Mother, her boyfriend sentenced in boy’s “beyond animalistic” Child Abuse death
LOS ANGELES, CA – A judge sentenced a California mother to life in prison Thursday and gave her boyfriend the death penalty in the “beyond animalistic” killing of the woman’s 8-year-old son, who prosecutors say was punished because the couple believed he was gay.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli told the couple that he hopes they wake up in the middle of the night and think of the injuries they inflicted on 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale.
“I can only wish … that it tortures you,” the judge said.
Gabriel was repeatedly beaten, starved, tied up, locked in a cabinet, shot with a BB gun and once had his teeth knocked out with a bat, the judge said. Court records also detailed that Gabriel had been doused with pepper spray, forced to eat his own vomit and locked in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, according to CBS Los Angeles.
“It is unimaginable the pain that this boy probably endured,” Lomeli said.
The boy also had a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns across his body.
“It goes without saying that the conduct was horrendous and inhumane and nothing short of evil,” Lomeli said. “It’s beyond animalistic because animals know how to take care of their young.”
Gabriel’s mother, 34-year-old Pearl Fernandez, pleaded guilty to murder in February in the death of her son in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, reports CBS Los Angeles. A jury found her boyfriend, 37-year-old Isauro Aguirre, guilty of murder last year and found that he intentionally tortured the boy.
Fernandez called 911 on May 22, 2013, to report that her son wasn’t breathing. She told responding deputies that he had fallen and hit his head on a dresser.
When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel naked in a bedroom, not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin.
He died two days later of blunt-force trauma and neglect, the coroner’s office found.
Gabriel’s siblings testified that Fernandez and Aguirre would call the boy gay, punish him if he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls’ clothes to school.
Gabriel’s first-grade teacher, Jennifer Garcia, tearfully addressed the court ahead of Thursday’s sentencing, saying she thinks of him every day and how he just wanted to be loved.
“I find comfort in believing he is now at peace,” Garcia said. “And I know that unlike him, his abusers will never have peace. They will have a lifetime of suffering to endure, and I know I’m not alone in hoping they experience the same abuse in their lifetime and worse. They are evil people for what they did.”
Gabriel’s biological father, who is serving time for robbery, was also present at the sentencing hearing, but declined to speak. He watched the sentencing from his cell, reports CBS Los Angeles.
An expressionless Fernandez spoke briefly during the court hearing, saying she was sorry and wished Gabriel was alive. She also criticized family members who have spoken of their grief over Gabriel, saying they just want fame.
A jail chaplain who has met with Fernandez told the court that she loved her son and is a different woman today than when she walked into jail.
Several agencies investigated abuse allegations leading up to Gabriel’s death. Garcia, the teacher, had called authorities to report that the boy had asked her if it was normal for a mother to hit her children with a belt, reports CBS Los Angeles.
On several occasions, investigators concluded there was no evidence of abuse.
Prosecutors have since filed charges of child abuse and falsifying records against four county social workers in Gabriel’s death.
WICHITA, KS – A couple dozen people including family, friends and community members gathered at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, 145 S. Millwood Ave., Thursday morning to say their final goodbyes to two-year-old Tony Bunn.
“Nobody knows how many times I’ve broken down and cried, I want to tell you something, there won’t be any doubt, you’re so wonderful to think about, but so hard to be without.”
Zak Woolheater doesn’t know the author of this poem, but it’s helped him put into words the pain his family feels at the loss of his grandson, Tony Bunn.
“He was the most amazing kid you’ll ever see,” Zak says.
First responders were called to Tony’s home on May 4. Police say he wasn’t breathing. He was hospitalized and died two days later.
An autopsy report showed he had blunt force trauma injuries.
The family’s attorney said Thursday was not only about Tony but about keeping other children safe and never having another child taken from abuse.
“We are still trying to figure out what all needs to be done, it’s certainly not just a DCF problem, and not just a law enforcement problem. That is a systemic breakdown,” said Shayla Johnston, the Woolheater family’s attorney.
Tony was buried St. Mary’s Allepo Cemetery in Garden Plain.
His mother, Elizabeth Woolheater and her boyfriend, Lucas Diel, are charged with first-degree murder in his death.
What’s changed since Tramelle Sturgis’s
Child Abuse death?
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, IN (WNDU) – After the 2011 child abuse death of Tramelle Sturgis, so many people in our community were committed to figuring out what could have been done differently. What, if anything, has changed since then?
Indiana’s child welfare system is under the microscope. Leadership changes, funding cuts and staggering abuse rates have made troubling headlines.
