Brian Knappenberger tells EW there are 'still so many unanswered questions' about the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

By Rosy Cordero
March 02, 2020 at 08:51 PM EST
Courtesy of Netflix

Brian Knappenberger stepped into a Los Angeles courtroom in 2018 to document the harrowing story of a young boy who died after suffering from malnourishment, torture, and abuse. Gabriel Fernandez was only 8 years old when he died; his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were convicted of torturing and murdering him.

But the case wasn't as cut-and-dry as all that, Knappenberger discovered. His six-episode docuseries The Trials of Gabriel Hernandez debuted Feb. 26 on Netflix, and Knappenberger tells EW there's still so much more to the case that he'd like to explore.

Two major pieces of the puzzle he felt were missing were the voices of Pearl Fernandez and Aguirre. Knappenberger says he gave them a special phone number where they could reach him, but they never called. He hopes that with the documentary now released, one or both will reach out.

Fernandez and Aguirre are currently incarcerated for their crimes against Gabriel. Fernandez is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and Aguirre is on death row at San Quentin State Prison, where the last time a prisoner was put to death was in 2006.

"Yes, I still want to hear from them," Knappenberger says of Fernandez and Aguirre. "It's not like we created this television series and now we're on to the next thing, moving on with our lives. This is something that is lodged in the heart of everybody that worked on it. Part of it is a mystery. Like, who are these people? How did this happen? Why did this boy's life get taken like this? There are still so many unanswered questions. So if they wanted to talk to me, I would absolutely talk to them on the record."

Courtesy of Netflix

The series also sheds light on lapses by social workers from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services who, prosecutors alleged, failed to protect Gabriel. Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were charged with being criminally negligent.

Their case went before an appellate panel last month, which issued an opinion directing a lower court to dismiss the charges against the social workers, according to ABC7.

Rodriguez’s attorney, Lance Michael Filer, told the Los Angeles Times, “Our position has always been the same, that neither she nor anyone else in her shoes should have been held criminally accountable for the unpredictable nature of criminals and that the people that actually harmed Gabriel have already had their trial and day in court.”

At the end of six episodes, Knappenberger says, "We leave viewers with an update with where the case is now, which is that the case workers filed a motion to dismiss the case and Judge Lomeli rejected it. They appealed that decision, so they're trying to have the case dismissed. The appellate court upheld it, so they kicked it back down to Judge Lomeli. It was a victory for the social workers because the appellate court said there wasn't enough evidence to suggest they committed a crime. That's where their case is right now. We're waiting to see if the prosecutors then take this to the next level to the California Supreme Court; all that should happen within the next few weeks. This is still a very live story, so maybe this could lead to a season 2?"

Knappenberger knows the series is difficult to watch, and he encourages anyone on the fence to "take it at your own pace." He hopes that by giving Gabriel a voice, he can help other children avoid the same fate.

"I do still think they should call the police," he says. "What we're trying to do is help people understand that, while there were some breakdowns with Gabriel's case, I do still think they should contact authorities. That's important. I think on a broader scale, I do hope that the film gives a broader look at how this system works. It's a very secretive system, not a lot of people know how it works. It's got a big budget in L.A., it's huge. It rivals the LAPD in terms of manpower and budget, but we don't hear much about it.

"I think there's greater scrutiny that needs to happen with DCFS, which also ultimately lands at the foot of the board of supervisors who are elected officials — we need to keep them accountable," Knappenberger says. "If they're not getting the job done, then something needs to be done."

He adds, "And for everyone who is angry and is compelled to do something, there's still a great need for solid foster parents."

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