To bring a boy’s murderers to justice, a prosecutor wrestled with his own childhood abuse

Jon Hatami’s voice shook and he stared down on the courthouse ground as reporters packed round him. Minutes earlier than, the prosecutor had gained a conviction within the killing of Gabriel Fernandez, probably the most notorious and chilling little one abuse circumstances in California historical past.

When paramedics arrived at Gabriel’s Palmdale house within the spring of 2013, the 8-year-old had shattered ribs, a cracked cranium and cigarette burns dotting his unconscious physique, indicators of the torture inflicted by his mom and her boyfriend.

After Hatami was assigned the case, he lengthy guarded the ugly particulars inside his thoughts, unable to talk publicly in regards to the prosecution that had each infused him with deep objective, but additionally strained his marriage and eroded his belief in legislation enforcement. Within the fall of 2017, moments after jurors convicted the boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, of murdering Gabriel, Hatami thought it was lastly protected to unburden his coronary heart.

Throughout that emotional information convention, he shocked the gang.

“Sorry,” he mentioned in a hushed voice, swallowing tears. “I used to be a sufferer of kid abuse.”

“At what age?” a reporter shouted.

“4, 5,” Hatami answered, closing his eyes.

Reflecting on that episode now, Hatami described his public revelation as spontaneous — a split-second determination to spotlight his personal previous. The 49-year-old prosecutor mentioned that as a toddler, he was bodily and verbally abused by his father and kidnapped and shuttled throughout the nation by his mom, resulting in years of emotional instability.

And he believes that his experiences and years of self-reflection make him uniquely outfitted to prosecute little one abuse circumstances.

“It’s my fact,” says Hatami, who refers to himself an abuse survivor. “I do know what it feels wish to be powerless.”

‘It’s my fact. I do know what it feels wish to be powerless.’

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jon Hatami

Prosecuting Gabriel’s case additionally reawakened a few of Hatami’s personal demons, pushing him to grapple with outdated recollections and examine his personal psyche. His circumstances typically contain cycles of abuse — Gabriel’s mom, for instance, says she was sexually and bodily abused as a toddler — and he is aware of that he inherited a few of his father’s anger. He dreads the considered treating his youngsters the way in which his father handled him — of violating their belief, of instilling concern.

Gabriel Fernandez

Household and pals attend a memorial service for Gabriel Fernandez.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Occasions)

Nowadays, when Hatami displays on the decision, his eyes effectively up. He felt such reduction for Gabriel and his family: Lastly, he thought, the system had finished one thing for them. Just a few months later, in early 2018, Gabriel’s mom, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, pleaded responsible to first-degree homicide.

Raised Catholic and now Lutheran, Hatami generally thinks about Gabriel in heaven and wonders whether or not God or some non secular pressure led the case to him.

“I feel I turned a D.A. for that case,” Hatami says, choking up. “I’ll by no means have one other Gabriel.”

‘I used to be so small’

His father may very well be so enjoyable, Hatami says, however small issues — watching a TV present he didn’t like or consuming meals he deemed unhealthy — might set him off, after which his face would shrivel and flush pink as he screamed. Generally his father slapped him, Hatami says. Different instances he yanked him by his hair, smashing his small physique into the white partitions of their condo in Queens, N.Y.

In certainly one of his most distinct early recollections, he’s standing inside a New York courtroom for a custody listening to and his father whispers in his ear, encouraging him to inform the decide he’d relatively dwell together with his father. Hatami remembers feeling terrified. He froze, unable to say a factor.

“The court docket was so large,” Hatami says, “and I used to be so small.”

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After the listening to, his mom, who’d been granted short-term custody, flew him and his youthful brother to Florida, leaving them briefly with an aged lady who was a stranger to the younger boys.

“My mom kidnapped my brother and I,” Hatami provides matter-of-factly; he believes that his mom feared his father deliberate to flee with the boys to his native Iran.

In an interview, Hatami’s father, now in his 80s, acknowledges elevating his voice to his son, however denies abusing him bodily.

“That’s fully out of my character,” he says, suggesting that Hatami might need imagined the abuse — particulars of which, nevertheless, had been confirmed to The Occasions by one other shut relative who requested to stay nameless.

