Christopher Valdez’s aunt and loved ones said they are certain the 4-year-old boy is in a “better place” in the sky with God and playing with angels in heaven.
But after sentencing Christopher’s killer to 75 years in prison Friday, a Cook County judge noted the little boy would still be among the living had he not endured a hellish beating at the hands of his mother’s lover.
“I’m not a philosophical person. I’m not a religious person. I don’t really like that term, ‘better,’” Judge Stanley Sacks said.
“Maybe he’s in a better place…. But he [Christopher] could have been here.”
Sacks told 36-year-old Cesar Ruiz he had earned every day of his prison term by torturing the slight child on Thanksgiving 2011 and the day after. That Friday was the day Christopher died; Ruiz killed him on the boy’s fourth birthday: Nov. 25, 2011.
“What a birthday present that was, Mr. Ruiz,” Sacks said, his voice dripping with contempt.
Christopher’s murder — which raised concerns over how the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services handles cases — was one of the most horrible Sacks said he has heard in 21 years on the bench.
Months before Christopher died, his mother, Crystal Valdez, admitted beating him. She was convicted of domestic battery, prompting DCFS to investigate.
However, DCFS concluded there was no “credible evidence to support an allegation of abuse” and after Valdez’s release from jail, Christopher and his sister were allowed to resume living with her in the 5100 block of South Trumbull.
The DCFS investigator who handled the case has since been fired for falsifying documents.
Ruiz’s brother and sister said Friday it was hard to determine what had happened in the moments leading to Christopher’s death but they placed most blame on Valdez, 31, who is awaiting trial for her son’s murder.
“We all failed you. The system failed you,” Rogelio Ruiz said on the stand.
“….Crystal failed you.”
Ruiz’s 16-year-old namesake son, sobbing, told Sacks his father was “not capable of such monstrosity.”
Ruiz, who admitted during his October murder trial that he had used make-up to cover up Christopher’s bruises, asked the judge to forgive him for “not doing the right thing” by not telling authorities his girlfriend often hit the boy but he did not take responsibility for the murder.
“I cannot apologize for a crime I didn’t commit. I am not a murderer. I am apologizing for the mistakes I made…. If I could go back and change things, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he said, adding that Christopher is in his “heart and prayers” every night.
Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Longo wasn’t moved.
She pointed to Ruiz’s videotaped statement to detectives and Christopher’s brutal injuries after he was used as a “punching bag.”
Christopher’s hairs were pulled out of his head. He had imprints on his ribs consistent with being thrown against the wall. And there was a bruise on his arm where Ruiz admitted grabbing him, the prosecutor said.
“Birthdays are about the celebration of life. His young 4-year-old life was beaten out of him,” Longo said.
Christopher was among 34 children to die from abuse or neglect in the 2011 reporting year after they or their families already had been involved with state child-welfare officials, according to a recent analysis of DCFS reports by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. Another 34 DCFS-involved abuse and neglect deaths occurred in 2012, followed by 27 in 2013, with three cases still under investigation.
There were just 15 DCFS-involved abuse and neglect deaths in 2010, the Sun-Times and WBEZ found.
In response to the spike in DCFS-involved deaths, the agency reviewed all child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect between 2009 and 2013. That review revealed errors in the department’s tracking of such deaths, finding that 11 more children had died in that time than the agency had reported.
Bobbie M. Gregg, appointed DCFS chief by Gov. Pat Quinn in April, has said one of her priorities is to better analyze and report child abuse and neglect deaths.
At Friday’s sentencing, Valdez’s sister-in-law Katrine Valdez recalled how her late nephew loved magnets, Spider-Man and listening to stories while pressing his lips on his sippy cup.
A month before his murder, Christopher dressed up in a Super Mario Brothers costume with a fake black mustache.
Instead of saying, trick-or-treat, he would said, “tic a teat.” Katrine Valdez said through tears.
Katrine Valdez said Christopher lived with her family for a year and was best friends with her son Tommie.
“Christopher would never have his fourth birthday cake. He would never make it to kindergarten….The void can be crippling in the heart and mind at times,” she said in a wavering voice.
After the sentencing hearing, Katrine Valdez she felt a bit of relief from the pain.
“Christopher got a victory today,” she said.
Contributing: Chris Fusco