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Teacher had early concern about welfare of murdered child

By OW Staff

A Palmdale elementary school teacher testified this week  that she called a county social worker—charged alongside three colleagues with child abuse and falsifying records—multiple times to report that one of her students said his mother punched him and shot him in the face with a BB gun.

The boy, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, died on May 24, 2013. Prosecutors said he had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over his body.

His mother, Pearl Fernandez, 33, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 36, are awaiting trial on a murder charge stemming from her son’s death. The District Attorney’s Office plans to seek the death penalty against the two. The preliminary hearing is expected to last two weeks.

Gabriel’s death prompted a firestorm of criticism of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services over reports that social workers repeatedly visited the family’s home in response to allegations of abuse, but left the boy in the custody of his mother.

Two social workers and two of their supervisors—Stefanie Rodriguez, 31, Patricia Clement, 66, Kevin Bom, 37, and Gregory Merritt, 61—were fired from their jobs following an internal investigation into the case. Merritt appealed his firing and was temporarily reinstated by order of the Civil Service Commission, but that order was vacated last May by a judge who cited errors by the commission.

All four are charged with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records.

Teacher Jennifer Garcia, testifying in the preliminary hearing for the foursome, said she made her first call to a child welfare hotline to report Gabriel’s injuries more than six months before he was killed.

Garcia taught first grade at Summerwind Elementary School for five years and Gabriel was a new student in her 2012 class, she said.

Recalling her first meeting with his mother and Aguirre, the teacher said: “They looked mean, and I did not want to get on their bad side.”

Gabriel was anxious about his homework and afraid to go home at times, the educator said. The first sign of abuse was when he told Garcia that his mother hit him with the buckle end of a belt and made him bleed, asking his teacher if that was ‘normal,’ she testified.


County extends marijuana ban; off limits in unincorporated areas

By OW Staff

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted this week to extend a ban on the cultivation, manufacture, processing, testing, transportation and retail sale of medical and non-medical marijuana in unincorporated areas until a comprehensive regulatory framework can be put in place.

The board also asked the county’s lawyers to work with the district attorney to shut down 70 dispensaries illegally operating in unincorporated areas.

The moves come as the state and various municipalities struggle with the nitty-gritty details of legalizing a long illegal drug.

The state has until Jan. 1, 2018 to implement Proposition 64 and begin issuing licenses to sell recreational marijuana, but Supervisor Sheila

Kuehl expressed doubts.” Kuehl told her colleagues. “Everybody’s saying no.”

Meanwhile, the county is trying to figure out just how to deal with challenges posed by marijuana businesses.

The fact that marijuana sales are conducted using cash makes dispensaries targets for potentially violent robberies, but also raises odder issues.

Tax collectors worry about handling “suitcases full of cash,” said Joe Nicchitta of the CEO’s Office of Marijuana Management.

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas both raised concerns about concentrations of dispensaries in their districts.

“The constituents that I represent are not exactly eager to have these businesses and manufacturing sites next to their homes and schools and parks,” Ridley-Thomas said, telling his colleagues that he wanted to ensure that low-income communities were “not left alone to shoulder the burdens of marijuana legalization.” Solis called for the enforcement effort.

“The First District has more than 40 of these dispensaries,” Solis said. “While there’s a ban, they’re there.”

The vote in favor of enforcement while the ban is in place was unanimous, but Kuehl was more optimistic that legalization would ultimately shut down a black market in cannabis.

“Normalizing it and strictly regulating it is more in our interest,”

Kuehl said, envisioning a day when marijuana edibles are widely on offer in restaurants. “It’ll be a list, like the wine list.”

The county has the option under state law to permanently ban cannabis, but the board consensus seemed to be that thoughtful regulation would be best.

Seat belts protected children in local school bus crash

By Merdies Hayes

OW Staff Writer

Some special needs students and others aboard a school bus that collided with a Cadillac in Lancaster were spared serious injuries and likely have seat belts to thank for it, according to law enforcement.

The injuries of those aboard the bus ranged from moderate to minor in the crash reported about 7:15 a.m. Tuesday at 20th Street East and

East Lancaster Boulevard, according to the California Highway Patrol, who added that all of the students appeared to be wearing seat belts.

But 55-year-old Robert McLafferty of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., who drove the Cadillac, suffered critical injuries, the CHP said. Lafferty was driving his 2001 Cadillac north on 20th Street East at an unknown speed, when he entered the intersection of East Lancaster Boulevard and collided with the school bus driven by 60-year-old Rosario Torres of Lancaster, who was driving at 40-45 miles per hour, the CHP added.

The front of the school bus struck the left side of the Cadillac, causing the bus to spin out of control and roll onto its side and strike a wooden telephone pole, the CHP said. The pole was severed at the base.

Both drivers, two aides and five of the eight students on the bus were taken to hospitals for their injuries.

The cause of the collision was under investigation.

The accident brings up a long-standing dilemma: Why don’t more school buses have seatbelts? Primarily, cost is the determining factor based on a study conducted a few years ago by the Alabama State Department of Education that found it could cost more than $30 million to outfit all of the state’s school buses with seatbelts. The bus in the Lancaster crash was a smaller vehicle—weighing less than 10,000 pounds—and those busses are mandated by the federal government to have seatbelts. Larger buses—like the standard long yellow school bus that make up about 80 percent of the nation’s fleet—are much heavier and their passengers sit much higher and closer together, reportedly making them safer in collisions.