The last director resigned last December in a scathing letter to Governor Eric Holcomb. Mary Beth Bonaventura blasted the Holcomb administration for cuts and management changes that she said would “…all but ensure children will die.”
In February of this year, federal figures showed a spike in child abuse deaths in the Hoosier state.
Around here, the 2011 death of Tramelle Sturgis still haunts our community.
Warnings were there. Tips were received. But still a child died. Has anything changed?
Tricia Sloma learned what happened after the boy’s death in part two of her series “In Harm’s Way.“
Tramelle’s art teacher Sandy Voreis says his artwork stood out. As she admired his self-portrait, she pointed out some special features.
“He even has a sun out, if you notice, for sunshine,” said Voreis. “The colors are not dark. They’re bright, vivid colors.”
Tramelle’s choice of color and content never led on to what was happening at home.
“There is no sadness in that picture,” said Voreis. “I didn’t catch on what was going on by the picture.”
When the young artist was murdered by his father, Terry Sturgis, the difficult news was shared the next morning at school.
“It was such a shock. He didn’t let on,” said Voreis, shaking her head.
Tramelle may have never let on to her, but other teachers say they knew. A teacher and other school staff testified at the murder trial saying they had reported suspected abuse only to be threatened by the angry father.
“It was rough,” Voreis said as she broke down in tears.
While Tramelle’s pictures never revealed his pain, other pictures tell a much different story.
“That’s the image that sticks with me,” said former Metro Homicide Assistant Commander Dave Wells as he thumbed through evidence photos from the murder scene of a 10-year-old boy.
“(The photos) documenting fresh injuries, old injuries, lots of scarring. Just head-to-toe trauma,” observed Wells, who is now the commander of the St. Joseph County Drug Investigations Unit with the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.
He joined South Bend Police Detective Jim Taylor for an interview about the Sturgis case. Taylor used to work for Metro Homicide and investigated Tramelle’s death. He’s now with the Violent Crimes Division of the South Bend Police Department.
Tramelle’s death remains one of the worst child abuse fatality cases police have ever seen.
Wells and Taylor weren’t surprised that Tramelle and the other children hid their pain so well. It was part of the killer’s control and a grandmother’s neglect of care.
“(Terry Sturgis) knew those kids were going to school, so he dressed them appropriately so nothing would come back on him,” said Wells.
“And explained to those kids, ‘You better not say a thing to anybody or it’s going to be worse when you get home,’” added Taylor.
“The problem grandma (Dellia Castile) has is that she knew exactly what was going on in that house,” said Wells. “And it’s her responsibility, it’s all our responsibility to report any kind of abuse like that to children.”
But in the Sturgis case, people did report the abuse.
The Department of Child Services and police were called to the home, but in every instance, officials didn’t find a problem.
Wells says police had very little information to go on from a 911 call placed months before the murder.
“This is what the officers see when they investigate an anonymous tip,” said Wells, as he held up a picture of the Sturgis home from inside the front door. “That’s a pretty clean, nice looking house. And then there are four or five kids standing here and there are allegations of child abuse, and they’re looking at the kids going…(shrugs) I’m not seeing anything here.”
“You’re limited by how far you can go,” explained Wells. “Without good probable cause or a search warrant, you’re not going to get into that house any farther than the front doors.”
Remember, in Tramelle’s home, the torture happened in the basement, a sad discovery made only after Tramelle died.
“You walk in and you almost want to go, ‘Are you in the right house?’ And then you hit that basement,” said Taylor. “And it’s just like, wow!”
“There were certainly signs that were probably missed by all of us,” said Wells.
But most notably DCS. At one time, all 92 Indiana counties had their own child abuse hotline staffed by local people. To save money, the state moved to a centralized hotline in Indianapolis in 2010, the year before Tramelle died.
Former South Bend Tribune reporter Virginia Black discovered a call placed to the DCS hotline six months before the murder, with the anonymous caller begging officials to “….go there right now….” Instead, the Tribune reported, DCS responded the next day and didn’t make contact with the family for three more days. By then, all seemed fine.
So what’s changed?
“Well, we certainly made great progress on the hotline, and that is due to Tramelle,” said St. Joseph County Circuit Court Judge John Broden. Broden was a state senator at the time. He said the discovery of that call woke up the Indiana Legislature.
“There had been isolated concerns over parts of the state that calls were being dropped. Complaints weren’t getting through. It wasn’t until Tramelle’s death and the incident surrounding Tramelle’s death,” explained Broden. “That instantly brought it to the forefront.”
Today, there’s still one child abuse hotline number, but now calls are answered in five locations: Vanderburgh, Lawrence, Marion, Blackford and St. Joseph counties. It’s staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
“It was no longer just a South Bend, St. Joseph County issue. It was a statewide issue,” said Broden. “And Tramelle’s death did cause significant changes and improvements to the child welfare system.”