‘I feel I turned a D.A. for that case. I’ll by no means have one other Gabriel.’

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jon Hatami

Hatami’s mom didn’t reply to a number of voicemails or a letter searching for remark. The prosecutor’s father, in addition to one other shut relative, confirmed Hatami’s characterization of his travels together with his mom as a kidnapping.

Hatami says that the outdated lady in Florida, whose title he doesn’t know — “the girl,” he calls her — typically chased him round her single-story house whacking him with a wood spoon. Just a few months later, he says, his mom returned and moved the boys to California.

His father ultimately contacted New York police, the FBI and teams that assist seek for lacking youngsters, Hatami says, and images of himself and his brother listed as lacking youngsters ran in an version of Girls’ Dwelling Journal. Within the early 1980s, somebody acknowledged them because the boys within the images, and the prosecutor, then in his early teenagers, remembers federal officers coming to their North Hollywood house to query his mom. Finally, she obtained “a slap on the wrist,” he says, noting that parental kidnapping wasn’t taken as critically again then.

Hatami enlisted within the Military at 18 and spent the subsequent seven years bouncing from stint to stint throughout the globe. Though he didn’t discuss his childhood then, afraid that fellow troopers may view him as weak, the construction of the navy helped him course of and direct his anger. The Military confirmed him the ability of a future — nonetheless his go-to stress reliever — and provided time for self-reflection.

“I’m good,” he remembers telling himself for the primary time in his life. “I’m any individual.”

Hatami later moved to Nebraska for legislation faculty after which returned to Los Angeles County in 2003 to work as a civil legal professional. A 12 months later, he wrote a letter to The Occasions responding to information of a Chatsworth teenager, who found whereas looking out the web that his mom had kidnapped him from his father’s house years earlier.

“My coronary heart simply goes out to that Chatsworth pupil,” Hatami wrote, explaining that his mom had kidnapped him, too.

‘In Gabriel’s footwear’

Two years later, he took a job with the L.A. County district legal professional’s workplace, and ultimately was assigned the case of a 7-year-old boy who, like Gabriel years later, was abused by his mom and her boyfriend.

Throughout closing arguments at trial — his closing phrases to jurors earlier than they in the end convicted the defendants of kid abuse and torture — Hatami mentioned that the boy, a weak swimmer, had flailed within the pool as his mom repeatedly shoved his small hand from the ledge. He obtained a bit emotional as he spoke, Hatami remembers, however it was so delicate that he doubts jurors observed.

One in every of three prosecutors assigned to the D.A.’s advanced little one abuse unit, Hatami has had observe tamping down his feelings since then.

He says he can’t envision ever recusing himself from a case just because it concerned little one abuse, even one as brutal and personally triggering as Gabriel’s. What Gabriel and different youngsters have endured far exceeds what he himself skilled — “Most of my victims are lifeless,” the prosecutor says.

And but, the impression of his personal abuse haunts Hatami’s grownup life in methods he continues to unearth. For a very long time, the idea of being both a dad or a husband terrified him. May he actually belief any individual? Would a future spouse in the end remind him of his mom? And will he be a great dad?

“I’m flawed,” he typically says.

Jon and Roxanne Hatami with 4-year-old Lindsey Beth and Jon Jr., 7, before dinner in their Santa Clarita Valley home.

Jon and Roxanne Hatami with 4-year-old Lindsey Beth and Jon Jr., 7, earlier than dinner of their Santa Clarita Valley house.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Occasions)

Hatami credit a lot of his private development to his spouse, Roxanne, who as soon as labored as a bailiff on the Antelope Valley courthouse. He proposed within the courtroom the place they met they usually married in 2011, when he was 40. By way of the years, Roxanne — now a detective within the Sheriff’s Division — discovered to softly level out when he snapped at her with a imply title throughout arguments. That’s hurtful, she’ll say.

However yelling is a discovered conduct, she is aware of, and one which takes time to unlearn.

“That is simply sort of a product of what he’s left with, sadly,” she says.

