GARY | The shocking life and ignominious death of 13-year-old Christian Choate drew several hundred sympathizers to Calumet High School on Friday night.
The mourners included Christian's mother, Aimee Estrada, who received hugs and words of comfort.
Estrada declined public comment on the tragedy.
The vigil included prayers, candle-lighting and the release of colorful balloons, many bright red and heart-shaped.
Organized by two Gary women, the gathering was held not only to memorialize the boy, but to call for greater awareness and the reaching out of helping hands to children like Christian.
"The community needs to come together," said Nicole Hubbard, who lives in the Black Oak community where Christian died and likely was buried for two years before authorities were alerted. The Lake County coroner still is awaiting DNA identification on the body believed to be that of Christian.
Co-organizer Nicole Rubalcava, of Calumet Township, said the women wanted the community to know they are there for any child in Christian's situation.
The boy was beaten, poorly fed and kept in a cage before he was killed, his body buried in a shallow grave in a Black Oak mobile home park, according to police reports.
Rubalcava, a secretary with Lake Ridge Community Schools, said she met Christian once at the age of 7 or 8.
"He had a beautiful smile," she said.
A shy boy, he seemed like just a normal kid, she said.
"Aimee's shocked," she said of the boy's mother. "It's unbelievable to her."
Christian had been in the custody of his father, Riley Choate, and stepmother, Kimberly Choate. The pair face multiple criminal charges, including murder.
Rubalcava said she is organizing a foundation called the Voice of Truth to spread awareness of child abuse and also raise funds to assist victims.
"We were blindsided," she said. "If we had known, we would have stepped up. We didn't, obviously."
Anyone interested in learning more about the foundation can reach Rubalcava through Facebook, she said.
The vigil drew mourners from outside Gary.
Arlene Miniuk drove from Dyer to take part.
"I'm still very sad," she said, eyes tearing.
Miniuk said the attendance showed support for the child unlike any he had in life.
Miniuk was not alone in questioning how the boy's plight escaped attention.
Roberta Nicksich, of Munster, said she had forwarded information on the case to state and federal educational departments.
"He fell through the cracks," she said. "How could this have happened?"