But there’s still a lot of work to be done at the state level.
While shrinking funds and leadership changes are debated downstate, officials on the front lines back home are working closer together to make sure another child like Tramelle doesn’t get missed.
Sloma asked St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter if our area children are better off than they were seven years ago.
“Locally? Yes,” said Cotter. “I think we have a much better relationship with DCS now than before this occurred.”
Cotter noted the biggest change with local DCS officials.
“I think the biggest change is in communication between the information that they are gathering and passing it along to law enforcement so that we can act as well.”
But the most important partnership is the community, and everyone plays a role.
“When you think a child is being abused, gosh darn it, contact someone so we can find out so that we can do the best investigation that we can,” urged Cotter.
“I think a lot of people have learned from this as a community,” said Taylor. “Enough’s enough.”
Our community is forever changed by one little boy.
“It’s something we will never forget,” said Voreis. “What scares me is other children that are going through this, and not speaking up and not saying anything. We don’t want something like this to happen again.”
Governor Eric Holcomb ordered a full review of the Department of Child Services after the DCS director’s resignation. That report is expected in June.
The new DCS Director, Terry Stigdon, released this statement to WNDU on Friday afternoon:
“The children DCS serves aren’t just names in a system—each and every one of them has a story, and we find those stories are filled with pain. In my short time as director, I’ve been meeting with passionate DCS employees across the state who show up to work every day trying to make a difference in a child’s life. My job is to remove obstacles that are in the way of that child having a safe and stable home. I look forward to the results of the CWG assessment because the recommendations will act as a guide for how we can improve and identify our needs – which fulfills the ultimate goal of keeping our children safe.”
Remember, if you suspect child abuse, please report it.
In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556.
In Michigan, the number is 1-855-444-3911.
We have incredible community resources for families who are broken by abuse:
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) sjccasa.org 574-233-CASA
Casie Center casiecenter.org 574-282-1414
Youth Services Bureau ysbsjc.org
St. Joseph County Family Justice Center fjcsjc.wordpress.com 574-234-6900
Oaklawn oaklawn.org 574-533-1234
Family & Children’s Center, Healthy Families fccin.org/healthy-families.html
Child and Parent Services CAPS, Elkhart County capselkhart.org
For helpful information, just dial 2-1-1
Prevent Child Abuse St. Joseph County pcasjc.org
Healthy Families in St. Joseph County fccin.org/healthy-families.html 574-968-9660
Voluntary home visiting program providing new parents with support, parenting skills, information on child development and community resources.
NYAP – National Youth Advocate Program nyap.org
The Villages in Elkhart villages.org/venue/elkhart-the-villages-office Information about becoming a foster parent
White’s Residential & Family Services whiteskids.org Information about becoming a foster parent
South Bend Child Abuse survivor remembers cousin’s death
** WARNING:Graphic Material – Trigger Warning
SOUTH BEND, IN (WNDU) – Child abuse is a dark secret that seems to only come to light when a child is badly hurt, or worse, dies.
Federal figures showed a sharp rise in child abuse fatalities in the US with most of the increase happening in two states: Indiana and Texas.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, from 2015 to 2016, Indiana’s child abuse death toll more than doubled from 34 to 70.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, from the state’s opioid crisis to an overwhelmed child welfare system.
But ultimately, it’s what’s going on behind closed doors, the abuse and neglect that put children in harm’s way.
Around here, there’s one case that shook our community to its core: the death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis. It’s been nearly 7 years since his murder in a South Bend home.
“At least once a day I drive by this house, but I never stop,” said Detective Jim Taylor. “This is the first time.”
Taylor may be a 20-year veteran officer with the South Bend Police Department, but what happened inside a house on West Washington still gets to him.
“It’s probably, if not the, worst case we’ve ever worked,” said Taylor. “Just to stand in front of this house brings back so much horrific terror.”
Ten-year-old Tramelle Sturgis lost his life during a night of torture in the basement.
Tramelle and his older brother suffered countless blows and burns from their father, Terry Sturgis.
Their grandmother, Dellia Castile, was upstairs, and while she knew about the ongoing abuse, she didn’t stop it.
Both are in prison.
“He fought for so long. Not just him, but his brothers and sisters. The rest of those kids in that house,” said Taylor.
Eight other kids lived in that house. They were siblings and cousins who faced a much different sentence as survivors of child abuse.
“Nobody knew what happened. People might say they did, but nobody knew what happened but the ones that lived in the home,” said Jon’Nae Copprue.