Gabriel died in Could 2013 — six months after the couple’s son, Jonathan Jr., was born. Hatami spent lengthy hours within the workplace, piecing collectively proof of Gabriel’s final days. He studied X-rays of shattered ribs and considered his personal son, now a toddler, bumping into issues at house. Small bones are pliable, he realized, and shattering them would take deliberate effort.

‘He actually needed to put himself in Gabriel’s footwear…. In doing that, he sacrificed loads of himself.’

Roxanne Hatami

Some nights, whereas he was getting ready to current the case to grand jurors, Hatami’s thoughts raced and he didn’t need to discuss. Different instances he and Roxanne — working full time and up many nights with Jon Jr. — bickered over small issues.

“Our house life was actually sort of turned the wrong way up,” Roxanne remembers. Though her husband had mentioned his abuse in broad phrases years earlier, he opened up in way more element whereas prosecuting the case.

“He instructed me that he actually needed to put himself in Gabriel’s footwear. Like, ‘How did he really feel?’” Roxanne recalled. “In doing that, he sacrificed loads of himself.”

The stress obtained worse, the couple mentioned, after Hatami publicly challenged the L.A. County Sheriff’s Division — his spouse’s employer and the company that investigated Gabriel’s loss of life. In a movement asking for an investigative file — vital proof that Hatami says the division’s inside affairs division hid from him for years — the prosecutor alleged inaction by deputies who had responded to Gabriel’s house within the months earlier than his loss of life. Earlier than lengthy, Roxanne began listening to rumors about veiled threats from co-workers, and the couple misplaced some pals.

Jon Hatami helps daughter Lindsey Beth, 4, play basketball.

Jon Hatami helps daughter Lindsey Beth, 4, play basketball.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Occasions)

Ultimately, all of the stress was vindicated.

“That case was so necessary. It was value it,” Roxanne mentioned throughout a latest dialog within the kitchen of the household’s house within the Santa Clarita Valley. Down the corridor, Hatami rolled a ball backwards and forwards to Jon Jr., now 7, and their daughter, Lindsey Beth, 4, who had pink dots of marinara sauce crusted into the corners of her smile.

A couple of minutes earlier, she sashayed over to her father and hugged his leg.

“Did I do a great job with the pasgetti?” she requested. He peeked over at her practically empty pasta bowl.

“Sure,” he mentioned, smiling, “you probably did.”

“I’m the bestest!” Lindsey Beth mentioned, twirling.

Lastly, a homicide trial

By the autumn of 2017, prosecutors had determined to strive the defendants in Gabriel’s case individually. Fernandez in the end pleaded responsible to keep away from the loss of life penalty, however Aguirre determined to take an opportunity earlier than a jury.

At trial, Hatami spoke slowly whereas describing Gabriel’s torment. The little boy typically slept in a cupboard with a sock gagging his mouth. Fernandez and Aguirre compelled him to eat cat feces and his personal vomit. Aguirre — who Hatami believes hated Gabriel as a result of he suspected he was homosexual — lashed the boy with a steel hanger and beat him with a bat.

Moira Shourie, a media government who served because the jury forewoman, centered on the way in which Hatami spoke about Gabriel — with such conviction that she assumed he’d identified the boy personally.

“He actually delivered Gabriel’s voice,” she mentioned. “He spoke for the sufferer.”

Jurors convicted Aguirre of first-degree homicide after six hours of deliberations. A couple of minutes after the decision was learn, Hatami, elated and exhausted, walked towards the media scrum. He hadn’t deliberate to say something about his personal previous, however it felt like a pure response to one of many questions.

Virtually instantly, a few of his bosses expressed concern about how the feedback may harm the case, and inside days Aguirre’s protection workforce requested the decide to declare a mistrial and take away Hatami from the case, questioning whether or not he may very well be “evenhanded.”

The responses perplexed Hatami, who thinks it’s a farce to say that any prosecutor — or human, for that matter — goes into their job with a totally clear slate. Some prosecutors simply preserve their experiences extra personal.

‘He actually delivered Gabriel’s voice. He spoke for the sufferer.’

Moira Shourie, jury forewoman

“We’re all people; all of us include ourselves,” he says, noting that, for him, talking about his previous is therapeutic. He additionally hopes to encourage different survivors and to remind them to carry no disgrace.

