Family seeks justice in Girard fire
Case involving mother, two kids remains unsolved after 15 years
GIRARD — Fifteen years ago today, Girard firefighters responded to a blaze at the Dearborn Street duplex where Lena Cross, 22, lived with her two children.
Police Chief John Norman was a detective at the time and recalled walking into the home and seeing a figure on the couch.
“It wasn’t pleasant, but I didn’t have any suspicions at the time,” Norman recalled in an interview at his Girard office last week. “I thought maybe somebody fell asleep smoking a cigarette.”
Authorities, including members of the state fire marshal and the county fire inspector’s unit, discovered all three had died. It wasn’t until later that they learned Cross had been stabbed multiple times on the first floor of the home and the fire deliberately was set to cover up the crime.
Her sons, Mason Cross, 5, and Christian Pizzulo, 1, had been asleep upstairs, in separate bedrooms.
Norman, who had seen his share of tragedy through three decades on the police force, accompanied the young bodies to the autopsies, which were done by then-county Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk.
“We found out they had died from smoke inhalation,” Norman said. “I remember having to go to a dentist office in Boardman to get dental records to identify Lena.”
After 15 years, no one has been arrested for the crimes.
Norman said the case is still active, and he welcomes any input or leads from the public. He said the devastating fire left behind “little evidence.”
“There was no DNA, no prints. We will take any information someone is willing to give on this case,” Norman said. “Just call the department.”
He said suspects were brought in for questioning, but nothing was discovered that could be pinned on anybody.
The case file sits in a vault in the basement of the police department in Girard’s justice center.
“It’s under lock and key with access only by myself and the current detectives,” said Norman, who turned 59 last Tuesday. “But I sure would love to solve this case.”
Norman said he didn’t get to work the case for long.
Just a week later, he said, then-Chief Frank Bigowsky assigned him to the schools after several incidents there, including bullets found at the old Girard High School.
“I eventually became the district’s first school resource officer,” Norman said. “But I remember when Frank took over the case, and we’d often talk about it. I remember going down to Youngstown to interview a few people.”
Norman said the case also was investigated by the Trumbull County Homicide Task Force.
“We each had our own theories of what happened, but that’s what they are — just theories,” Norman said.
Karen Booth, Cross’s mother, said it’s been 15 years, and she believes the then-Girard police administration didn’t tell her enough details about the investigation. Booth said, for example, she had to hear on the street that her daughter was stabbed.
“It has been so frustrating. You can’t help to think that something has been covered up,” Booth said.
In her theory of what happened, Booth said her daughter had to deal with “a stalker” prior to the fire. She said there are people who are alive and living away from this area who know the details.
“We have hired private investigators in the past, but are thinking about doing it again,” she said.
Lena’s younger brother, Douglas Cross, said he doesn’t believe there was little evidence.
“I know that the doors were not locked on the duplex after the fire,” he said.
Bigowsky said he felt he would keep the victim’s family “in the loop” on details of the investigation.
He said he had a prime suspect, but he didn’t have enough evidence for the prosecutor to file charges.
“I worked this case until the day I left the job in 2010. I worked with some really fine detectives, and we worked it hard,” Bigowsky said.
Booth remembers her daughter as being very outspoken, but forgiving.
“Lena had a mouth and wasn’t afraid to use it. She was a good, but young mother. She basically raised the kids by herself,” Booth said, remembering visiting Lena and the kids almost every day. “She was very spontaneous and was all about fun and included the kids in everything.”
Douglas Cross remembers his sister loved horseback riding and camping, and always was there when he needed her. But she could be like any other big sister.
“She liked to beat me up,” he laughed.
Booth remembers Lena on her Aug. 22 birthday with a social media post: ” I have no Words that can make Me Feel Better day N an Dayout on how much I Miss You and Love U,” Booth wrote recently. “I’ll Never Give up on Finding Justice for U and the Boys…..I Miss You Terribly ..Please everyone This is still a Cold Case We Deserve JUSTICE .”
“I will never forget,” Booth said.
Cindy Michael, the grandmother of Christian, and another leader of the drive to keep this case at the forefront of investigators’ minds, died of cancer in December 2018 at age 56.
Michael wanted to create something positive from the tragedy by creating The Lena Mason Christian Memorial Fund. The charity has been performing a “Kids Free Fun Day and Book Bag Giveaway” every August since 2006. She had said the day is for kids to smile, have fun, eat and get a free book bag for school.
The idea came from a book bag found at the fire — one that Mason never got to use for kindergarten.
Ken MacPherson, a Warren city councilman and Michael’s widower, said the charity is not going away.
“We now call it the Cindy Michael / LMC Memorial Fund,” MacPherson said. “We couldn’t do the book bag giveway at Tod Park this summer because of the COVID craziness, but we gave away 200 book bags anyway.”
MacPherson said the charity has paid $8,000 to outfit 400 to 500 kids this year for the Warren Youth Soccer League.
He talked Thursday about his feelings surrounding the fire anniversary.
“I’m having a rough day today. First, I was mad about not feeling enough. Now, it’s overwhelming, but this is just the way life is,” he said. “Cindy has taught me a lot of stuff, but the main thing was that triumph always trumps tragedy.
“Take a moment, don’t be ashamed of crying and then carry on.”
MacPherson said the charity’s spaghetti fundraiser held every February at St. Rose Parish is still on.
“If COVID is around, we may have to do something in a limited fashion, like takeout only,” he said.
Today, the duplex, which had a brick foundation, has been rebuilt in the 400 block of Dearborn Street in the same Parkwood neighborhood where storekeeper Charlie Lamancusa was gunned down in 2000, another of the cold cases in that Girard police vault.
Norman, who was also first on the scene following the March 1994 disappearance of 28-year-old Charlotte Nagi Pollis, said he would like to see some of these cases solved before he retires.
“We all can hope,” he said.