Evidence of continuing abuse of Gabriel Fernandez was apparent to a teacher and staff at his Palmdale school in the seven months before his death, witnesses testified Tuesday at the murder trial of the boyfriend of the boy's mother.
Gabriel Fernandez was frequently absent from his first grade class, said teacher Jennifer Garcia, and he had bruises when he came back to school.
Isauro Aguirre faces the possibility of the death penalty. The boy's mother, Pearl Fernandez, will be tried separately.
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Aguirre pushed back when school secretary, Pam Howell, challenged him about the boy's absences.
"He told me he was the father and he could do whatever he wanted with the kids," Howell testified.
Gabriel was 7-years-old when he arrived at Summerwind Elementary on October 18, 2012. Twelve days later, according to Garcia's teestimony, he went to Garcia and told her his mother beat him with a belt with a metal buckle.
Garcia called the Department of Children and Family Services. A recording of the call was played for the jury.
"Sometimes my mom makes me bleed," Garcia quoted the boy as telling her. "And I say, 'Where?' He said, 'Well, on my bottom.'"
On the recording, the DCFS call-taker told Garcia the reported abuse would be investigated.
Garcia testified that bruises and other injuries were often apparent on the boy's face. She recalled once he told her he had fallen down, but when she asked if that was really what happened, he told her his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun.
"I asked him, 'Why did you lie? Why didn't you tell me?' And he said, 'Because when I tell you, and that lady comes, I get hurt worse.'" Garcia said it was apparent he was referring to a social worker coming to check on him.
Questioned by prosecutor Jonathan Hatami, Garcia said the exchange left her concerned about Gabriel's safety, but at the same time uncertain how best to proceed. At that point she had already been in contact with DCFS and a sheriff's investigator, but she saw evidence the abuse was continuing.
Garcia said she encouraged school officials to take photographs when Gabriel arrived at school with injuries, but was told the school's role is to report observed abuse, not to handle the investigation.
The teacher recalled Gabriel's embarrassment when his mother brought him to school in girl's clothing. She said she wondered if it was some kind of a "sick game" by Aguirre and Pearl Fernandez.
"It was almost like they were seeing how far they would go," Garcia said on the stand.
In May 2013, Pearl Fernandez told Summerwind School Gabriel was being withdrawn to move to a grandparent's home in Texas. Garcia and Howell both testified they did not believe it.
Less than two weeks later, authorities responded to a 911 call at the home where Fernandez and Aguirre were staying, and found Gabriel with multiple wounds and burns that proved fatal.
In the desk Gabriel had been using at Summerwind, Garcia found a note he had written, she testified.
"I love you Mom," it began. "And Gabriel is a good boy."