Liberty Township subdivision remembers Dakota Levi Stevens with candlelight vigil

The Eagle Ridge subdivision in Liberty Township, where Dakota Levi Stevens lived briefly in a foster home before his death, came together Monday night for a candlelight vigil to remember the boy with a pledge that his death would not be in vain.

“Everyone came together as a community and it really means a lot,” said Monica Jimenez, the vigil’s organizer, a resident of the subdivision, and a relative of Dakota’s previous foster father. “We just wanted to say thank you, and I know this means a lot for Dakota, too.”

Dakota’s name was spelled out in silver balloons atop a swing set at the subdivision’s playground and mourners dined on donated pizza, since it was one of Dakota’s favorite foods.

More than 100 people lit candles — also donated — or held up their cellphone flashlights and Jimenez and a handful of others shared their thoughts in the park in the rapidly disappearing twilight.

“There are never good words at moments like this,” said David Stovall, pastor at The Rock Church in Hobart and a neighbor in the subdivision, before he began a brief invocation.

“Lord, you know the circumstances. You know the situation,” he said. “We ask that you would just give peace, Lord, because we don’t have the answers.”

Dakota died two days after what police have called a “medical emergency” on April 25 at the foster home in the 200 block of Falcon Way in Liberty Township.

The Porter County Sheriff’s Office has released few details about the investigation and an autopsy report is not expected for several weeks, according to the St. Joseph County Coroner’s Office. The sheriff’s detective bureau is investigating.

Logan Mills, Dakota’s cousin, and his former longtime foster father, Hayden Hetzel, who spoke at the candlelight vigil, have said Dakota and a younger sister were removed from their biological parents’ home because of their reported drug use. Their father died and their mother eventually relinquished parental rights. His sister was later adopted.

Earlier Monday, at Geisen Funeral Home in Crown Point, family members and Dakota’s former second grade teacher remembered Dakota for his smile, his creativity, and his love of bugs, frogs and Legos.

A spokeswoman with the Department of Child Services has said that the Liberty Township foster parent where Dakota was staying before his death “has been licensed since 2017 and was in good standing, having completed the required training and education required to achieve and maintain licensure.”

During the vigil, kids laughed and shrieked as they played on the playground. Hetzel, Jimenez’s nephew, who was Dakota’s foster father from 2019 to 2021 and again briefly in the fall of 2022, was admittedly unsure about what to say to the crowd and thanked everybody for coming out.

“I don’t know if anybody knew Dakota but Dakota would have loved everybody being here together,” said Hetzel, of Hammond. “He would have talked your ear off the whole time.”

Many of those in attendance wore black T-shirts with a picture of Dakota on the front and his name, birthday, date of death and “#JusticeforDakota” on the back.

Hetzel’s mom, Sabrina Hetzel, also from Hammond, called for that justice when she approached the portable microphone.

“We’re heartbroken over the events that took place. We’re here because we want justice for Dakota,” she said. “There need to be changes. A child lost his life and it was senseless. It was a system that was supposed to protect him and it failed.”

Not long before he died, Dakota sold paper boxes he made for $2 and Aaliyah Stewart of Merrillville, who works with youth and knew the boy, ordered one but travel plans for work meant she couldn’t make her pickup time.

Stewart saved the voicemail Dakota left her, in which he said she thought she’d be coming to pick up her box.

“He held me to my accountability,” she said, adding she gave him an additional $2 as a tip when she got her box, a gesture he responded to with sarcasm.

Dakota also convinced her to download a free version of Minecraft, his favorite video game.

“The fight is not over until we receive justice for Dakota,” she said.

Jimenez hopes to do something in October in memory of Dakota’s birthday on Oct. 21, and work with a local foundation to continue Dakota’s legacy as well.

“He had a dream of starting his own business and we’re going to continue that for him,” she said.

Julie Beiswanger has lived in Eagle Ridge since 2020 and came out to support Jimenez, a friend of hers.

“I wanted to see justice for a 10-year-old who was lost on our street,” she said.