Colleen Mair

MICHIGAN CITY — A 21-year-old Michigan City man has been charged in the beating death of his 2-month-old daughter. Her twin sister lies in a Chicago hospital, also battered and bruised.

Officials at the University of Chicago Hospital were unable to release any information on the surviving infant, who was transported to the hospital on Sept. 8 along with her sister.

Erika Smelser died three days later on Sept. 11. The cause of death: blunt head trauma and child abuse, according to the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner in Illinois.

The twins' father, Christopher Smelser, of 224 W. 11th St., has been charged with one count of Class A felony battery in the death, which carries a sentence of up to 50 years. He was arraigned in Superior Court 1 in Michigan City Thursday.

Usually anywhere from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class B felony, the battery charge was elevated to an A felony because it involved the death of a child, explained LaPorte County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Atley Price. In reviewing the evidence, a murder charge was not an option.

"Just because someone dies does not necessarily mean they were murdered. The key element with murder is intent to kill, which is not even in the mix here," Price said. "Our strongest case is battery."

Price could not discuss how the infant sustained her injuries as the case is still pending trial, or whether Smelser would be charged in the abuse of his second daughter, Madison.

For now, the couple's third child, 2-year-old Jessie Smelser, remains in the custody of his mother.

Christopher Smelser was arrested Wednesday afternoon at his parents' rural Michigan City home following a probable-cause hearing Tuesday that determined there was sufficient evidence for him to stand trial. He is being held at the LaPorte County Jail on a $250,000 bond.

Michigan City Police were made aware of the abuse after Erika was rushed to St. Anthony Memorial Health Centers Sept. 8 with respiratory distress. The baby was then airlifted to the University of Chicago Hospital for treatment.

There, hospital officials called LaPorte County Child Protective Services with their concerns. Soon after, Michigan City Police started their investigation.

"During the course of her treatment, the doctors believed the trauma was caused at the hands of someone else," said Michigan City Police Detective Bureau Commander Lt. Ken Neitzel.

Smelser later told police he called 911 after he heard his daughter having trouble breathing in her crib. He was home alone with the three children. Their mother, Beth Lestage, was running errands.

Thus far, Lestage has not been charged with any crime.

"However, I do caution that this is still an ongoing, active investigation," Neitzel said.

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