Ryan Reilly finds himself thinking back to that last childhood summer in the Roanoke Valley, a trip spent reveling in the creeks and mountain forests of the region.
One afternoon, his cousin, Cassie Pizzi, burst into their grandmother’s kitchen calling for help.
Reilly’s little sister had gotten hurt on a mountainside and needed aid. Pizzi was able to keep her wits about her and race back down to the house to sound the alarm.
“She looked out for other people,” Reilly said. “She was just always a caring person.”
When his sister needed someone, Pizzi was there, he reflected.
“To think now that her last moments were spent where they were spent,” Reilly said, his voice growing thick with emotion. “It’s hard.”
Cassie Pizzi, full name Cassandra Starr Pizzi, was found dead early March 27 in a wooded area next to an industrial block of southeast Roanoke.
Her death has been ruled a homicide. She was 33.
“She didn’t deserve this,” said Reilly, who was born in Roanoke but now lives in Tennessee. “Someone has to speak up for her. She has to have a voice.”
Pizzi’s death has stunned family and friends who described her as a smart, strong, charismatic young person.
Life had not always treated her gently. She had a difficult home life in her early childhood, Reilly said, which led to her being taken in by their grandmother.
There, she was a part of a close-knit clan. Reilly remembered her for her bright smile with the wattage to light up a whole room.
In her late teens, though, she ended up setting out for Florida with a boy she had met, a romance one old friend described as a Romeo and Juliet dynamic.
The beaches of Florida were where Eric Leighton first met Pizzi. A Michigan native, he was just 18 and had flung himself out into the world while mourning the death of a dear friend.
He ended up befriending Pizzi’s boyfriend and spending months traveling with them as they carved out a route across the country from Florida to California. Pizzi still called her grandmother from the road and spoke of her with love, Leighton said.
They were a trio of young, wandering souls chasing a romantic dream of sunny beaches and big cities.
“She had a big impact on my life, that’s for sure,” Leighton said. “She was a good person, a great person.”
The two stayed in touch for years after that cross-country trip, and he was always happy to hear her voice on the other end of the phone. Years later, he would find himself battling addiction. Pizzi urged him to come to Roanoke and let her help him get sober.
But he wasn’t ready yet. And, he fell out of touch with her.
“It’s weird to be thinking about this knowing she’s not here anymore,” he said shakily. “I can’t believe it.
“What happened? I just want to know that answer.”
No arrests have been made in Pizzi’s case. Investigators are still following leads. Anyone with information is urged to contact the police.
Pizzi is the fifth homicide victim reported in Roanoke this year. She leaves behind a 12-year-old son.
Ryan Reilly can’t speak to everything life had dealt his cousin in recent years. Growing up in a military family, he moved often in childhood and enlisted at age 18. The two had not connected in years.
But there are signs that things remained far from easy for her. She faced mental health struggles and eventually homelessness, said those that knew her.
Dawn Sandoval, founder of The Least of These Ministry, met Pizzi through her community ministry’s street outreach to the region’s homeless.
“She was an extremely sweet person,” Sandoval said. “This is devastating.”
The group helped Pizzi as recently as the day before she was found dead. Sandoval recalled seeing her downtown sitting near a plaza fountain. Her head was bent downward, but as Sandoval approached, she looked up and smiled.
“She smiled a lot,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval asked her if she needed anything. Pizzi didn’t seem distressed or fearful. She accepted a lunch and a fresh pair of socks.
Her death has upset those who knew her and sent a shiver of fear through the homeless community.
Women are changing up where they stay and trying not to travel alone, Sandoval said. Everyone is worried: Who could have done this?
Reilly has been turning over that same question in his mind and wondering about his cousin’s final days. Did she feel invisible? Forgotten?
“I can’t allow her to go into the next life thinking she didn’t have a voice,” he said. “She’s going to have one now. This has to be solved.”
Reilly made the drive from Tennessee to Roanoke this week to organize a small candlelight vigil near where Pizzi was found on the 1000 block of Fourth Street Southeast. He’s working to help make funeral arrangements and started a GoFundMe, Coffee 4 Cassie, to raise money for a reward for information in the case.
He hopes his cousin’s memory won’t be lost amid the sea of national news and focus on the global health crisis.
“I’m just trying to do anything I can to bring awareness,” he said. “Something has to be done.”