The life and death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez will be explored in a new six-part documentary series streaming on Netflix beginning Feb. 26.
The Los Angeles boy was naked, with a cracked skull, shattered ribs, severe burns and BB pellets buried in his body when he was found at his family’s home in Palmdale on May 22, 2013. He died two days later.
The series, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, from documentarian Brian Knappenberger, focuses on the child’s death, the arrest of Gabriel’s mother Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre and the subsequent trial of Aguirre, who was later sentenced to death in 2018 after he was convicted of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of intentional murder by torture.
(An exclusive trailer of the series is shown above.)
Gabriel’s mother pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, admitting it was an intentional murder by torture — was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The documentary also focuses on the role of the government systems that failed to protect Gabriel, despite multiple reports and warning signs that the boy was being abused.
“I think Gabriel could been saved about a dozen different ways and that’s what’s so intense and so heartbreaking about his story,” Knappenberger, who also directed the 2017 Netflix documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, tells PEOPLE.
During Aguirre’s trial, prosecutors alleged the boy was forced to eat cat feces and cat litter and slept bound and gagged inside a small cabinet. Aguirre also struck him with various weapons such as a club and a small bat, as well as a belt buckle and metal hanger.
His torture started eight months prior to his death when he moved in with his mother and Aguirre in 2012. On the day Gabriel was reported unresponsive, his mother and Aguirre beat him fiercely after he didn’t clean up his toys, the Los Angeles Times reported.
It was also alleged that Aguirre abused and ultimately killed the boy because he believed Gabriel was gay.
“What we do know is that he called him gay when he was beating him,” Knappenberger tells PEOPLE. “And it’s one of the first things he told the first responders when the first responders entered the house and were trying to save Gabriel’s life. So take from that which will, but it certainly played a role.”
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Knappenberger says Gabriel came from a fractured home environment and was shuffled between relatives before going back to his mother and Aguirre.
“At one point he was with his uncle and his partner and during that period of time, there’s no question, he seems happy,” says Knappenberger. “He seems like a young, curious kid. I think you see that in a lot of the pictures of Gabriel. If you look at him, it’s easy to understand the kind of warmth and potential he had.”
“His mother basically left him,” he says. “And then he was taken back into the care of Pearl Fernandez and Isauro Aguirre, and that’s when things I think took a turn for the… — it really got awful.”
Knappenberger, citing court records, says Gabriel’s mother “took him back for welfare money, that she wanted extra welfare money.”
At their 2018 sentencing, Los Angeles Judge George G. Lomeli called the violence the boy suffered “horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil.”
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez begins streaming on Netflix on Feb. 26.