Jon’Nae is one of the children who lived in the home.
“I felt like one of us was going to die. I felt it and I always said it,” said Jon’Nae.
She was just 12 years old.
“I always felt like something was going to happen. Somebody was going to get hit too hard and go to the hospital or one of us was going to end up dead. I always felt like it was going to happen,” she said.
It did happen, to Tramelle.
“I’m not happy about him being dead, but I’m also like maybe this was our way of getting out.”
Jon’Nae is 18 now and lives in a foster home outside of the Michiana area. She’s pregnant with her third child and finishing up her GED.
“I’m slowly still trying to deal with it. I can say I’m dealing with it better than I used to, because I got kids and they are amazing,” Jon’Nae said.
Jon’Nae and her siblings were being raised by their grandmother when the abuse took place. Jon’Nae spoke exclusively with WNDU’s Tricia Sloma about what it was like to live in that home.
Jon’Nae says she was abused by her mother, her older sister and her cousin’s killer, her Uncle Terry. He was the person she feared the most.
“He was always upset, he was always angry,” remembered Jon’Nae. “Always ready to release his anger on somebody.”
“The way that the power of his arm when he was swinging, then whoopin’ us with poles and sticks and anything he could get his hands on. You bound to break a bone or anything,” said Jon’Nae.
“(They) hit us with crowbars, extension cords, anything they could pretty much get their hands on,” explained Jon’Nae.
Terry made sure their injuries weren’t visible.
“We really didn’t wear dresses, shorts or anything like that because we had bruises,” said Jon’Nae. “We would wear long thermals to cover scars up.”
Jon’Nae says she’s never had a best friend, and kids at school were mean.
“I would not want to be around other kids because I feel they would hate on me, see my scars, they would pick on me. So I would be just like, alone,” said Jon’Nae. “I felt like I was the only one, other than my brothers and my sisters. I just felt like nobody, nobody cared.”
Months before Tramelle’s death, the Department of Child Services (DCS) was called to the home. There was another time that police showed up. But in every instance, authorities found nothing wrong. The kids were instructed to lie.
“So it was like nobody cares. After a while I think we just stopped caring. It was just a normal thing to us. It was just life,” said Jon’Nae. “It was going to happen forever. Probably until we moved out of the house.”
Or until, in Tramelle’s case, someone died.
“November 4, 2011. The worst day of my life. The day my cousin died.”
Jon’Nae was upstairs with her grandma that night. She heard and witnessed things that will never leave her.
“You can still hear the screams. I went downstairs and I seen a couple of things myself. My cousins being tied up to poles, naked. Just being tied up to poles, mouth was taped. They was getting hit in the head. Punched in the chest. It was something I’d never seen before. Worse than he ever did anything,” recounted Jon’Nae. “That night? I don’t think anybody could forget it. And after that it just went downhill from there.”
After Tramelle’s murder, Jon’Nae and her siblings were separated from her cousins and put into foster care. She admits to acting out and acting up.
“I can say for a while I was really aggressive. My head was messed up. After that I was really angry. I just wanted to fight everybody. Smoke. Drink. Do anything to hold the hurt in,” said Jon’Nae. “I didn’t care about what anybody said. I just wanted everything to end.”
Jon’Nae estimates she’s been in nine or ten foster homes, juvenile detention and residential care.
“Me and the foster parents got into it because we didn’t know each other. It’s kind of scary going into different homes and different families because you don’t know anything about them, they don’t know anything about you they don’t know about your emotions. They don’t know about your past,” explained Jon’Nae.
“I’ve been in so many schools. I’ve never stayed in a school since I’ve been in the system. Since I’ve been in foster care, I’ve never stayed in a school more than six months,” said Jon’Nae.
Jon’Nae wishes her grandma never went to prison.
“My grandma, she never whooped us,” defended Jon’Nae. “For people that think she’s more responsible. She’s responsible in a way, but everything is not up to her.”
When Sloma pointed out that Castile was the only adult living in the home that could’ve stopped it, she replied, “Yeah, but imagine you having fear. Imagine you having a lot of fear. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You have fear of him and you also have fear of losing your family.”
“If it was all up to her, it was all up to us too. Because we stayed there. We got mouths, we could’ve said something. We was old enough to say something, but it’s the fear that got to us.”
It was the fear and trauma that fractured a family.
“I miss him every day,” said Jon’Nae. “That’s one of my biggest scars, and the other scar is not having that family.”
Jon’Nae says she’ll never forget Tramelle and doesn’t want you to forget him either. She would like to continue her education and someday work in the legal profession helping victims of child abuse.
If you would like to report child abuse, please contact authorities at the following numbers.
In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556.