There's not a day Los Angeles District Attorney Jon Hatami doesn’t think about Gabriel Fernandez.
“I'll never have another Gabriel and I'll never forget Gabriel,” Hatami told InsideEdition.com. “I think gives me strength. It was my first really big case. I was a younger prosecutor. My wife just gave birth to our son. I have a picture of Gabriel in my house, I have a picture of Gabriel in my office. I have a couple of Christmas ornaments with Gabriel. Both my kids know who he is and they're young.”
Hatami was interviewed for the recent Netflix documentary, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” which documented the abuse and death of 8-year-old Gabriel at the hands of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, in 2013. Hatami, who tried the case, said it was worst abuse case he’d seen in his career.
Over the eight months before Gabriel's murder, he was severely abused, including being shot with a BB gun, burned, being forced to eat cat litter and being locked in a small cupboard for hours in his Palmdale, Calif., home.
His mother is now serving life in prison without parole after she pleaded guilty to the murder, while Aguirre is sitting on death row at San Quentin prison after his trial. Hatami was the lead trial attorney in Antelope Valley at the time for child abuse and sexual cases, and he said the day the jury came back with a guilty verdict for Isauro Aguirre was a huge relief for him.
“The community, the family— everybody— wanted somebody to be held accountable for what happened to Gabriel and nobody was,” Hatami said. “I was so happy for the family because it's such a huge weight you carry. You don't want to let anybody down.”
On numerous occasions before Gabriel’s death, his teacher reported to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) that she thought he was being abused, but he was never medically examined or removed from his mother's custody, according to prosecutors.
Four people, two social workers and two supervisors who worked for the DCFS were eventually each charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records in 2016. The charges against these four employees were dismissed last month.
Hatami said he thinks the system is flawed. He said DCFS often puts family preservation above all, when the department should be thinking about the rights of the child.
“They will do pretty much anything to reunite the child with these abusive parents. I think that causes a major problem in a lot of these cases,” Hatami said. “In Gabriel's case, he had family members, the maternal grandparents who wanted him, who loved him, who were caring for him. Why couldn't he stay with them?”
DCFS released a statement after the documentary came out, saying they’ve made major changes to their organization since Gabriel’s death, including hiring more than 3,500 workers and implementing a five-to-one ratio of supervisors to social workers. They also noted that they aided the documentary’s producers by providing a ride-along with a social worker in Palmdale and by planning an interview with the department’s Division Chief Ed Fithyan.
Hatami, however, says it’s not enough. Since Gabriel died, there have been more cases of children who had cases open with DCFS when they were killed at their hands of their parents.
Hatami is currently the prosecutor on the case of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, another Palmdale boy, who spent eight months before his death in the custody of his parents where he allegedly suffered abuse. He had been taken out of their home by DCFS more than once before his alleged murder.
On Sept. 30, 2019, Cuatro’s parents, Jose Maria Cuatro Jr. and Ursula Elaine Juarez, were charged with one count of murder and torture. Both have pleaded not guilty.
“The Noah Cuatro case is the same thing," Hatami said. "You have a lot of these cases where I think there's a lot of tunnel vision with DCFS and they're just focused directly on reuniting the child with the abusive parents instead of looking at the child, taking every case on a case-by-case basis. … Vulnerable children have a right to be protected.”
Hatami still keeps in contact with many of Gabriel’s family members, and as he continues to try these types of cases, Gabriel remains with him.
“To go through that for eight months, it's like a prisoner of war," Hatami said of Gabriel's last months on earth. "Gabriel is a hero. I'm not."