Stephanie Rogers carefully sliced into the two-tiered chocolate cake, splitting up the “Happy Birthday Raymond” that was scrawled across the top in white icing as she handed out pieces to the other memorial attendees.
Decked out in "Despicable Me" Minions gear, more than a dozen Panera employees had gathered at the Panera on Wards Road to celebrate the life of Raymond Wood, the Lynchburg teen who was found dead on Roaring Run Road in Goode in late March, and support their co-worker Marjorie Stagno, Wood’s mother.
Jose Coreas-Ventura, 20, and Lisandro Posada-Vazquez, 24, face capital murder charges, and Victor Arnoldo Rodas, 19, faces a first-degree murder charge in connection with Wood’s death.
All three of the men, who are undocumented immigrants and allegedly associated with the international MS-13 gang, also are charged with several other crimes in connection with the incident.
Wood would have turned 18 Friday.
Ashley Sellers, one of Stagno’s co-workers, said she knew Wood from him coming in to visit his mom, but she also wanted to show Stagno she had the community’s support.
“There aren’t any words to describe it,” she said. “There’s no way to imagine what she’s been going through … Normally if someone passes away that’s close to you, you either expect it, or when it’s sudden like this, it’s a car accident — something you can wrap your mind around.”
Michael Holmes, another co-worker, wore Minions pants, shoes and a shirt. He came to support his “work mom,” he said.
“I think everyone can agree that she’s a very motherly figure,” he said. “Which means we’re her sons and daughters, which means [Wood] was basically our brother.
“So, although I didn’t know him … I still feel that connection. I miss him, even though I’ve never even seen him. I miss him, and I cried when I heard what happened, but seeing the support of the store is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The group quieted down as Sellers gestured, holding a bundle of balloons, a few with Minion faces, and said it was time to sing happy birthday.
“We chose to do Minions simply because Marj loves them,” Sellers said. “I know Raymond’s brother Michael really loves them, and it’s something that as weird as it sounds, it’s something that’s sort of helped her get through it.
“I mean, how ironic is it that 'Despicable Me 3' came out today?”
Rogers and Sellers led the group in song before Sellers looked at the sky and released her hold on the balloons.
About an hour before the Panera memorial and 20 miles away on Roaring Run Road, Wood’s former classmates Molly Parrish and Sadie Newcomb had gathered to decorate the crosses marking the spot Wood’s body was found.
The two tied large, metallic silver balloons in the shape of a “1” and “8” to a wooden cross before sharing tales of Wood and releasing another batch of balloons.
The two had met Wood in sixth grade at Sandusky Middle School.
“We used to fight over him,” Newcomb joked.
She said the three of them had drifted apart since middle school but that the two wanted to remember him on his birthday.
“We were both really, really close to him when we were younger,” she said. “And no matter if we weren’t talking for a while, he was always there for us.”
Parrish said Wood was a great friend and goofy kid, which is why she made sure to release at least one smiley face balloon.
While those memorials were taking place, Stagno was celebrating with her family in New York.
Stagno said she and other family members released dozens of white balloons into the air Friday just before sunset.
She had spent most of the day crying, she said, but her family had comforted her and made it a special day.
“I am feeling different for sure,” she said. “And in a sense, I thought I would, that's why I wanted to be with my family here in New York. Each day it’s becoming more real and real.”
Across the country, family of Raymond Wood had gathered to mark his birthday. Balloons were released in California, North Carolina, New York and Colorado.
Sellers said she hopes the memorials show Stagno she has a support system.
“I think it’s going to help her start to heal eventually and just start the process.”