A guy is standing on a street corner holding a sign and asking for donations for a funeral. The handmade sign says that the child died from cancer recently, and shows a picture of the boy afflicted by the disease.
That wouldn’t raise any flags except that the boy in the picture, recently seen on a sign on the corner of Hacienda Boulevard and Amar Road in La Puente, has been dead for five years. A boy that was at the center of one of the most horrific cases of parental abuse in the history of Los Angeles county, a case that caused four employees of the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) —two social workers and their supervisors — to appear before the court for alleged negligence and falsifying records in a case that is still ongoing.
The picture seen on that sign was of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old boy who was tortured to death in 2013 by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
In June, Pearl Fernandez, 34, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Aguirre, 37, received the death penalty for the beatings, burning, and other atrocities committed against the boy in their home in Palmdale.
That fraudsters are using little Gabriel’s image to scam people is something that Emily Carranza, the boy’s cousin and long time advocate, considers outrageous and despicable.
Carranza is the force behind Gabriel’s Justice (https://www.facebook.com/Justice4Gabriel/), a website created following the boy’s death to channel the anger against DCFS and advocate for other children in similar negligent and abusive circumstances.
“They’re using other children’s pictures that have already been deceased and asking for money,” she added. “It’s just wrong.”
An Ongoing Problem
The incident in La Puente occurred on July 15 and people notified police. But this is not the first time Gabriel’s photo has been used by fraudsters.
About a year ago, Carranza said she saw another man with a similar sign by a Jack in the Box restaurant located at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Hubbard Street in Sylmar. Other signs have been seen at the corners of Rinaldi Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and Paxton Street and Foothill Boulevard.
“It’s different people, [but] sometimes it’s the same people,” Carranza said, adding that when she saw someone with the sign in Sylmar, “My husband and I chased him. We were driving and I jumped out of the car, but he disappeared. He ran away,” she said.
Carranza characterizes these scammers as “people that probably don’t want to work. People are soft and kindhearted, and want to help, but [fraudsters are] scamming people.”
There’s also the emotional toll it takes on her and others who suffered through the trials against Fernandez and Aguirre, as prosecutors provided graphic details of Gabriel’s abuse.
“It’s time to let him rest. We want to move forward. But with stuff like this happening, it puts a little bit of strain on us. It’s hurtful,” Carranza said.
“How can these people be so cold-hearted to use his picture and lie about a boy who’s been deceased? To use that is sick and disturbing. These people have no morals at all.”
The scams continue to strike at the wound of Gabriel’s loss that was reopened with the death of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old who was also the alleged victim of torture and sexual and physical abuse by his mother and her boyfriend. Both have been arrested, and have been charged with murder.
The uncanny similarities — that it happened to a young boy in Lancaster, that there were ongoing reports to DCFS alleging abuse and the agency didn’t act on them — is something that wrenches Carranza’s heart.
“We want to be very supportive of the people. It’s very heartbreaking. It’s really bad,” she said, unable to control the tears. “I wish that family never had to endure what we did.”
Carranza added that the tricksters ruin it for those people who really need help. She said that after the incident in Sylmar, she has stopped giving money altogether to those who ask for it on the streets.
She recommends people check before donating to these causes.
“Find out the truth. If you want to donate, just be careful with these people and ask questions,” Carranza said. “I’d rather ask questions than give my money away. They should really find out that it’s really the money for a funeral.”