GIRARD - Standing among friends, Cindy Michael's smile drifts away as she recounts the horror her family endured nearly a decade ago.
On Sept. 14, 2005, Michael lost two grandchildren Mason Cross, 5, and Christian Pizzulo, 1 when an intentional fire was set at their home along Dearborn Avenue in Girard.
"You just never know when you're going to see something and think, 'Mason would have loved that,'" the paternal grandmother said. "You don't know what is going to trigger a memory."
Also found dead at the scene was the boys' mother, Lena Cross, 22. An autopsy later showed Cross was stabbed to death prior to the fire, and the boys died of smoke inhalation.
Michael and her husband, Ken MacPherson, spent the days following the crime trying desperately to make sense of the situation.
The family rifled through the debris of the charred duplex, searching for a memory to latch onto.
Tribune Chronicle / Ashley Newman
Cindy Michael, left, and her husband, Ken MacPherson, reflect on the lives of lost family members during a fundraiser dinner at the Fraternal Order of Eagles hall on Saturday.
"I found Mason's SpiderMan book bag that I bought him for school," Michael said. "He never got to use it."
That's when Michael had an idea to help the healing process. The murder reverberated throughout the Mahoning Valley, resulting in cards and money pouring in from many well-wishers.
"What do we do with the money?" Michael asked. "I thought, 'Let's use it to buy kids book bags in honor of the Mason, Christian and Lena."
Now, more than eight years after the murders, Michael and MacPherson have made their charity work an annual tradition.
The two grandparents hosted the seventh annual spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Fraternal Order of Eagles hall in Girard on Saturday.
More than 100 people were in attendance for the fundraiser. All proceeds from the event, which cost $6 for adults, go to benefit needy children in the Mahoning Valley and beyond. Along with the dinner, a basket raffle off and a 50/50 drawing were held.
The Lena Mason Christian Memorial Fund, which gave away more than 450 book bags last year, is largely supported through the dinner. The book bags are given away each year during an annual Kids Free Fun Day held in August at Tod Park.
"It is really important to us," Michael said immediately following this year's event. "In our minds, whoever murdered Lena and started the fire that killed Mason and the baby had no regard for their lives.
"To us, they were the world. To have someone treat them like they were nothing and to have such disregard for their lives made us want to keep their memories alive in a positive manner," she continued.
Michael estimates that around $6,000 in donations were raised at the dinner last year alone.
According to the family, working to support children around the area has been instrumental in the family's grieving process.
"The fact that, for us and for my wife (Michael), the feeling has been more than we ever even expected," MacPherson said. "It seems like the more we give, the more healing that occurs. The pain never goes away.
"There are always those times where it comes back, but for the community in Trumbull and Mahoning counties to come together like this gives us all a lot of pride," he said.
Hundreds of local residents and political figures were in attendance, including Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda, Girard Municipal Court Judge Jeff Adler, Hubbard Councilwoman Lisha Pompili-Baumiller and others.
"This is such a beautiful tribute to the family," Pompili-Baumiller said. "As beautiful as it is, I wish it wouldn't take something this tragic for people to come together. But, this is very good because they use the money to help other kids. I wanted to come out and support the cause."
While the family and community continues to heal, the case seems no closer to being solved.
No arrests have been made in the murders as the case has grown cold.
"We've tried to get it escalated up through the attorney general's office numerous times," MacPherson said. "We've tried to get the various shows like Nancy Grace and others to pick it up. No one has really run with it."
According to MacPherson, the family would like to see arrests made but more important is that the right people are eventually brought to justice.
"On one side, we're not in a rush to convict the wrong person," MacPherson said. "That's the last thing we want to happen. At the same time, our biggest fear is that there's evil still out there. You'd like some justice. It won't change the pain and won't change how you feel, but everybody would like true justice. We've figured out a lot of complicated things in our modern world. Why can't we get this one?"