More than two years went by before Lake County police dug Christian Choate’s body out of a shallow grave under a storage shed in the Black Oak section of Gary in May 2011.
The boy’s father, Riley Choate, 39, and stepmother, Kimberly Kubina, 46, soon were arrested and charged with numerous crimes related to the boy's death, including murder, felony counts of battery, confinement and removing a body from a death scene.
In October 2011, court proceedings began. Testimony revealed an ugly history of child abuse that started when Riley Choate was given custody in 2005 of Christian and his older sister Christina. The police first learned of Christian's death after Christina told her natural mother that her brother was dead.
Riley Choate later admitted in court documents that he began beating and punishing his son after Christian told a sibling they had to play the "hump game" to be brothers. After that, his father and mother kept Christian in a dog cage in their bedroom. The boy, whose body weight was estimated at 28 pounds by the coroner in 2011, died from a combination of physical trauma and starvation.
The final plea agreement said that Christian was fed one packet of ramen noodles for breakfast, another for lunch and occasional leftovers from family meals. Christian wore size 6 clothing designed for a younger child weighing between 42 and 46 pounds.
Christian wore diapers that originally had been purchased for the youngest child in the home. He was beaten frequently by his father Riley Choate, which caused multiple bruises, swelling and an altered mental state.
Grisly court case
Christina, who sometimes participated in the abuse, was taking care of Christian when he died on April 2, 2009. His stepmother, Kubina, put his body in a plastic tote bag and stored it in her grandmother’s house across the street in the trailer park. When Riley Choate came home from work, he and his wife buried Christian’s body under the floor of the shed.
Riley Choate and Kubina initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but as the case made its way through the courts, more grisly details became known. At the end of 2011, Riley Choate divorced Kubina. The couple married in 1999 in Kentucky. The divorce paved the way for Kubina to enter into a plea agreement to a lesser charge of child neglect in May 2012. Part of the deal was that she would testify for the prosecution in the trial of her ex-husband. She was guaranteed a sentence of 25 to 35 years prison for her testimony.
Another year of delays in the trial of Riley Choate ended in early 2013, when Riley Choate, then 40, impassively pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to Christian’s death. By then, Riley Choate had a new fiancee, Penny Murray, who said that she was proud of him. According to the terms of his guilty plea, Riley Choate was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Kubina, having fulfilled the terms of her deal, was sentenced to 35 years, the maximum allowed by the arrangement for her to testify.
Laid to rest
On Nov. 1, 2013, All Saints Day, a headstone featuring a porcelain photo of a smiling Christian was dedicated at Ridgelawn Cemetery, Christian Choate’s final resting place, thanks to the fundraising efforts of Pat Breslin, a family therapist living in Washington state. She said she was touched by the stories she read on the internet.
Breslin contacted Sheila Kirby, executive director for Ridgelawn Funeral Home, and Linda Hanson, a funeral director. The cemetery and funeral home staff donated Christian's funeral expenses, casket and vault in September 2012.
To help raise the funds needed for the $2,000 headstone, Breslin said she turned to the Native American Stillaguamish tribe, whose tribal headquarters are in Arlington, Washington
Surrounded by flowers and a pumpkin, the memorial marker reads “Forever in Our Hearts My Beloved Son, Our Brother & Grandson, Christian Eriks” with his birth date of Dec. 27, 1995, and “In Heaven 2009.” Eriks is the last name of Christian Choates’ biological mother as well as his maternal grandparents.
The Rev. Steve Kosinski, of All Saints Church in Hammond, officiated at the dedication ceremony, which also was attended by Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey, then-Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Christians’ grandfather, Bernard Eriks, of Gary.