(KTLA) — A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Thursday morning dropped the case against four social workers who were charged in connection with the torture death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez after being directed to do so by a California appeals court.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed the charges of child abuse and falsifying records against social workers Stefanie Rodrigez, 35, and Patricia Clement, 59, as well as their respective supervisors, Kevin Bom, 41, and Gregory Merritt, 64, back in April 2016, almost three years after the Palmdale boy’s death.
Judge George Lomeli, who also presided over the murder trial of Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend, dismissed the charges against the four social workers after previously denying a motion to drop them in September 2018.
The new action came after the 2nd District Court of Appeal tossed the charges against the social workers, ruling the four “never had the requisite duty to control the abusers and did not have care or custody of Gabriel,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“This court has been directed to vacate its previous order denying the petitioners’ motion to dismiss the information and to issue a new order granting the motion to dismiss,” Lomeli said shortly before he granted the motion.
Prosecutors had argued that Rodriguez, Clement, Bom and Merritt had a “legal duty” to protect Gabriel the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services opened an abuse case.
“By minimizing the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered, these social workers allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement at the time.
Gabriel died in May 2013 after suffering months of horrific abuse and torture at the hands of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, according to prosecutors.
He was beaten, whipped, burned with cigarettes, shot with a B.B. gun, forced to eat cat litter and feces, and locked in box for days, according to prosecutors and witness testimony at the trial. By the time he was hospitalized shortly before his death, Gabriel had numerous injuries, including a cracked skull and broken ribs; B.B. pellets were found in his lung and groin.
Aguirre was sentenced to death after being convicted by a jury of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of torture. Fernandez received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to first-degree murder and admitting to a special circumstance allegation of intentional murder by torture.
They were tried separately.
Gabriel’s murder received national attention and cast a critical eye on the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, which handled his case.
The agency has also come under fire following the deaths of two other Antelope Valley boys they were monitoring, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos in 2018 and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro in 2019.
The families of both boys have filed wrongful death lawsuits that name DCFS.