death for the boy’s killing. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 8.
Fernandez was also facing a possible death sentence if she had been convicted at trial.
The boy’s family was consulted about Fernandez’s plea and “all of the family members were supportive of the decision here today,” Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami told reporters after the hearing.
The prosecutor said he was “relieved for the family members,” particularly the boy’s older brother and sister, who offered emotional testimony in Aguirre’s trial about abuse their younger brother had suffered.
“I’m relieved for the fact that testifying in front of their mom would have been incredibly traumatic and emotional for them,” Hatami said. “The fact of the matter is they witnessed their brother being tortured and murdered.”
Fernandez’s attorneys renewed their attempts to negotiate a plea deal after Aguirre’s trial, in which he was convicted of first-degree murder and the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, the deputy district attorney said.
In court papers, the prosecutor noted that the defense sent correspondence on Dec. 14 — one day after jurors recommended the death penalty for Aguirre — that Fernandez would plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole. The plea deal required her to waive all of her appellate rights along with her right to a hearing on her claim of intellectual disability, both of which she agreed to do.
Fernandez quietly said, “Guilty,” when asked for her plea, then repeated it when the prosecutor asked her again.
The boy’s cousin, Emily Carranza, said she was also relieved by the plea, which spares family members from having to go through a second trial stemming from the boy’s killing.
“We don’t have to go through it a second time. I don’t think anybody should have to go through that again, to see those pictures to see what they did to him,” Carranza told reporters, noting that she was “OK” with the decision by the District Attorney’s Office to go forward with the plea “because I know she’s never going to be out and I know she’s never going to be able to hurt another child.”
“I don’t hate her as a person. As a family member, I hate her actions and I hate what she’s done. I’m a church-going person so I don’t have hate against anybody, but I do hate the crime that she committed,” the boy’s cousin said.
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 their children with a belt, was also among those in court for the hearing.
“It swings back and forth, the pendulum of being sad and being angry,” she said. “Today I felt more of the angry side and I felt like she got what she deserved. Of course, she deserves worse. She definitely deserves worse, but as far as what we are able to give legally I feel like she got that.”
She said she recalled Fernandez telling her out of the blue “I don’t hit my kids,” when they were discussing the boy at a parent-teacher conference.
“I knew in my heart that she was doing what he said she was doing,” the teacher said. “I have a lot of emotional baggage from it. He’ll always be in my thoughts and in my mind.”
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.
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 while gagged and bound inside a small cabinet.
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.
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 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 Rodriguezand 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.