The decide in the end denied the protection request for a mistrial and jurors voted to condemn Aguirre to loss of life. After the loss of life sentence was learn, Hatami joined the jurors within the deliberation room and began to sob, bracing himself on the again of a chair.

An advanced love

Due to his personal expertise, Hatami understands conduct that some may discover contradictory. It doesn’t shock him, for instance, that shortly earlier than Gabriel’s loss of life, the little boy wrote a observe that mentioned, “I really like you mother and Gabriel is an effective boy.”

Though Hatami’s personal dad and mom have softened with age, and he has let each of them meet his youngsters, the relationships stay deeply strained. He’s undecided he’s forgiven them, he says, however he does love them.

“God,” he says, letting out an extended sigh, “it’s so exhausting to clarify to folks.”

At the same time as he needs for some profound apology, he nonetheless craves their approval. And, through the years, he’s taken steps to point out them love.

In the summertime of 2008, he mentioned, he moved into his mom’s house for six months as she recovered from damaged ribs sustained when an off-duty LAPD officer hit her together with his Hummer then fled the scene.

Across the identical time, Hatami’s father, who lives in New York, contacted him about altering the spelling of his final title, explaining that when he emigrated to the U.S., he’d imprecisely translated his title from Farsi to “Hatemi.” At his father’s request, the prosecutor mentioned, he formally swapped out the E for a second A.

Requested about his father’s comment that Hatami might need imagined elements of his previous, the prosecutor tightened his lips and shook his head. “My creativeness?” he mentioned, tears once more welling into his eyes.

Jon Hatami plays a game with Jon Jr., 7, at home in Santa Clarita Valley.

Jon Hatami performs a sport with Jon Jr., 7, at house in Santa Clarita Valley.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Occasions)

“I know,” he says. “I do know, as a result of I will be like him.”

Again when he was prosecuting Gabriel’s case and his personal son was youthful, Hatami says, he remembers a time he misplaced his mood and yelled. In that second, earlier than his son burst into tears, Hatami stared into his son’s small, brown eyes and acknowledged the look of concern. He remembered the sensation of being so small.

Shattered, he hugged his little boy and instructed him he was sorry.

“I’m not going to try this once more,” he mentioned. “I really like you.”

“Oh, it’s OK, Dad!” his son mentioned. “I really like you.”

Jon Hatami and son Jon Jr. get in some play time outside.

Jon Hatami and son Jon Jr. get in some play time exterior.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Occasions)

He works exhausting to not increase his voice now, and when he does he’s racked with guilt for days and rushes out to purchase the youngsters toys or sweet or doughnuts. He now lets Roxanne deal with all the self-discipline.

One morning earlier this 12 months, Hatami pulled as much as Summerwind Elementary Faculty in Palmdale in his F-150 pickup. Shourie and the opposite jurors had invited him to Gabriel’s old fashioned for the dedication of a plaque. “In reminiscence of Gabriel Fernandez,” it learn, “whose smile and story touched 19 jurors.”

Contained in the gymnasium, Hatami noticed a giant banner of Gabriel carrying a brown fedora and a smirk. He sighed, questioning how for much longer he might deal with these circumstances. Hatami presently has 10 open child-abuse circumstances. As he stood there, he famous, authorities had been looking out a close-by landfill for the physique of one other little boy.

In the course of the ceremony, Gabriel’s first-grade instructor shared recollections of her former pupil and Hatami hunched ahead, dabbing his eyes with a tissue. His shoulders bounced as he cried and Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Yang, who prosecuted the case alongside Hatami, rested his left hand on his co-worker’s again.

Jon Hatami at a dedication ceremony for Gabriel Fernandez at Summerwind Elementary School.

Jon Hatami, standing, at a dedication ceremony for Gabriel Fernandez at Summerwind Elementary Faculty.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Occasions)

Moments later, a line of first-graders filed into the gymnasium and sang for Gabriel.

“You may depend on me, like one, two, three,” they sang, signing every quantity with their fingers.

The music ended and Hatami vaulted from his seat. For a second, earlier than the opposite adults joined the ovation, it was simply him, standing and smiling, clapping and crying.

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